Fixed Points: Drawings by John Cage and Merce Cunningham
Until July 8; Inverleith House, Edinburgh
The names John Cage and Merce Cunningham are not synonymous with the
visual arts. Though they have been deeply influential across a broad
cultural spectrum, the two men are celebrated first and foremost for
their radical approaches to music and dance. Since the mid-20th century,
the course of both art-forms would have been radically different without
them. Who hasnt heard of 433, that piece of music
composed without a single note or chord?
433 will be performed on the lawn at the Royal Botanic
Garden on 24 June, no doubt with a healthy backdrop of birdsong and
screaming babies to concentrate the mind. But thats a spin-off
from the main event; taking centre stage at Inverleith House is an
exhibition of drawings by the lifelong partners in love and artistic
If you might imagine that the composer of a silent piece of music
would present us with blank pieces of paper, youd be mistaken;
433 was inspired in the first place by the white paintings
of Cages friend, Robert Rauschenberg. Cages own drawings,
quite full of action, do however relate closely to his music.
Heavily influenced by eastern philosophies, Cage adopted the ancient
Chinese book of changes, the I-Ching, as his guide to
composition. He would set his works, whether musical or visual, certain
parameters such as a range of instruments, brushes, or colours
and then he would ask the I-Ching to choose the permutations.
For the watercolours included in this show (made in 1988 and 1990),
he placed river rocks on paper and drew around them.
The compositions also include curling wisps of smoke, captured by
the wet paper as it was passed over a fire, and broad bands of wash,
sweeping from left to right. Though colours, brushes and arrangements
were chosen using the I-Chings randomly generated lists of numbers,
you have to remember that Cage himself predetermined the initial range
of possibilities. Thats why the watercolours, though defiantly
mechanical in process, throw up unexpected harmonies which are worth
This is despite Cages deliberate efforts to resist any kind
of personal stylistic sophistication. The brushes and sometimes
feathers were clearly held aloft, finding their own clumsy
way around the stones, leaving marks more primitive than any cave
painting. Occupying this consciously naïve zone, the paintings
find echoes in the contemporary doodlings of Hayley Tompkins and Katy
Dove, although the marks of the latter painters are more personal.
At the time of my visit, John Cages drawings fill the lower
gallery, hung with great attention to harmony, and in the case of
the central room, to regal symmetry. But this measured balance wont
last long; already, Merce Cunninghams drawings have started
to infiltrate. Using his own system of chance operation, Cunningham
(now 88 and still hard at work) is divining which of Cages drawings
should be replaced, on which days, by drawings of his own.
Like jokers in the pack, Cunninghams drawings depict exuberant
creatures, real and imagined, but always shimmering with colour. Essentially
the work of an amateur (he took to drawing only 20 years ago), they
are personal indulgences, wild and wacky, the pen-work a bit scratchy
but the sparkling humour ever-present. His fruity giraffe, his cock-eyed
ram, his cast of merry birds there are no airs or graces here,
just as there are none in his dancing.
For Cunningham, drawing is a personal pursuit, a way to lose himself
in concentration the way he used to do in dance. He is modest about
these cheerful pictures, and rather bemused at the attention they
have been given. This might be a modest show, but it is also a life-affirming
insight into the minds of two great free-thinking men.
Black, Sunday Herald 20.05.07