In 1969, while composer in residence at the University of Cincinnati, John Cage (1912-1992) was approached by a local art patron, Alice Weston, with the idea of producing a commissioned lithograph in response to the recent death of Marcel Duchamp. Cage's influence was already widespread throughout the visual arts and his friendships with and support of artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Max Ernst and, most notably, Duchamp, now place him at the forefront of the 20th century's most influential American artists.
"I had been asked by one of the magazines to do something for Marcel," Cage wrote. "I had just before heard Jap (Jasper Johns) say 'I don't want to say anything about Marcel,' because they had asked him to say something about Marcel in the magazine too. So I called both the Plexigrams and the lithographs, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, quoting Jap without saying so."
Cage created the Plexigrams using "chance operations" procedures, for which he was well known. Working from the 1955 edition of The American Dictionary, he defined groups of pages from which he would derive a word or word fragment. Using three coins, which could yield eight different combinations, Cage employed the first flip of the coins to establish the vertical location of one of the sixty-four squares and subsequent flips to locate the horizontal. Once this process had isolated a group of pages, he would toss the coins again to determine the specific page, and yet again to locate an individual word. Cage's system also included charts of typefaces and images. Cage collaborated with Calvin Sumsion, an artist, designer, and visual communications consultant, on the Plexigrams and lithographs.
Art historian Barbara Rose notes that Cage set out to explore specific problems in the Plexigrams and lithographs. "He is especially interested in the use of chance as a means of determining image, composition, and color. But he is also examining the problem of meaning and ways of behaving as well. By posing himself the problem of creating an homage to his late friend Marcel Duchamp without referring to Duchamp, he is asking what happens when one avoids something deliberately. Among the things he is trying to avoid are conscious choice, or taste, harmony and quality as deliberately imposed elements."