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MoMA

TALKING JOHN CAGE WITH DAVID PLATZKER AND JON HENDRICKS

Talking John Cage with David Platzker and Jon Hendricks

John Cage. 4'33" (In Proportional Notation). 1952/53. Ink on paper, each page: 11 x 8 1/2" (27.9 x 21.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis, 2012. © 2014 John Cage Trust

John Cage. 4’33″ (In Proportional Notation). 1952/53. Ink on paper, each page: 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis, 2012. © 2014 John Cage Trust

I had the pleasure of speaking with David Platzker and Jon Hendricks, curators of There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″ (October 12, 2013 to June 22, 2014), about the development of the show. David Platzker has been Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, since May 2013. Jon Hendricks is an artist and Fluxus Consulting Curator of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection.

On the acquisition of the score:

Jon Hendricks: I was always dreaming of 4′33″ because, to me, it’s the essence of a change in music, the way Cage presents an idea. After [Gilbert and Lila] Silverman donated their Fluxus Collection to MoMA, I’d been talking to [Drawings and Prints chief curator] Christophe [Cherix] about what would be the most important things to get. Of course, we both agreed on 4′33″. I knew there were different versions of 4′33″, and somebody said that maybe Irwin Kremen still owned it. So we found out where he lived, and I wrote him a letter. He invited Christophe and me to come visit him and [his wife] Barbara, and we had a very nice meeting. Kremen had cared for it, treasured it, all his life after being given it for his 28th birthday in 1953. He had always taken very good care of it and was very protective of it. But I think he realized that the time had come when he had to find a home for it, and I think he felt that MoMA was as good a home for it as anywhere and that we understood it to the extent that we could. And that was very important to him—that it wasn’t just a trophy, that it had great meaning.

On the development of the exhibition and Cage’s influence:

JH: A few years ago Christophe had asked for ideas of shows, and I had two or three ideas somehow coming out of the Fluxus Collection. One idea that I thought was practical was a show about scores and instructions, starting sometime in the early 20th century and moving through Cage and Fluxus to Conceptualism. [Drawings and Prints Assistant Curator] Kim [Conaty] and I started working on this, gathering materials and ideas and so on. Then David came on board and the show was given over to him, with input from me. Some aspects of what I had envisaged are still there, but it shifted somewhat and David can talk about that. I would just add, I think the show, as originally thought about, maybe should be done at some point. It’s a fascinating area about how ideas can be the artwork, how something just so minimal as a few words can replace an enormous painting. You see the early stirrings of this—you can go back to Duchamp, but also before and parallel in other ways.

David Platzker: In thinking about exhibiting 4′33″ I wanted to consider how the work interacted within MoMA’s history. If we were going to do a collection show, I really wanted to tell the story that led up to 4′33″. […] So the exploration for me really began last summer, going back with Curatorial Assistant Francesca Wilmott and Jordan Carter, our 12-Month Fluxus Collection Intern, and rereading Cage’s writings, particularly looking at his interviews, to think about who he was discussing, and then seeing what those intersection points are within our collection. It was a wonderful exploration because we have a capacity to look very dynamically not only at the artists that Cage was talking about in terms of stylistic or intellectual changes within his field of vision but, in many cases, to see specific objects within our collection that, if not identical, were similar to the works and artists that Cage was particularly engaged with.

It was important to me that MoMA figures very heavily in Cage’s personal narrative. He comes to New York in 1943 for the first time, at the invitation of Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst, and he subverts the possibility of doing a performance at [Guggenheim’s gallery] Art of This Century by coming to MoMA and suggesting that the Museum sponsor an evening of percussion music in February 1943. That was really a life-changing moment, not because of the actual performance, but because of the ramifications of it: being forced out of Peggy Guggenheim’s townhouse, his relationship with Duchamp stemming immediately from that situation, and therein setting up this relationship that lasts to Duchamp’s death. It’s this interaction that dramatically alters the way Cage views music and the physical world. It’s this transformative shift when he becomes less of a formal musician and more of someone who’s open to chance and indeterminacy. And how then he, as an influencer with students he had at the New School, radically opened up the possibilities for the next generation.

JH: The young artists and musicians and actors and so on who were in Cage’s class at the New School weren’t students in the sense of college students or graduate students, they weren’t getting credit. But they were all interested in “The New,” in new possibilities, breaking away. At this point, we have the ends of Abstract Expressionism and the beginnings of Happenings and Conceptualism. And so this extraordinary group of people went to Cage’s classes. Before that, Cage had been at Black Mountain College and there too, there was this interaction. […] So at [Cage’s class at] the New School, people who were students were Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, Al Hansen, George Brecht, Allan Kaprow, Robert Whitman, Florence Tarlow, Scott Hyde, and some others. It certainly had a very strong, stirring effect on that group of people.

Comments on selected works:

Barnett Newman. The Voice. 1950. Egg tempera and enamel on canvas, 8' 1/8" x 8' 9 1/2" (244.1 x 268 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2014 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Barnett Newman. The Voice. 1950. Egg tempera and enamel on canvas, 8′ 1/8″ x 8′ 9 1/2″ (244.1 x 268 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2014 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

DP: My favorite location in the exhibition is the point from which you can see, in one sweep, the Barnett Newman painting The Voice, an off-white canvas with a single zip, you can imagine the Rauschenberg instructions for his White Paintings, and you also see Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film. Cage reflects on how these pieces are like metronomes, their active surfaces becoming airports for light and particles. He reflects on Zen for Film being this living, organic object, that it’s the third analogue along this line of responsive objects that change over time. That is, how the day influences the way that one looks at them because they’re these surfaces that are reflective of the environment in which they’re set.

The Nam June Paik [work] is changing through the action of its living by being projected. It’s gathering dust and scratches and deteriorating over time. It’s a very personal object in that way, it reflects this sort of funny semblance of a living structure—it ages, it’s going to deteriorate, it’s going to disappear. We started in October with a pristine reel of film leader, and today you’re looking at something that’s extremely run-down and battered and in the winter of its life. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the show.

Installation view of There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage's 4'33". Foreground: Nam June Paik. Zen for Film. 1965. 16mm film leader (silent), 20 min. (approx.). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2014 Nam June Paik

Installation view of There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″. Foreground: Nam June Paik. Zen for Film. 1965. 16mm film leader (silent), 20 min. (approx.). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. © 2014 Nam June Paik

JH: It’s gorgeous. I want to mention a few of the other artists in that section, because for the most part they weren’t part of Cage’s class [at the New School]. La Monte Young is interested in sustained sound, not confined sound. He has a score that’s just two notes, and the score is for the sound to be held for a very long time. I heard the piece maybe in ’64—there was some event that I went to, it was a Fluxus action or something. But on the floor below, there was this sound [makes a long, humming sound]. Like a drone, it just kept on. People would come in and go, yet it was sustained. Another of La Monte’s great pieces is “Draw a straight line and follow it,” which, again, has to do with stasis as opposed to change. He has an extraordinary way of maintaining that commitment to sustained and continued sound, even this weekend you can go and hear one of his concerts.

Then, of course, I mentioned Yoko Ono and her work. She was not part of the class [at the New School], but her husband Toshi Ichiyanagi attended the class and later Yoko knew Cage and had performed with him in Japan and so on. It’s interesting because Cage composed his 0′00″ and dedicated it to Yoko and Toshi. That’s an interesting piece because he says it should always be different, it shouldn’t stay the same. The first performance was the writing of it, which is very nice.

And Ben Patterson was in Europe. I first met Ben in Cage’s house, up in Stony Point, so they were certainly friends. I’m sure Ben never was a student of Cage in that sense, but Ben’s work is irreverent and performative and provocative. And then there’s the work of Mieko Shiomi, who was part of the Group Ongaku in Japan and had also come here and was part of the Fluxus group, and we have a few beautiful scores of hers. And then Toshi Ichiyanagi, who has two pieces. One of the pieces is IBM for Merce Cunningham; if you look at it, there are these kind of notations that resemble IBM cards, the early computer punch cards. There’s this interesting awareness of computers.

On the strengths of the show:

DP: To me, one of the best things about this exhibition is that it is not a book show, it’s not a print show, it’s not a drawings show. We drew from almost every department within the Museum, and we were able to tell an incredible story by working in that manner, rather than making something hermetic and locked within one particular frame. We’ve drawn from the Library, the Departments of Painting and Sculpture, Prints and Illustrated Books, Drawings, Media and Performance Art, and Archives. Even Architecture and Design is part of the exhibition. We’ve covered every base with the exception, perhaps, of Film, yet we have film in the show. And in that respect I think we did something that’s incredibly successful without our decision-making being forced. Not only is the show intellectually satisfying, it’s satisfying moreover because it’s this incredible effort to look at many different possibilities simultaneously.

JH: I think it also speaks to the importance of being able to do small things here at the Museum. It doesn’t have to always be a grand gesture—it’s looking at some small aspect of art and letting people discover things within that.

On the performances:

DP: I loved it, from the standpoint of being an observer as well as being a participant. I’m not a musician and, although I do a fair amount of public speaking, the act of actually performing 4′33″ was deeply engaging. It pushed me to think about the piece in a way that’s very different than sitting back and observing the piece. This I found very satisfying.

JH: One of the dangers of performance is that people know what has been done before and try to do it that way. I find it very exciting when an artist interprets or finds something new, some other way. Xaviera Simmons‘s performance, I thought was remarkable, and Margaret Leng-Tan‘s [performance] with the toy piano—it was so sweet!

DP: And your brother’s [Geoff Hendricks] on Valentine’s Day!

JH: Yes, very nice. There are a lot more possibilities, and I hope that the show opens up some of those possibilities, both for performance and for getting into material in different ways.

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