Cage’s Randomness in Visual Art

by colekorponay

In addition to his musical pursuits, John Cage also dabbled as a visual artist. It was not until his mid-sixties that he took up visual art seriously, but he still went on to produce over 600 prints and 260 drawings and watercolors.

Here, as in his music, Cage incorporated randomness as a fundamental driving force of his pieces.  He developed procedures to be iterated over and over again which at each stage entered a new element into the work by chance. For example, in his Ryoanji series, he randomly scattered stones across a piece of paper and drew around their outlines – one piece consisted of 3,375 stones.  The position of each stone, as well as the choice of brush used, was determined by a random number sequence generated by a computer.

Even when Cage’s works are displayed on exhibition, a random number generator is often used to determine the layout of the exhibit. For examples, at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, 2010, Cage’s works were positioned randomly at different heights on the wall and in random sequential order, creating a layout no curator would typically arrange.

It is interesting to compare Cage’s conception of his works to Jackson Pallock’s, another artist whose pieces, on the face of things, seem random.  Cage confirms that his works incorporate deliberate randomness: “I use chance operations instead of operating according to my likes and dislikes”. However, the apparent randomness of Pallock’s pieces is not generated by random process: ” “When I am painting I have a general notion of what I am about. I can control the flow of paint, there is no accident just as there is no beginning and no end.”