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Intaglio Prints by John Cage

December 18, 2002 through March 16, 2003

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) is pleased to present Intaglio Prints by John Cage, an exhibition of works on paper by avant-garde composer John Cage. Best known for his experimental music, in his early years Cage was interested in both art and music. Having chosen to focus his energies on music, Cage returned to art making late in life. The works in this exhibition were created at Crown Point Press in Oakland, California, where Cage spent time working nearly every year from 1978 until his death in 1992.

Intaglio Prints by John Cage is presented in collaboration with Cal Performances' presentation of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, February 7 and 8, on the occasion of the company's fiftieth anniversary. Among the works to be performed will be a special event set to John Cage's 30 Pieces in 30 Minutes, a tribute to the long and productive partnership of Cunningham and Cage. On February 6, the Pacific Film Archive will present an evening of films featuring Merce Cunningham and his company. For more information regarding the PFA program, please call 510-642-1412.

Although he was initially drawn to both art and music, at the insistence of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg Cage decided to devote himself exclusively to music, and didn't take up art again seriously until the latter part of his life. In 1969 he was commissioned to do a work to commemorate the death of Marcel Duchamp, and created a series of lithographs on Plexiglas he called Plexigrams. The largest body of his visual art, however, is in the medium of intaglio printing created at Crown Point Press between 1978 and his death in 1992.

In many ways printmaking was the perfect medium for Cage, as he liked to work in overlapping layers, rather than linearly. To avoid being influenced by his personal likes and dislikes, Cage relied on chance operations to aid his decision making in creating visual art. "Chance operations are a way of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego's own experience," he wrote. Chance was not a method to avoid making choices. Rather, he said, "...my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask." Cage derived the answers to his queries from the Chinese book of wisdom, the I-Ching, which he consulted for every print in a given edition, making each print unique. The maps and scores give an indication of the intricacy and precision of Cage's working method, belying the common misconception that he approached his work randomly.

Cage's art was influenced by his music, which he also composed using chance operations. His art could also influence his music. The simple and refined fifteenth-century Japanese rock garden Ryoanji first surfaced as an influence in Concert for Piano Orchestra in 1957, then in his drypoint print R3 in 1983, then again in his music in Ryoanji, 1983–85.

Given that nonintentionality was Cage's guiding principle, it may come as a surprise that there is a consistency throughout his visual work. This can be attributed in part to the types of basic elements and procedures Cage established as he began a work. Though he varied the forms, colors, and techniques from project to project, his open-ended strategies resulted in the sense of a moment snatched from the continuous flow of life itself, as if whatever is occurring on the page is continuing outside its physical borders. As music is indistinguishable from sound in Cage's philosophy, so art consists of framing a fragment of the visual field as a method to increase awareness of life as it is being lived. "The usefulness of the useless is good news for artists," he observed. "For art serves no useful purpose. It has to do with changing minds and spirits."

During this exhibition, related works from the BAM/PFA collection will be installed in other galleries throughout the museum. Included are John Cage's screenprint on Plexiglas, Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel, Plexigram II, 1969; Tom Marioni's John Cage's Autograph, graphite on paper, undated; and Nam June Paik's mixed-media video sculpture Homage to Merce Cunningham, 1988.