If you visit MoMA’s exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″, you will encounter a suite of enigmatic drawings by Fluxus-affiliated poet Jackson Mac Low, comprising swirling letters and seemingly nonsensical combinations of words. Although they seem like meaningless scribbles, the words are actually legible and meant to be read aloud. There Will Never Be Silence displays both visual and performative works in dialogue with John Cage’s “silent piece” 4’33″, many of which blur the boundaries between the two spheres. Indeed, the accumulations of text that comprise Mac Low’s Drawing-Asymmetry series function both as drawings and indeterminate performance scores. They provide an open script for the reader-turned-participant to produce real-time poetry.
Mac Low is best known for his application of chance operations to poetry, having been inspired by John Cage. The poet, along with Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and George Brecht—whose works are also currently on view—was a student in Cage’s experimental composition course at the New School for Social Research between 1957 and 1959. Photographs of the class, as well as one of George Brecht’s notebooks, are on display in the gallery. It was during this course that Mac Low gained an affinity for the aleatory and began using the I-Ching and other chance methods to compose poetry and theater pieces with nonlinear narratives and undetermined outcomes.
But Mac Low became immersed in Cage’s artistic philosophies outside of the classroom as well. Judith Malina—founder of the Living Theatre in 1947—recounts in her article “Remembering Jackson Mac Low” that Merce Cunningham occupied the same 14th-Street building as her and Mac Low and that Cage “was there every day, pounding out rhythms for Merce’s classes.” She writes that their “closest mentor…came downstairs regularly to tell [them] of his latest explorations of music, mushrooms, and random procedures.”
In 1960, one year prior to beginning the Drawing-Asymmetry series, Mac Low collaborated with Cage and Malina to direct a chance-based theater piece for The Living Theatre. The play, A Marrying Maiden, was comprised of text sourced randomly from an existing classic. Mac Low added to the dynamism of the spectacle by distributing an “action pack” of 1,400 instruction cards among the performers. Like with the Drawing-Asymmetry series, the lines and commands that structured A Marrying Maiden deconstruct and reconstruct language, employing alternative syntaxes that are equally surprising for the director, performers, and listeners. In the early 1960s, Mac Low’s poems and theater pieces were performed at Malina’s the Living Theatre, Yoko Ono’s Chamber Street Loft, and Fluxus founder George Maciunas’s AG Gallery.
Mac Low lamented, however, that Maciunas never adequately integrated poetry into the scheme of the Fluxus oeuvre. In 1993, Mac Low participated in an exhibition titled Poésure et Peintrie: “d’un art, l’autre” at the Centre de la Vielle Charité in Marseilles that exhibited artists working in the interstitial space between visual art and poetry. The poet contributed an essay to the catalogue, Fluxus et la poésie, in which he discussed his somewhat turbulent relationship with Maciunas. Mac Low recalls his surprise when he discovered in 1961 that he was named “literary director” of a “thing called Fluxus”—which he describes as a “non-movement” taking the form of a series of publications based on the model of his own An Anthology (1963), which is also on view in There Will Never Be Silence. In an attempt to live up to his newfound role as literary director, Mac Low suggested a number of artists and poetry pieces to be included in the Fluxus anthologies; however, he soon found that his and Maciunas’s aesthetic views were not compatible. He writes in particular of the poems Maciunas rejected of Mary Caroline Richards—who was one of John Cages’s collaborators and the wife of David Tudor, the pianist who premiered 4’33″ in 1952 at Maverick Concert Hall, in Woodstock, New York. According to Mac Low, Maciunas did not appreciate the “prolonged silence”—also characteristic of 4’33″—within Richards’s poems. Richards and Mac Low saw silence as “the body of the poem,” and they both derived similar methods for determining the duration of silences in their poetry based on the blank spaces between written or typed words.
When composing Drawing-Asymmetry and other chance-based poems, Mac Low regularly used the poetic strategy of acrostics to add to the indeterminacy of his staged silences. The poet would choose a word, say “dog,” and read through various “sources”—including novels, various dictionaries, and the Bible—and select the first word that began with the letters comprising the selected word (in this case, the letter “d” followed by “o” then “g”). He would continue this strategy either until he had found a word, or chain of words, beginning with each letter of the original word or until he had completed the source text. This method allowed Mac Low to produce poetry while reading his books—transforming himself from a reader into an author. The readers of his poetry, in turn, go through a similar transformation when called to realize the poems in their mind or through speech.
The direction of the letters making up the words and word chains was not predetermined and Mac Low admits that he allowed it to unfold through his own “spontaneous choice.” Accordingly, the formal quality of the drawings is at once chance-based and personal, turning found text into a visual representation using the mind as a mode of automatic, aesthetic translation. Mac Low dubbed the products of his practice “performance poems” and saw the realization of his poetry, primarily through sound, as a formative component of the work. It was through vocalization and performance that the silences of his poetry could give rise to ambient noises that would give the piece new form.
Like Cage, Mac Low was drawn, in particular, towards the use of long silences that permitted the field of ambient noise to become integrated within the piece. The silences, which structure the poems, were intentional, and although they allowed for a greater degree of indeterminacy, they also reflected the artist’s intention to create an open structure for the work. Mac Low disagreed with Maciunas’s “anti-art”; he saw Cage and himself as demonstrating an “openness to the world” while appreciating the role of the artist in that world. Although the scribble-like aesthetic of the Drawing-Asymmetry series suggests a child-like lack of intention, Mac Low was serious about the chance operation he employed, believing that his process as an artist was important to the critical reading of his poetry. Accordingly, Mac Low published his essay “Methods for reading and presenting the Asymmetries” in 1981, explaining what chance procedures he had used nearly 20 years earlier and listing the different ways that a reader or performer could interpret the lines and silences of the poems.