Comprising an idiosyncratic portrait of the enigmatic John Cage (1912-1992), Prepared Box for John Cage provides a sense of this composer, artist, and innovator’s influence on the creative life of his time. Produced as a deluxe catalogue for an exhibition organized by the Carl Solway Gallery at the 1987 Chicago International Art Exposition, the portfolio honors Cage on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. Through the contributions of forty-five artists, composers, choreographers, curators, and writers, invited by artist Allan Kaprow—personal anecdotes, images, games, poems, essays, and scores—a multifaceted sketch of Cage emerges.
“… he curved a dome of music into infinity…” -Milan Knížák
Cage’s musical compositions inspired several of the contributions to Prepared Box for John Cage. Fluxus artists George Brecht and Ay-O referenced Cage’s infamous score, 4’ 33” (1952), in which the performer is silent, not playing anything, and ambient sound—or noise even—is what the audience hears. Pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s sketch for “colossal monument with mushroom and screw” alludes to Cage’s compositions for prepared piano, in which the strings of a grand piano are “prepared” with screws, weather stripping, and other objects, altering the sounds to those of a percussive nature. Oldenburg’s mushroom refers to Cage’s interest in mycology. Jasper Johns’ contribution, a photograph of his 1982 drawing Perilous Night, features the cover sheet for Cage’s score for prepared piano, The Perilous Night (1944), and the two works share an emotional undertone.
Many of Cage’s most significant ideas, including his thoughts on silence, his interest in indeterminacy and the use of chance operations, are encapsulated in Prepared Box for John Cage. Even the cover of the portfolio is an opportunity for a “Cagean” experience. Related to the score A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-One Waltzes and Fifty-Six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity (1978), in which participants go to various chance-determined locations to listen to, perform, or record sounds, the portfolio cover, featuring a map of Chicago wrapped in colored rubber bands, suggests movements, both physical and compositional, that the owner can change by removing and replacing the rubber bands. The works and words offered by members of the Fluxus group, proponents of Happenings, performers of sound poetry, and creators of mail art for Prepared Box for John Cage demonstrate the ways in which Cage’s ideas entered into life and were propagated in music, dance, film, poetry, and the visual arts. Cage opened up new avenues of possibility in the creative arts and the contents of this box are reflections of his gifts to the world.
This exhibition of Prepared Box for John Cage is complemented by a selection of Cage’s scores and audio recordings of his compositions.
Curated by Elaine Mehalakes, Kemper Curator of Academic Programs, Prepared Box for John Cage is presented with generous support from the Sandra Cohen Bakalar ’55 Fund.