The foursquare geometry of Cage II and the purity of its medium exemplify the Minimal art of the 1960s, an art of system and order. Although the title is descriptive of the work's form, it is also a pun. The work is a reiteration of the artist's earlier sculpture Statue of John Cage, named after the well-known composer, whose theories on modern music and compositional structure influenced de Maria and other artists of his generation.
Gallery label from 2011.
In 1960 the sculptor and musician De Maria moved from California to New York, where he transformed Conceptual theory into a Minimalist practice—an art form of system and order that explored the purity and severity of materials. Cage II combines cubic geometry and a stainless-steel structure—emblematic of Minimalism—with a lighthearted yet critical play on words characteristic of the work of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada tradition. The title of the sculpture refers to its material structure and function and also pays witty homage to Cage, who influenced De Maria and his contemporaries. Cage II is the second iteration of the 1961 wood sculpture Statue of John Cage. The arrangement of the steel bars resembles the bars on sheet music. Seven-feet high, Cage II captures the physical stature of the man—well known for his height—as well as the formidable measure of his impact on twentieth-century art. As De Maria said in an interview:
"Later when I was to start reflecting the ideas of chance, I became less and less interested in Cage and less and less interested in his music. I never did like his music actually. But the ideas were always well stated. Then, when I made my Statue of John Cage, I think it was partly a recognition of the fact that Cage may have been caging a lot of people."
Gallery label from There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage's 4'33, October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014.
Cage II may seem easy to grasp: a space sealed by bars—a cage. But it would be a thin person indeed who could fit in this narrow room, and in any case, how would anyone get in? There are no doors, no hinges. The metal, too, a pristine stainless steel, is richer than brute prison iron. Cage II is surely a paradox: a cage made elegant and abstract.
The paradox only multiplies, for Cage II is also a kind of portrait. It remakes a piece from 1961, in wood, but otherwise the same except for the title: Statue of John Cage. The John Cage whose name gave de Maria a pun was, of course, the well-known composer and theorizer of modern music. But an aesthetic tradition is also cited here, for Cage had close links to an art-making approach associated with Marcel Duchamp (a long-standing friend of Cage's)—an approach favoring conceptual thought, and, also, a love of puns and wordplay.
The foursquare geometry of Cage II, meanwhile, and the purity of the work's medium, point in another direction—toward the Minimal art of the 1960s, an art of system and order. Yet in the work's enigmatic combination of openness and rigor there remains a tribute to the paradoxical artist and musician who inspired it.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999.