John Cage is a legend of the American avant-garde in the 1960's and 70's. Not only was he a musician and composer, but an artist, writer and philosopher. Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912 and began his creative career in Europe, where he traveled as a young man. Upon returning to the United States, Cage was trained in music theory by his hero, Arnold Schoenberg, an Austrian pianist associated with the Expressionist movement in Germany. Schoenberg referred to Cage as a "genious" inventor rather than a composer. To this day, John Cage is still one of the most ecclectic and influential musicians and performance artists of the 20th century. Cage was inspired by the Taoist book I-Ching, Zen Buddhism and master Dr. T Suzuki, Marcel DuChamp, and the Dada art movement. Cage passed on his knowledge of Eastern philosophy to many young artists who went on to become part of the Fluxus movement, a crucial event in contemporary art.
This film published by Crown Point Press documents the process of Cage's visual work from the 70's until his death in the early 90's. It is a joy to see his thought process, experimental spirit and total confidence in coincidence. (Seeing him try to hash out ideas for the fire prints made me laugh!)
This video has four chapters covering the bodies of visual work made at Crown Point Press: chance, fire, stones and grids. His process is largely determined by the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese divination book translated to English as "the Book of Changes". The book provides numbers to determine a future outcome in life, but he uses the numbers to decide how to make a work of art or compose a song. The irony in Cage's process is that he's very methodological in his lack of control. Cage feels that he must use the number cominations to determine factors such as composition, color, and time. When he sees the end result, he's unattached to the outcome. If he does like something, he's amazed. If not, that seems to be okay too.
In his fire prints, he uses the number cominations to determine how many pieces of newsprint to light on fire and for how long to let it burn on the pressbed before rolling it through. At one point the paper totally disappears into ashes and the assistant printer asks how they can prevent it in the future. I believe he said something along the lines of, "that's how it is in nature. Why change it?" I know from personal experience that fire is totally unpredictable to work with on paper, and there's always a feeling of awe after seeing the traces it leaves on the surface. I can sense the wonder Cage feels when letting chance or perhaps "the will of the Universe" to make his art. To me, chance seems like a vain word. Perhaps what John Cage was really interested in was infinite possibilities.
Where the Heart Beats, Kay Larson
"John Cage", Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage>