Defining a Cagean Aesthetic

04/11/2012 4:00 AM |

It’s hard to imagine a show that effectively surveys John Cage’s influence while remaining fresh. The musician, philosopher, and artist’s influence is simply too large to track, and his strategies have been so thoroughly digested that they often appear as cliches.

So what that we haven’t already seen can a show on his influence offer? A cohesive look at Cagean aesthetics is probably the most obvious answer, though the very concept sounds like an oxymoron. Logically, a comprehensive survey of Cage’s interest in chance should not yield any unity save randomness.

Luckily, if curators Joachim Pissarro, Bibi Calderaro, Julio Grinblatt, and Michelle Yun thought about that difficulty, it didn’t stop them from putting a show together. Notations: The Cage Effect Today, at Hunter College’s Times Square Gallery (through April 21), includes more than 25 artists whose work has been touched in some way by Cage. Through the eyes of the artists and curators alike, Cagean aesthetics is defined through use of line, shape and form.

In the first half of the show, line dominates, sometimes so forcefully that it lends a minimalist feel to the exhibition. Admittedly, the enormous size of the galleries and sparse arrangement of art helps, but even the first work shown, Waltercio Caldas’s “The Transparent [from the Veneza Series]” (1997), is striking for its restraint. The three-dimensional line drawing of a room with still life, executed in metal piping, muddies a viewer’s sense of space and materiality, such that it’s unclear whether parts of the sculpture are floating or sitting on a transparent surface. In reality, the vase, which seems to sit on a table with no surface, is welded to less-visible sections of the piece.

At first glance the piece doesn’t have much to do with Cage, but spend a bit of time with it, and the connection becomes clear; the simultaneous sense of material presence and absence evoked by the piece maps to the musician’s interest in the acoustic equivalent, sound and silence. It’s a dualism that recurs throughout the show; in the best works, it blurs, and we come to the classic Cagean realization that sound and silence, or presence and absence, are not so far apart.

Fred Sandback is a classic example. His work in The Cage Effect, pulled black yarn in the form of two freestanding pinstriped rectangles, slices empty space in such a way that it suddenly gains volume and weight. The same can be said of Jose Damansceno’s small iron table, which lies on its side in the center of the room, dividing it in two, while an elastic cord bound around its legs stretches out to the walls.

In the second half of the show, shape and sound play a larger role. A grand piano rigged to play notes in response to stock market data, by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, provides an abstract soundtrack for much of the show; occasionally, other works sound in. As a conceit, I’m not a huge fan of the stock market data; it’s been done before, repeatedly, to the extent that a curatorial statement for the Tate Britain by critic Julian Stallabrass identified streaming stock data as “an attractive source for artists to draw upon” back in 2000. This work was made in 2011. Still, cliches exist for a reason, and in this case I’m not immune to their allure. A giant player piano in the center of an empty room occasionally firing out discordant notes sounds like an avant garde trope, but it works in the space.

I spent some time with other sound works as well; I put Yukio Fujimoto’s industrial pipes to my ears, and listened carefully to Edgardo Rudnizky’s four needle turntable symphony for a string quartet. Eventually, though, I ended up in a far corner, watching Daniel Wurtzel’s slow motion video of a piece of fabric lifted by the wind of fansThe cloth moved hypnotically, undulating in the air relentlessly as though captive to its own natural forces. At that moment, I thought of Cage’s interest in systems, randomness and chance, and how works created with those concepts consistently valued a clean style and meticulousn approach. I began to believe that a recognizable Cagean aesthetic had been identified.