January 3, 2014  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Composing Silence: John Cage and Black Mountain College
Installation view of <i>There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33"</i>, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014

Installation view of There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014

John Cage first visited Black Mountain College, in Asheville, North Carolina, in April 1948, while on his way to the West Coast with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Though he only stayed in Asheville for a few days—premiering his composition Sonatas and Interludes—the visit proved formative. Cage periodically returned to the college between 1948 and 1953, a time of enormous artistic growth that, with little coincidence, aligned with the conceptual development of his 4′33″ and the hand-drawn score currently on view in There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4′33″.

Founded in 1933, Black Mountain College was one of the leading experimental art schools in America until its closure in 1957. When Philip Johnson, MoMA’s first curator of architecture, learned that Black Mountain College was searching for a professor of art, he suggested Josef Albers, an artist whom he had recently met at the Bauhaus in Germany. Only a few months prior, the Bauhaus had closed its doors due to mounting antagonism from the Nazi Party, and Josef and his wife, the preeminent textile artist Anni Albers, readily accepted the offer to join the Black Mountain College faculty. During their 16-year tenure in North Carolina, the Alberses helped model the college’s interdisciplinary curriculum on that of the Bauhaus, attracting such notable students and teachers as R. Buckminster Fuller, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Josef Albers. Tlaloc. 1944. Anni Albers. Tapestry. 1948

From left: Josef Albers. Tlaloc. 1944. Woodcut, composition: 12 x 12 7/16″ (30.5 x 31.6 cm), sheet: 13 7/8 x 13 5/8″ (35.3 x 34.6 cm). Publisher: the artist, Asheville, NC. Printer: Biltmore Press, Asheville, NC. Edition: proof outside the edition of 35. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Elaine Lustig Cohen in memory of Alvin Lustig, 1979. © 2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Anni Albers. Tapestry. 1948. Handwoven linen and cotton, 16 1/2 x 18 3/4″ (41.9 x 47.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. Purchase Fund, 1950. © 2014 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4′33″ features a number of seminal works made by artists Cage came to know and admire during his visits to Black Mountain College. The woodcut print Tlaloc (1944) and the linen-and-cotton weaving Tapestry (1948) were created by Josef and Anni Albers, respectively, who became close friends with and proponents of Cage throughout his career. The third work in the exhibition that was created at Black Mountain College, This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time (c. 1948–49), was made by a then little-known artist, Robert Rauschenberg, whose influence on Cage in the early 1950s proved immeasurable. Though Cage and Rauschenberg both attended Black Mountain College in 1948, their visits did not coincide and they weren’t formally introduced until three years later.

In the fall of 1948, Rauschenberg, drawn to Josef Albers’s rigorous curriculum—Rauschenberg regarded Albers as “the greatest disciplinarian in the United States”—enrolled in Black Mountain College with his future wife Susan Weil. In Asheville, Rauschenberg experienced a surge of artistic growth. Considered his earliest mature work, This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time represents Rauschenberg’s first foray into printmaking. Rauschenberg studied closely with Albers and would have been aware of his instructor’s return to woodcut printing during the 1940s. To create the 14-page album, Rauschenberg used a single wood block. For the first page, he inked the unadorned block and printed a solid black square. For each subsequent page, Rauschenberg incised a new line into the block’s surface. As observed by Walter Hopps in the exhibition catalogue Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, should the sequence of images have continued beyond 14—which the title encourages us to imagine—eventually only a white field would have remained.

As in the 1953 score for 4′33″, which Cage created approximately four years later, Rauschenberg used a single line to represent the passage of time. (The original score for 4′33″, now lost, used conventional musical notation; the following year Cage created the hand-drawn score for Irwin Kremen—which is currently on view—composed of a series of vertical lines.) The 14 prints are stapled together along the top and bound with twine to form a book, thereby encouraging viewers to experience the work by flipping through each page in sequence. Where Josef Albers drew inspiration from art of the ancient Americas in Tlaloc, whose title is a reference to the Aztec rain god, Rauschenberg’s album looked toward the future, presaging the evolution of his own work. Following the creation of This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time, Rauschenberg began to translate the reductive language of printmaking into other mediums. His continued progression toward minimalist form—later epitomized by his 1953 work Erased de Kooning—soon brought the album to its logical conclusion: a monochromatic field.

In the summer of 1951 at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg began a series of entirely white paintings. (His 1965 instructions for the White Paintings are on view adjacent to the album in the exhibition.) Only a few months prior, Cage was introduced to Rauschenberg at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, initiating a period of close exchange that lasted throughout both artists’ lives. Upon witnessing the development of the White Paintings, Cage was taken aback by the younger artist’s bold abandonment of figuration. He recognized that the White Paintings were not, in fact, devoid of form, but rather served, in his words, as “mirrors of the air” and “airports for the lights, shadows, and particles.” As early as February 1948, Cage introduced the theoretical foundations for 4′33″—to “compose a piece of uninterrupted silence”—during a lecture at Vassar College. However, he claimed that it was not until seeing Rauschenberg’s White Paintings that he had the courage to explore silence within his own work.

In August 1952, Cage returned to Black Mountain College and organized Theater Piece No. 1, an unscripted performance considered by many to be the first Happening. The event took place in the college dining hall and included Rauschenberg, Cunningham, and Cage’s frequent collaborator, the young pianist David Tudor, among others. As Kyle Gann described in his book No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′33″, the audience was seated in four triangular sections, while Cage stood on a ladder at the center. From his elevated position, Cage delivered a lecture as artists, musicians, and dancers moved freely through the space—which featured at least one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings—deflecting attention from any single narrative and complicating the distinction between art and life. Just weeks after the production of Theater Piece No. 1, David Tudor encouraged Cage that the timing was right for Tudor to publicly perform Cage’s “silent” piece during his upcoming program at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York.

There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4′33″ reunites many of the figures and works that influenced Cage between 1948—the year in which he first discussed his idea for 4′33″—and its premiere on August 29, 1952. It is no coincidence that the work’s four-year incubation period coincided with Cage’s visits to Black Mountain College, a place where nascent ideas and emerging artists seemed to effortlessly cross-pollinate, inspiring Cage to finally introduce 4′33″ to the world.