Alexis Evelyn Lowry on John Cage

River Rock and Smoke, 4/13/90, #12 is one in a series of sixty-one unique works, which John Cage produced with Ray Kass at Mountain Lake Workshop in Virginia in 1990. Each drawing was created using a combination of innovative printing and watercolor techniques. The first step in making each image was the embedding of the paper with smoke. In the case of this drawing, a small straw fire was set on a printing plate and then was extinguished when the dampened sheet of paper was held over the plate. The paper trapped and was imbued with smoke from the fire, which left the bronze-colored pattern of smoldering embers we now see on two-thirds of the paper’s surface. Cage then used watercolor to trace the perimeter of a stone that he had placed along the bottom edge of the work. The position of the stone was determined using the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese system of divination that was critical to Cage’s practice, and this reflects his ongoing concern with chance operations. Using chance to resolve the composition of the work allowed Cage to mitigate the authorial gesture of the paintbrush, to which he was generally resistant.

The use of chance also determined Cage’s musical compositions, such as the infamous 4’33” from 1952. That piece opened sound to the contingencies of environment and introduced a generation of artists to the possibilities of space as an artistic medium. In this drawing, and in the related series, Cage deftly continues his exploration of the material potential of natural properties. The original printing process gives lasting form to the ephemeral smoke, inverting the emptiness of the flame by capturing its positive indexical record. Smoke printing marks the page in structured yet unpredictable ways, much in the same way that the “music” of 4’33” emerged from controlled yet spontaneous circumstances.

Cage began working with Crown Point Press in 1978, and it was there that he first developed the smoke printing technique used to make the River Rock and Smoke series at Mountain Lake. In his earlier smoke print work, Cage burned newspaper to create the fire. In Virginia, however, newspaper was replaced with straw, resulting in a new burnished aesthetic. Whereas the newspaper left traces of text embedded in the paper, the straw left yellowed and sinuous lines, adding both texture and color to the smoke process. Speaking of his printing method, Cage said, “I composed the graphic work and [the printer] executed it, just as I would write a piece for a pianist and she would play it, or he would play it… In other words, in moving from music to graphic work, I took with me the same social habits of the musician…the division of labor, so to speak.” River Rock and Smoke, 4/13/90, #12 demonstrates that the parallels between Cage’s systems for composing and printmaking extend beyond this shared division of labor to the inherent element of chance itself. With each run of the press, Cage and his team relinquished control of the image to the peculiarities of the mechanical system and the materials at hand.

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Pamela Hart says:

Chance favors the prepared mind.