The first gallery of the exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33” contains works by John Cage’s contemporaries and influences, including such well-known names as Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Albers, Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman, and Robert Rauschenberg. Works by two lesser-known West Coast artists, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, also occupy this space, pointing to Cage’s brief but seminal years living in Seattle. Tobey’s The Void Devouring the Gadget Era (1942), an energetic cluster of symbols overlaid by smoky tempera, and Graves’s Bat Dancing for a Slug (1943), in which the titular animals emerge from an inky black background, combine Eastern influences with a focus on the natural world. This style is emblematic of the Northwest School, a Seattle-based group that counted Tobey and Graves among its most prominent members. When Cage worked at the progressive Cornish School in Seattle between 1938 and 1940, Tobey and Graves became important friends and artistic peers.Cage cited Tobey (1890–1976) as one of his major influences, going so far as to say, “In [a] sense, all my work is a response to Mark Tobey.” Known for his atmospheric, dynamic paintings bursting with gestural marks, Tobey was the globetrotting “father figure” of the Northwest School. In 1918, Tobey converted to the Bahá’í faith, whose followers believe in the unity of all religions and all beings. Bahá’í teachings became deeply important to his artistic exploration of non-Western cultures and the forces of the natural world. In 1923, one year after moving to Seattle from Chicago, Tobey met the Chinese painter Teng Kuei, who introduced him to the art of Eastern calligraphy. Shortly after, Tobey commenced a series of travels that found him spending time with Gertrude Stein in Paris, teaching painting in Devon, making pilgrimages to Bahá’í shrines in Haifa, meditating at a Zen monastery in Kyoto, and journeying to Spain, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Mexico. After his trip to Japan, Tobey developed his signature “white writing,” pale scribbles that set his canvases buzzing with movement, as seen in the 1953 work Edge of August.
Cage, who met Tobey when the older man returned to Seattle to teach at the Cornish School in 1938, was greatly influenced by Tobey’s knowledge of Eastern art and his ability to discover moments of enlightenment through intense concentration on ordinary surroundings. Cage recalled an hours-long walk he took with Tobey from the Cornish School to a Japanese restaurant, a distance that normally could be traversed in 45 minutes. The walk took so long because, as Cage recalled, Tobey “would continually stop to notice something surprising everywhere…which we normally didn’t notice when we were walking, and his gaze would immediately turn into a work of art…. It was the first time that someone else had given me a lesson in looking without prejudice, someone who didn’t compare what he was seeing with something before.” Later, after leaving an exhibition at the Willard Gallery in New York, Cage looked down at the pavement with intense concentration and realized that it held the same visual interest as Tobey’s “white writing.” Tobey had expanded Cage’s view of the world, encouraging him to see “beyond the frame” of traditional artworks to the aesthetic and spiritual possibilities of everyday life.
Like Tobey and Cage, Morris Graves (1910–2001) was fascinated by the forms of nature and invigorated by travels to Asia, where he first developed an interest in Eastern philosophy and art. As a teenager, Graves became a sailor on American Main Line ships, which brought him to Japan, China, and the Philippines. In 1930, he returned to the Pacific Northwest and embarked upon a career that eventually included exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Known for his delicate still lifes, views of nature, and portrayals of birds and snakes, Graves sought out remote places to live, including Fidelgo Island, Washington, and Eureka, California, and was described in a 1953 Life article as “the best known and least seen of the Seattle painters.” Works such as Bat Dancing for a Slug capture nature in darkness, revealing the forest creatures that emerge after nightfall in a highly stylized hand. These are not storybook depictions of the natural world, as Cage recalled in an anecdote from his 1967 book A Year from Monday: “A mother and son visited the Seattle Art Museum. Several rooms were devoted to the work of Morris Graves. When they came to one room in which all of the paintings were black, the mother, placing a hand across her son’s eyes, said, ‘Come, dear, mother doesn’t want you to see these things.’”
Cage met Graves in 1937 and was greatly impressed by his distinctive artworks and bold personality, even organizing a show for him that same year. Cage wrote that Graves’s paintings “have nothing extraordinary about their subjects. They are the fruits and flowers which come from ordinary orchards and gardens. To the self-destructive inventions of civilization they are the replies of nature.”
During Cage’s relatively short time in Seattle, the city’s artistic community made a lasting impact on the composer. It was at the Cornish School that Cage first met Merce Cunningham, then a young dance student, who would later become an important artistic and personal partner. The Cornish School was also home to the first school radio lab in the country, originally designed to train students in the new medium of broadcast journalism, where Cage began his experiments in electronic music. Tobey and Graves encouraged Cage’s interest in Eastern philosophy, and his new ideas and experiments were met with intense interest by a tight-knit circle of fellow artists. “What was important in Seattle was that so little was going on that anything that did go on was taken seriously,” Cage said later. He would move on to San Francisco in 1940, followed by Chicago in 1941 and New York in 1942, but he maintained enduring friendships with the artists he met during his pivotal time in Seattle.