John Cage (American, 1912–1992) was a composer, visual artist, writer, and philosopher. Born in Los Angeles, CA, Cage is best known for his Minimalist musical compositions, often characterized by his use of chance and mathematical formulas, as well as the incorporation of non-musical objects and periods of silence. In the early 1930s, Cage studied with Arnold Schönberg, the Austrian-born composer who invented and employed a 12-tone composition technique. The pair worked together at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. Schoenberg was a significant influence on and inspiration for Cage’s own musical works. In the late 1930s, while at UCLA, Cage began producing musical accompaniments for dance and choreography. After moving to Seattle in 1938 to be an accompanist at the Cornish College of the Arts, Cage met dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who became his lifelong friend and collaborator.

Cage was associated with and connected to a wide variety of other well-known artists and luminaries, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Buckminster Fuller, and Marcel Duchamp. The composition 4’33”, considered Cage’s best-known work, was cause for controversy and criticism among colleagues and audiences. The score, written in 1952 and first performed that year by David Tudor in Woodstock, NY, instructs the performer not to play the instrument for the entirety of the piece—four minutes and 33 seconds. While 4’33” is often thought of as consisting only of silence, it is meant to be comprised of the environmental sounds heard by listeners during the performance. Beginning in 1969, Cage turned to various other media, such as painting, etching, print-making, photography, and writing.

His better-known visual works include Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (1969), incorporating lithographs and Plexiglas panels with silkscreen printings; a series of abstract prints titled Changes and Disappearances (1979–1982); and a watercolor series titled River Rocks and Smoke (1990). Cage’s work was regularly exhibited at the Margarete Roeder Gallery in New York. The most recent retrospective was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1993. In addition to his visual works, Cage wrote multiple books, including Silence: Lectures and Writings (1961), M (1973), and Empty Words (1979). He was the recipient of the New York Mayor’s Award of Honor for Arts and Culture in 1981, and was awarded the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the French Government’s highest honor for contributions to cultural life, in 1982.

Timeline

1912
Born on September 5 in Los Angeles, CA
1937
Moved to Seattle to work as a dance accompanist
1938
Founded a percussion orchestra in Seattle
1941–1942
Taught at the Chicago School of Design
1945
Developed an interest in Eastern philosophy that greatly influenced his work
1949
Awarded by the National Academy of Arts and Letters for the invention of the prepared piano
1954
Moved to Stony Point, New York where he developed an interest in mushrooms
1962
Taught about mushrooms at the New York School for Social Research. This same year he founded the New York Mycological Society
1978
Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1981
Received the New York Mayor’s Honor Award of Arts and Sciences
1982
Awarded Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government
1989
Traveled to Japan to be awarded the Kyoto Prize
1992
Died on August 12

Exhibitions

2009
March 13, "John Cage: String Quartet in Four Parts and works by Feldman, Crawford, Ives, Nancarrow and Varèse",Theater Kikker, Utrecht, The Netherlands
2009
Feb. 5, "John Cage: Organ2 / ASLSP", Center for the Arts, Harold J. Kaplan Concert Hall, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, USA
2008
"The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now", San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco