Collection Close-Up: John Cage presents New River Rocks and Smoke (1990), a monumental watercolor created in 1990 by American artist John Cage (1912–1992). Known primarily for his music compositions and influential writings on art, Cage’s visual art practice began later in his life in 1978. Encouraged to explore a new medium, Cage began watercolor painting in 1983 at Mountain Lake Workshop in Giles County, Virginia. A kind of coda, this work is his largest and last watercolor.
Deeply influenced by eastern philosophies, Cage employed “chance operations” to create New River Rocks and Smoke, a decision-making method he adapted from the ancient Chinese text I Ching. Rather than imposing structure and exercising intention, he asked questions about color, placement, and brush width that were answered by a custom-developed computer program that produced random numerical sequences, simulating a series of coin-tosses. He made this drawing by first exposing the large scroll over an open fire in eight-foot widths, allowing the smoke to deposit soot on the dampened surface. Next, Cage traced around rocks from the nearby New River with paint applied by feather brushes of varying sizes. Echoing the famous dry rock garden in the Zen temple Ryōanji in Kyoto, Japan, which served as a continuous source of inspiration for the artist, New River Rocks and Smoke includes fifteen large stones.
The work was acquired in 1997 on the occasion of the museum’s tenth anniversary by Dominique de Menil. This exhibition marks the first time in twenty-two years that the work has been on display.
This exhibition is organized by Irene Shum, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, The Menil Collection.
About John Cage
Born in Los Angeles in 1912, John Cage was a composer, teacher, artist, and writer, who greatly influenced post–World War II music, dance, and visual arts internationally. Cage first studied literature at Pomona College, before studying music composition and theory at The New School of Social Research and privately with Arnold Schoenberg. In 1938, Cage moved to Seattle, Washington, to teach at the Cornish School for Performing and Visual Arts. There, he met dance prodigy Merce Cunningham, who would become his artistic collaborator and later his life partner. In 1942, Cage moved to New York City, where he lived and worked until his death in 1992. His artwork is included in major museums around the world.