No 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 hasn’t heard of 4’33”, that piece of music composed without a single note or chord?

4’33” 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 that’s 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 revolution.

If you might imagine that the composer of a silent piece of music would present us with blank pieces of paper, you’d be mistaken; 4’33” was inspired in the first place by the white paintings of Cage’s friend, Robert Rauschenberg. Cage’s 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-Ching’s randomly generated lists of numbers, you have to remember that Cage himself predetermined the initial range of possibilities. That’s why the watercolours, though defiantly mechanical in process, throw up unexpected harmonies which are worth admiring.

This is despite Cage’s 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 Cage’s 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 won’t last long; already, Merce Cunningham’s drawings have started to infiltrate. Using his own system of chance operation, Cunningham (now 88 and still hard at work) is divining which of Cage’s drawings should be replaced, on which days, by drawings of his own.

Like jokers in the pack, Cunningham’s 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.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 20.05.07