The Anarchy of Silence


John Cage and Experimental Art

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His name is highly familiar, but his work not widely or well known. John Cage (1912-92) defined such a radical practice of musical composition that he changed the course of modern music in the last century and shaped a new conceptual horizon for post-war art. With the aim of capturing the relevance of Cage’s contribution to contemporary art, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) presents the most extensive exhibition to be devoted to the artist on the international stage since his death.

The display will trace a path through the artist’s career, from his initial works in the 1930s, pieces that broadened the parameters of percussion music by incorporating the most unconventional of instruments, leading to his “prepared piano,” moving to his famous theory on ‘silence’ (and the score 4’33”), his pathbreaking deployment of chance and then indeterminacy, and culminating his innovative multimedia work, which began in the 1960s and continued through the 1980s.

One of the main sections of the exhibition will chart the network of repercussions as Cage’s radical conceptual transformation of “composition” entered the strategies of advanced art. A trajectory framed by dialogues with artists —Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg among many others –and reacting to the same emergent media as Andy Warhol.

The exhibition reveals the radical strategies employed by Cage to refine the score and extend its parameters, forging a newly relevant path for the post-Pollock generation of artists. At a time when modern painting and subjectivity were ceasing to be viable formulas of artistic practice, Cage was giving classes of Experimental Composition to a new generation of artists at the New School for Social Research in New York (1956-60). Many of Cage’s students and their peers would soon find their place at the center of the rising avant-gardes, from Fluxus to Conceptual Art. Thus Cage became one of the driving forces behind the complete turnabout of post-war art in the early sixties, positioned on the cusp of modernity and post-modernity.

Sound recordings, films, scores, and documentary materials provide an insight into the extraordinary scope of Cage’s conceptual and theoretical innovations. To illustrate this, the exhibition will present some of the work he carried out in collaboration with other artists, from the music he made to amplify the visual experience of Marcel Duchamp’s rotoreliefs early in his career (1947) to the musico-poetic collaboration with fellow anarchist Jackson Mac Low, through to works with random light, shadow, and ambient sounds of New York City made as part of Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology project. If Duchamp has emerged as the pivotal figure of the early-mid 20th century, Cage’s project now appears as an indispensible paradigm for the late 20th century and into the 21st.

Revealing a “Conceptual Cage,” the landmarks of his oeuvre will be exhibited in direct relation to key works by contemporaries who shared his commitments to the new, the non-subjective, the changing, and to an embrace of the technology that would redefine all perceptual experience: from Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951) and Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making, (1961), to the new mediascape of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and beyond.

The exhibition can be seen until the 10th of January 2010 in the MACBA.

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