Cage's portrait after making his music piece called Composition of the Century, a piece that changes the end of the century

John Cage /   John Milton Cage Jr.

United States 1912 - 1992

Sound Art, Painting, Printmaking

John Cage
John Milton Cage Jr.
United States
October 24, 2016
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Recognized as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century and a leading figure in the post-war avant-garde scene, John Cage was an American musician, theorist, writer and artist. Besides being considered to be a pioneer of indeterminacy in music and non-standard use of instruments, Cage is also held in high regard for his visual pieces, namely paintings and prints. Additionally, he was also deemed pivotal in the development of modern dance and performance art. John Cage’s work challenged the definitions of what a composer does, music and musical experience, as well as the broader new aesthetics of art and performance pieces.

American musical and sound performance world was forever changed with cage's prepared music piece
John Cage – New River Watercolor, Series 1, #3, 1988 – Image via

Divided Between Audio and Visual

John Cage was born on the 5th of September in the year of 1912, at Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Los Angeles. His father was John Milton Cage Sr., a successful man who was regarded as an inventor by the local populace. Cage’s mother, Lucretia Harvey, worked as a part-time journalist for the Los Angeles Times and was an oftentimes depressed person. Although there is no proving this to be a fact, the Cage bloodline is supposedly trackable to an ancestor named John Cage who was George Washington’s assistant and had a task of surveying the Colony of Virginia. Cage’s first experiences with music were received from the private piano teachers in the Greater Los Angeles. Cage also had an aunt, Phoebe Harvey James, who was rather talented in the music department. However, Cage was more interested in writing then composing and this is what got him involved with the valedictorian field[1]. Even then, when he was still a rather young man, John Cage already laid his theoretical grounds for the famous 4’33” composition of silence. In one of his written essays from the time he was a student of the Los Angeles High School, John Cage wrote the following: By being hushed and silent, we should have the opportunity to hear what other people think. In 1928, the young theorist enrolled at Pomona College in Claremont, aiming at the theology major. John Cage yet again started merging disciplines, as he was always prone to doing. He encountered the work of artist Marcel Duchamp via one of his Pomona professors and decided to drop from college in order to pursue a similar line of work.

Facebook gives a chance to make changes to any number of cage's sounds and images
John Cage – Where R = Ryoanji, 1983 – Image via

Choosing Music

After much wheedling, Cage managed to persuade his parents that a trip to Europe would be more beneficial to a future writer than any amount of college studies. After that, John hitchhiked to Galveston and sailed to Le Havre. He later made his way to the City of Light. Cage stayed in Europe for about eighteen months and spent most of his time trying his hand at various forms of art. Although he did focus on modern expression the most, John also studied Gothic and Greek architecture. He also took up painting, poetry and music – especially the work of the legendary Johann Sebastian Bach, something Cage never had an opportunity to hear earlier in his life. After the Euro trip came to an end, young artist took his enthusiasm back home in 1931. He went to live in Santa Monica, California, where he made a living partly by giving small, private lectures on contemporary art based on his direct explorations of the Old Continent. By the year of 1933, Cage decided to concentrate on music composing rather than painting. John explained such a decision by stating the following: The people who heard my music had better things to say about it than the people who looked at my paintings had to say about my paintings. In order to advance himself in the music department, the artist traveled to the Big Apple and started taking lessons at The New School of music. Several months later, still in 1933, Cage became sufficiently good at composition and he was offered to become the next student of famous Schoenberg – free of charge. At some point in 1934, John met and fell in love with a fellow artist Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff. The two were married in the desert at Yuma, Arizona, on the 7th of June, 1935.

By breaking away from the preconception that music was made by performers using traditional instruments, Cage opened up a new wealth of possibilities within modern art

This New York piano composer wrote all his works and compositions in a book
John Cage – #16 – Image via

John Cage and His Role Within the Scene

The newly married couple first lived with Cage’s parents in Pacific Palisades for a few months, but then moved to Hollywood. Between the years of 1936 and 1938, Cage changed numerous jobs, including one that started his lifelong association with modern dance – a position of a dance accompanist at UCLA. He was in charge of producing compositions for choreographies and it was here that Cage first started experimenting with unorthodox instruments, such as household items, metal sheets and so on. In the meantime, the artist’s thirst for visual expression yet again emerged from the depth of his inner self – he frequently traveled to New York City and eventually became a part of the local art scene. Through such travels, John met and became friends with such painters as Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, Piet Mondrian, André Breton, Jackson Pollock, and many others. This American composer made something like music in New York, presenting a large number of prepared pieces that featured no sound, introducing numerous changes to the medium. He even met and befriended his idol, Marcel Duchamp, as he visited New York and wanted to listen to one of his piano music works. He was interested in visual pieces of his fellow artists whilst they were intrigued by Cage’s avant-garde musical concepts. However, Cage’s artistic life went through a crisis in the mid-1940s. The public rarely accepted his work and Cage he himself had trouble understanding the music of his colleagues, meaning he was often disregarded by both his fellow musicians and the audience[2]. This, naturally, led to many depressing emotions within Cage’s mind, severely shaking his confidence. This was the time John dedicated much of his time to writing about music and art in general, discussing his philosophical views on both matters. Years of 1948 and 1952 were pivotal for Cage’s music and sounds as it was then that he received classical piano lessons on sonatas from a professional composer.

Cage’s music was focused on the incorporation of unconventional elements such as kitchen gadgets, metal, various common objects and even silence, as you can see in this video where the composer does next to nothing

Cage’s Peak

At one point of the early 1950s, Cage was offered an opportunity to teach at the avant-garde Black Mountain College just outside Asheville, NC. This helped him regain his confidence and set him back on the course of the modern dance. He wrote his widely read and influential book titled Silence, the first one of what will become a five book series. Cage’s work from the sixties features some of his largest and most ambitious pieces to date, heavily reflecting the mood of the era. It was then that John produced the first fully notated work in years – Cheap Imitation for piano. The piece is a chance-controlled reworking of Erik Satie’s Socrate and it was openly sympathetic to its source. This artwork marked a major change in Cage’s music as he turned again to writing fully notated works for traditional instruments and tried out several new approaches along the way, such as improvisation. However, Cheap Imitation ultimately became the last work John ever performed in public himself. Arthritis had troubled Cage since the year of 1960, and by the early 1970s, his hands were painfully swollen and rendered him unable to perform in such fashion. Instead, he started to paint in watercolors[3], in an abstract method which did not require too much precision from Cage’s limbs as music did. His paintings were oftentimes combined with his musical concepts, always leading to interesting results which are unlike anything the scene has seen prior to Cage. John as well started working in another field – the opera. This was the climax of Cage’s artistic career as this was the first time the composer/artist undoubtedly wanted to be involved within a field without compromising it with other mediums.

At the peak of his career, Cage discovered that the case of chance was as important of a force governing a pictorial composition as the artist’s own will

Any number of prepared music compositions meant the American composer had to take a chance
John Cage – River, rocks and smoke – Image via

The End of Cage’s Life and Story

During the mid and late 1980s, Cage’s health worsened progressively, The problem with arthritis was mixed with sciatica and arteriosclerosis as John suffered a stroke that left the movement of his left leg restricted. The transitoriness and fragility of his well-being were extremely obvious in his later works as Cage accepted his fate and did not allow fear to find its place between him and his art. On August 11, 1992, while he was preparing evening two cups of tea for himself and his friend Cunningham, Cage suffered another stroke in New York. He died during the morning. Ultimately, what remains behind him is an incredible legacy of impacts on various creative fields, underlined by his unique view on the music, world and art. Since words were Cage’s favorite expression tool[4], we find it fitting that the end of this short biography be concluded with Cage’s following words: Left to itself art would have to be something very simple – it would be sufficient for it to be beautiful. But when it’s useful it should spill out of just being beautiful and move over to other aspects of life so that when we’re not with the art it has nevertheless influenced our actions or our responses.


  1. Cage, J., John Cage’s Music Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), Siglio , 2015
  2. Cage, J., Millar, J., Wright, L., Luckett, H., John Cage’s Every Day is a Good Day: The Visual Art of John Cage, Hayward Publishing, 2010
  3. Kass, R., The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors from 1952 to 1992, University of Virginia Press, 2011
  4. Vergo, P., The Music of Painting: Music, Modernism and the Visual Arts from the Romantics to John Cage’s Work, Phaidon Press, 2012

Featured image: John Cage – Photo of the artist – Image via
All images used for illustrative purposes only.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/gallery
2017[un]erwartet: Die Kunst des ZufallsKunstmuseum Stuttgart, Stuttgart Group
2016MashaSuper Dakota, Brussels Group
2016The Thinking Machine, Ramon Llull and the Ars CombinatoriaCentre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), Barcelona Group
2016Not in New York: Carl Solway and CincinnatiCincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH Group
2016Sammlung Hussong: Alle 600 HolzpostkartenSchloss Corvey, Höxter Group
2016Drawing Dialogues: Selections from the Sol LeWitt CollectionThe Drawing Center, New York City, NY Group
2016MashUp: The Birth of Modern CultureVancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC Group
2016TeleGen. Kunst und FernsehenKunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz Group
2015Into Great SilenceCentro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC), Sevilla Group
2015To See The Sound: National Center For Contemporary Art (NCCA)Moscow Branch, Moscow Group
2015Ich kenne kein Weekend. Aus René Blocks Archiv und Sammlung.Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin Group
2015Fluxus Und ZenWerkstattgalerie, Berlin Group
2015Silence d’Or . Ilmar Laaban and Experiments in Sound and LanguageKumu Art Museum, Tallinn Group
2015Accidental SoundsLudwig Museum im Deutschherrenhaus, Koblenz Group
2015American Master PrintsEckert Fine Art, Kent, CT Group
2015Aftersound: Frequency, Attack, ReturnThe Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburg, PA Group
2015Important Works on PaperJonathan Novak Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA Group
2015All Of Us Have A Sense Of RhythmThe David Roberts Art Foundation, London Group
2015Signs, Phenomena, InterpretationsGalerie Philipp Konzett, Vienna Group
2015Group Show Selections from the Kramarsky CollectionDavid Zwirner, New York City, NY Group
2015America Is Hard to SeeWhitney Museum of American Art, New York City, NY Group
2015Image Coming Soon #1Justina M Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON Group
201515 Great Artists From The CollectionHenie Onstad Art Centre, Høvikodden Group
2015Peche de Nuit (oh hell ah well yes well)RaebervonStenglin, Zurich Group
2015How to Construct a Time MachineMilton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire Group
2015The Year of the Ram: Works by 22 ArtistsCarl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, OH Group
2014[Con]TextUtah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, UT Group
2014Histories of the Post-Digital: 1960s and 1970s Media Art SnapshotsAkbank Art Center, Istanbul Group
2014NeitherSeventeen Gallery, London Group
2014Le Mur, La collection Antoine de GalbertLa Maison Rouge, Paris Group
2014Formes simplesCentre Pompidou-Metz, Metz Group
2014Art of SoundFondazione Prada, Venice Group
2014Variaciones sobre el jardín japonésLa Casa Encendida, Madrid Group
2014Silence is Movementartclub1563, Seoul Group
2014The Part In The Story Where A Part Becomes A Part Of Something ElseWitte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam Group
2014Intermedial401contemporary, Berlin Group
2014if I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolutionHaverford College, Haverford, PA Group
2014Fluxus Made In UsaStaatliches Museum Schwerin, Schwerin Group
2014… all silent but for the buzzing …Royal College of Art Galleries, London Group
2014Dernières Nouvelles de l‘EtherLa Panacée, Montpellier Group
2014Begegnung von Struktur und ZufallBeck & Eggeling International Fine Art, Dusseldorf Group
2014La Vie Est Un CollageGalerie Anne Barrault, Paris Group
2013Cage100: Finale ExhibitionGalerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig Solo
2013John Cage: The Sight of SilenceCenter in the Square, Roanoke, WV Solo
2013John Cage. The Silent PresenceNational Center For Contemporary Art (NCCA), Saint-Petersburg Branch, St. Petersburg Solo
2013City SelfMuseum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), Chicago, IL Group
2013The Circle Walked CasuallyDeutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin Group
2013My Brain Is in My Inkstand: Drawing as Thinking and ProcessCranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI Group
2013Experiments in the Fault ZoneMills College Art Museum, Oakland, CA Group
2013Urban SoundsHaus für elektronische Künste Basel, Basel Group
2013Yes, No, MaybeThe National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Group
2013MasterhandsGalerie Philipp Konzett, Vienna Group
2013The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and JohnsBarbican Art Gallery, London Group
2013Water MusicGeorgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA Group
2013Shakers & MoversVW (VeneKlasen Werner), BerlinGroup
2013A House of Leaves. Third MovementThe David Roberts Art Foundation, London Group
2013Une brève histoire des lignesCentre Pompidou-Metz, Metz Group
2012Prints, Drawings, And A Music BoxDevin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston, TX Solo
2012John Cage: Prints, Drawings, And A Music BoxDevin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston, TX Solo
2012John Cage: Devoted PlayArt Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, BC Solo
2012John CageMusée d'Art Contemporain Lyon, Lyon Solo
2012John Cage: The Sight of SilenceNational Academy Museum, New York City, NY Solo
2012By, With, On: John CageMargarete Roeder Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
2012Variations Vii, 1966Bass Museum of Art, Miami, FL Solo
2012John Cage: Zen Ox-herding PicturesMontgomery Art Center, Claremont, CA Solo
2012John CageMuseum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), Chicago, IL Solo
2012John Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for a Painting, Selected Watercolors, and EphemeraAmerican University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, Washington, DC Solo
2012John Cage: Rocks, Paper, FireThe National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Solo
2012Centennial Celebration: Prints by John Cage: Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of ArtUniversity of Richmond, Richmond, VA Solo
2012It's John. John CageStaatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart Solo
2012John CageKUAD GALLERY, Istanbul Solo
2012Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel: John Cage PlexigramsCantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Stanford, CA Solo
2012John Cage: Rocks, Ryoan-ji & New RiverHanes Art Gallery, Winston-Salem, NC Solo
2012John Cage’s Experiments In ContextEkaterina Foundation, Moscow Group
2012Musica Y AccionCentro José Guerrero, Granada Group
2012Play TogetherKunstraum Sellemond, Vienna Group
2012SilencesBrachfeld Gallery, Paris Group
2012Specters of Artaud: Language and the Arts in the 1950sMuseo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid Group
2012SilenceThe Menil Collection, Houston, TX Group
2012Fluxus At 50Museum Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden Group
2012Addio Anni 70Palazzo Reale, Milan Group
2012Theatre of lifeCentre of Contemporary Art Torun, Torun Group
2012On The Road To FluxusDie Kunstagentin, Cologne Group
2012On The Road To FluxusGalerie Schüppenhauer, Cologne Group
2012Thanks: 50th Anniversary ExhibitionCarl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, OH Group
2012PrintsDevin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston, TX Group
2012The Artists’ Postcard ShowSpike Island, Bristol Group
2012Art = Life = Art | Dada > Fluxus Museum für moderne und zeitgenössische Kunst , Bolzano Group
2012x_sound : John Cage, Nam June Paik and AfterNam June Paik Art Center, Yongin-si Group
2012John Cage: A Centennial Celebration With FriendsCarl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, OHGroup
2011Ein Raum für John Cage Installationen, Zeichnungen, FilmeAkademie der Künste, Berlin Solo
2011Every Day is a Good Day Prints and drawings by John CageDe La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea Solo
2011John CageHunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland Solo
2011MultiplicitySmithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC Group
2011The Private Collection of Robert RauschenbergGagosian Gallery , New York City, NY Group
2011Eyes Looping for a Head to InhabitMuzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Main Building, Lodz Group
2011denkenKolumba, Cologne Group
201111e Biennale de Lyonbiennale d'art contemporain de Lyon, Lyon Group
2011Black Mountain College and Its LegacyLoretta Howard Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2011Game TheoryCornish College of the Arts Gallery, Seattle, WA Group
2011Reading Pictures: Text and Image in Contemporary ArtCohen Memorial Hall , Nashville, TN Group
2011PartitionsGalerie ARKO, Nevers Group
2011Zettels TraumVon der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal Group
2011Artists CollectInternational Print Center New York, New York City, NY Group
2011Object as Multiple: 1960-2000Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco, CA Group
2010John Cage: Every Day is a Good DayHuddersfield Art Gallery, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire Solo
2010John Cage: Every Day is a Good DayKettle's Yard, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire Solo
2010Every Day is a Good DayBALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Solo
2010The Anarchy of SilenceHenie Onstad Art Centre, Høvikodden Solo
2010THE BIENNIAL WINTER SALON 2010Elga Wimmer PCC, New York City, NY Group
2010das kleine format 3: die torlose schrankeGalerie Clemens Thimme, Karlsruhe Group
2010Other Than BeautyFriedman Benda Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2010Works from the Gallery CollectionCarl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, OH Group
2010Mike, Alec or Rufus? (Tom, Dick or Harry?)Galerie Emanuel Layr, ViennaGroup
2010Dessins en grande largeurGalerie de France, Paris Group
2009John CageGallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, CA Solo
2009The Anarchy of Silence. John Cage and Experimental ArtMuseu d´Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona Solo
2009John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding PicturesJoel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA Solo
2009John Cage. Kunst = LebenHäckermühle, Waiblingen Solo
2009Musik in der KunstDany Keller Galerie, Eichelhardt Group
2009MOCA´s First Thirty YearsMOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA Group
2009Selected DrawingsMargarete Roeder Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2009SilentHiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima Group
2009Performa 09Performa, New York City, NY Group
20091969MoMA PS1, New York City, NY Group
2009Schönes Wetter heute, n'est-ce pas, Henning?44 Moen, Askeby Group
2009In-finitumMuseo Fortuny, Venice Group
2009The Quick and the DeadWalker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN Group
2009Sound of MusicTurner Contemporary, Margate, Kent Group
2009EditionsSolwayJones, Los Angeles, CA Group
2008John Cage. Paisatges imaginaris, Concerts & MusicircusEspai d´Art Contemporani de Castelló, Castellon de la Plana Solo
2008John CageBALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Solo
2008Now JumpNam June Paik Art Center, Yongin-si Group
2008Paik & CagePoint of Contact Gallery, Syracuse, NY Group
2008An unruly history of the readymadeFundación Jumex, Mexico City Group
2008Time and ChanceGalería d'Art Horizon, Colera, Girona Group
2008The sight of musicMississippi Museum of Art MMA, Jackson, MS Group
2008NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten FaithAnton Kern Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2007John CageGalleria Davide Di Maggio, Milan Solo
2006John Cage: EssayLa Casa Encendida, Madrid Solo
2006John CageMargarete Roeder Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
2004John Cage: Watercolors, Selected Drawings and PrintsZONE: Contemporary Art, New York City, NY Solo
2004ohn CageMuseum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna Solo
2004John Cage: Works on PaperZONE: Contemporary Art, New York City, NY Solo
2003John CageGalerie Sabine Knust, Maximilian Verlag, Munich Solo
2003John Cage. Il silenzio della musicaMuseo d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Rovereto Solo
2002John CageBerkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive BAM-PFA, Berkeley, CA Solo
2002John CageMargarete Roeder Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
2002The Visual Art of John CageEdison College, Lee County Campus, Ft. Myers, FL Solo
2001John CageSolwayJones, Los Angeles, CA Solo
2001John CageMargarete Roeder Gallery, New York City, NY Solo
2000John CageKrypta 182 Kunstverein Bergisch Gladbach, Bergisch Gladbach Solo
1999John Cage: Neue CD, Druck, OriginaleRupert Walser, Munich Solo
1995Rolywholyover: A Circus for Museum by John CagePhiladelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA Solo
1994Erwerbungen John CageStaatliches Museum Schwerin, Schwerin Solo
1994Rolywholyover A Circus by John CageMito Geijutsu-kan, Mito Solo
1994Rolywholyover: A Circus for Museum by John CageThe Menil Collection, Houston, TX Solo
1993Rolywholyover A CircusMOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA Solo
1993Writing through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil DisobedienceP3 art and environment, Tokyo Solo
1993DrawingsAnthony d'Offay Gallery, London Solo
1992John Cage: Arbeiten auf PapierNassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden Solo
1992John Cage : scores from the early 1950sMuseum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), Chicago, IL Solo
1991John Cage. Partituren, Grafik, ZeichnungenKunsthaus Zürich, Zurich Solo
1989John CageGalerie Graff, Montreal, QC Solo
1989John Cage: Graphic WorksASU Art Museum, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, AZ Solo
1984John Cage: Etchings 1978-1982Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire Solo
1983John Cage. A Portrait SeriesKölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne Solo
1982John Cage: Scores & PrintsPhiladelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA Solo
1979John Cage: Etchings 1978-79L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, CA Solo
1978John Cage: Ausstellung und KonzertStädtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach Solo
1978John CageKölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne Solo
1972John CageKunsthalle Bern, Bern Solo
1970John CageNorton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, CA Solo