When Jade Dellinger was an undergrad at USF in the 1980s, no one told him that he shouldn’t write to famous artists and expect replies. So it’s only in retrospect that Dellinger is surprised that he regularly received them. Among those who wrote back was John Cage, an artist revered both in his heyday (the 1950s and ’60s) and today as an experimental composer who tested the boundaries of music and visual art.
Dellinger can’t recall the exact question that elicited one particularly memorable response from Cage, who summed up his views on art in a handwritten note.
“I am not interested in the names of movements but rather in seeing and making things not seen before,” he wrote.
Nearly 20 years later, Cage’s statement provides the inspiration for two exhibitions organized by Dellinger — who went on to become a curator of contemporary art after graduating from USF and studying at NYU — to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Cage’s birth. At Tempus Projects, Things Not Seen Before: A Tribute to John Cage features works by artists inspired by Cage, alongside two pieces by Cage himself. At the Tampa Museum of Art, a participatory composition by Cage invites museum visitors to co-create one of his works.
Though he’s not exactly a household name, you’ve probably heard of at least one Cage composition — the notorious 4’33” (1952), which consists, depending on whom you talk to, of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, or the same amount of time filled with ambient sound (creaking floorboards, audience sighs, mechanical hums and whrrs). It’s hard to sum up the diversity of his voracious interests; suffice it to say that Cage spent his 60-year career exploring what’s meant by music, often adapting instruments, writing unusual scores for found sound, and using chance operations to guide compositional choices. By the time Cage created the two works on display at Tempus — a black-and-blue print made by dipping ropes of different thicknesses into buckets of paint, then dropping them onto a sheet of paper (1980); and pages from a book documenting his obsessive hunts for edible mushrooms (1972) — his predilection for experimentation and chance was well-known in the visual arts as well.
As the TMA project’s title suggests, visitors to John Cage 33-1/3-Performed by Audience are responsible for much of the labor involved in bringing to life an unconventional score Cage composed in 1969. Per Cage’s open-ended instructions, the museum provides a dozen record players (which happen, in this case, to be arranged in a circle at the center of a large gallery); you choose from around 300 albums in bins stationed nearby and decide what to play. The results — whether a cacophony of songs blasting in tandem from 12 record players or the strains of a lone album — are up to you (and your fellow museumgoers).
To Cage’s original score, Dellinger has added a very cool curatorial twist: He invited 30 artists and musicians, some famous, to compose the selection of records on hand by sending in Top 10 lists. Such intriguing figures as Yoko Ono, David Byrne, John Baldessari and Emil Schult of Kraftwerk responded, each picking 10 albums that, depending on the contributor, have greatly influenced them or that they feel speak to Cage’s legacy. Artist Christian Marclay, for example — who is also included in the Tempus show, along with Schult and Byrne — chose 10 albums made of cherry-red vinyl that constitute a visual contribution to the piece as much as a sonic one. Picking records to spin comes with the added thrill of checking out these sometimes surprising playlists. (Who knew The Residents, a fiercely experimental music group and artist collective, were so in thrall to Captain Beefheart or an Indiana-based lounge act from the 1970s called Frank and Clyde?)
At Tempus, Things Not Seen Before features work by an international mix of more than 20 artists, but some of the most interesting contributions have local connections. Herb Snitzer’s black-and-white portrait of Cage, seated in an armchair and looking relaxed, from 1959, is itself a product of happenstance. The St. Pete-based photographer, who lived and worked in New York at the time, was paying a visit to a friend, avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, when Cage showed up unexpectedly at Feldman’s midtown apartment (and agreed to be photographed).
Painter Theo Wujcik’s portrait of Cage is more surreal — a floating head painted many times larger than life in grayscale on strips of clear plastic; visitors walk through the painting, which is mounted to Tempus’s garage door entrance, to get to the show.
Arrayed in the gallery by chance (Dellinger threw a dart to determine the positioning of works), other pieces engage aspects of Cage’s legacy. A 1977 photograph documents Laurie Anderson’s “tape bow violin,” an instrument she created by replacing the conventional horsehair of a violin bow with magnetic tape and adding a tape head to the instrument’s bridge. Marclay’s Wind-Up Guitar (1994) is pierced by a dozen Swiss-made music boxes, which can be played in tandem with the instrument’s six strings.
One of the most ambitious projects in the show explores yet another Cage obsession: the I-Ching. Joe Griffith has crafted a table covered with dried shitake mushrooms, each marked with an oracular symbol from the I-Ching; visitors pick their mushrooms (and their fortunes) by throwing darts at an illustration.
TMA’s record-spinning project continues through May 6, but the Tempus show closes on Saturday with a gesture Cage surely would have appreciated — a concert of experimental music composed by students from the USF School of Music in response to the exhibition.
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