john cage


In the past couple of days, while putting together some information on my work, I had to look at paintings from some years back and articulate ideas about my painting vocabulary and the way it developed at that time. The motivations for the changes I made then were visceral skepticism of certain types of marks and gestures, and a desire to rethink my syntax. It was a complicated process. A few years ago, I was recounting it in some detail with my brother—who is very knowledgeable on contemporary thought—and he said, “You know all those weird French theories? Well, you got there by yourself.”

Around that time, I was noticing more and more different types of marks around me: oil slicks on the street, paint spills on the floor, coffee stains on the table and other similar things. These were interesting in part because they were the remains of other actions. They had a kind of authority, that of an unselfconscious activity, that a gesture in a painting could not. For example, one day I had cut out a piece of card stock and walked away, then returned to see this framed bit of my work table:

A few weeks later it had turned into this:


These seemed to me completely satisfying as images. Paint can rings, gel spills, sand embedded into the table via unintended adhesive effect, the slices of a razor into the wood—all artifacts of prior tasks. It also got me started thinking about color in a different way, too. The colors artists use are gorgeous, unguent, saturated things. They are both immensely attractive and utterly unlike most of colors around us in our daily surroundings, which are more neutral, utilitarian and unspectacular.

When we do see an astounding color, it is unforgettable, like the late spring day I saw one of these outside my window in Brooklyn:

Scarlet Tanager, photo by Glen K. Peterson

By contrast, I looked six floors straight down at the pavement one morning and caught this zany mess:

Someone had dumped two five-gallon containers of ice cream on the sidewalk and left them to melt and decompose.

I decided to start working with a vocabulary of residual marks, or marks that were ambiguous regarding their origin in some way. Doing a painting while obscuring traces of how the marks arrived presents some curious challenges, especially if one wants to retain dynamism in a painting while abjuring the more conspicuous fingerprints of the maker. Of course, it requires artifice to achieve the effect, but artists know better than anyone how much artifice it takes to make art seem artless, and once that is accepted it vaporizes some of the conundrums around ideas of authenticity and genuineness. Often there is a negative correlation between what something looks like and how it got there. Malcolm Morley told me that the red “X” he painted on “Race Track” that looks dashed off was painstakingly planned and applied. This is another example of how our conditioning to the syntax of painting after 50,000 years (at the minimum) is so complex, vexatious, unavoidable and rewarding.

Malcolm Morley, Race Track (South Africa), 71.6 in. x 91.7 in. (182 cm x 233 cm), acrylic, wax and acrylic resin on canvas, 1970, Ludwig Museum, Budapest (photo: Ludwig Museum)

In my studio, these meditations led to this right out of the gate:

Increase, 28 in. x 42 in. (71 cm x 107 cm), oil, silicon, spray paint and pencil on paper mounted on linen over panel, 2005.

And a bit later this: 

I Ask You, 30 in. x 44 in. (76 cm x 122 cm), oil, acrylic and spray paint on paper mounted on linen over panel, 2006.

And developed into this after about a year:

Brú na Bóinne, 68 in. x 68 in. overall (173 cm x 173 cm), oil, alkyd, acrylic, metallic paint and sand on canvas over panel, 2006.

I usually find particular things for a reason, and the reason is often that the groundwork or foundations that need the “discoveries” are already inside, waiting to be paired with an external catalyst. After a while, the tacit motivation for a particular result becomes less important, and things flow more organically while working. In general, doing things for a prescribed end in painting seems less and less a good idea to me. At best such a concern can be distracting; at worst it skirts dogma, which is toxic to art.

Having an explicit teleological or “that for the sake of which” target for a work can obscure broader possibilities. I also think it’s intuitively obvious that one creates richer and deeper work when one yields to what one finds along the way, rather than working toward a predetermined conclusion, no matter how important the aspiration or noble the intent. Philip Guston once related a useful comment by John Cage that bears on this: “When you are working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, the art world, and above all your own ideas…But as you continue painting, they start leaving one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.” (Michael Auping; “A Disturbance in the Field," in Philip Guston, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000.)

The films of Nathaniel Dorsky 2

I’d like to focus on some recurring qualities in Dorsky’s films that keep the mind engaged and in play in ways that are similar to Robert Irwin’s work. The examples come from four of the more recent films: Variations, The Visitation, Threnody and Song and Solitude.

One way the films lure us in is simply visual lushness. He loves pattern and textiles, and often highlights them. One section particularly, from Variations, is a whole sequence on men’s sport coats—plaids, stripes, etc—seen close enough that they pattern the frame and interact with each other. He also finds surprising and compelling images in everyday things, such as a doorbell or even a cigarette butt. Some images recur. He loves hands, for instance, and photographs them with reverence. It could be a man’s hands at a diner table, or a woman’s hand arranging jewelry in a shop window. He lingers over them, and gives us time to see really how amazing they are.

At times, though, we cannot understand or contextualize the image, at least not for a while. This disorientation also engages us, and maintains our participation in the film. He uses a lot of “all-over” shots, shots where the entire frame is occupied by a consistent or repetitive image, such as leaves, sand or, as mentioned, pattern. Other shots have surprising endings: a frame full of broad, vertical, unreadable forms, the shot tilts up slowly, until, after several seconds, we see…shower curtain rings. Dislocations like this have the impact of awakening our context-seeking faculties while frustrating our ability to lock in on the image and move on, go elsewhere mentally. We are presented with something we can’t recognize or categorize. We immediately seek references to place it—location, size, scale, time of day, anything—but these landmarks are not provided. Another penchant he has is for reflected images, which by their nature defy quick comprehension. He shoots into store windows and auto glass, often creating multiple reflections and layers. The depth of these images is remarkable, as complex and layered as I have ever seen in film. Given the frequency of this motif, it would be worthwhile to do a deeper examination of them.

There is more to say on Dorsky, particularly about the participatory nature of his films, his editing, and how this lines up with certain ideas about content, but too much for the space I allot myself today, so I’d like to substitute this wonderful, and perhaps tangentially related story, from Peter Greenaway’s documentary on John Cage. As this is from memory, please pardon transcription errors. In the film, Cage is recounting a conversation he had after a performance with an audience member. Soon after the performance had begun, the audience member became furious with it, stormed out of the hall and drove home in a rage. As he pulled into his garage, he thought, no, this is wrong, so he drove back to the hall and ran inside, but the performance was over, so he finds Cage backstage and tells him all this and says: “Oh, I am so sorry, because now it’s all over and I have missed everything.” “No, no!," Cage says, "That’s OK, that was all part of it!”