MCA DNA: John Cage | Art review

The MCA celebrates the centenary of the avant-garde composer’s birth.

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John Cage, A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity, 1978.

John Cage, A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity, 1978. Photograph: Courtesy of MCA Chicago

To celebrate the centenary of John Cage’s birth, the MCA might’ve elected to observe a four-minute and 33-second moment of silence or simply sauté some wild mushrooms. Such are the possibilities—and, detractors might argue, gimmicks—that spring to mind when considering the legacy of the late avant-garde composer, writer, music theorist and mycologist. Yet his influence runs much deeper, through minimalist art, electronic music and the origins of Fluxus. Thankfully the “MCA DNA” exhibition offers a more nuanced tribute.


Organized by Lynne Warren, and containing scores, books, letters and more from the MCA collection, the text-heavy show details the museum’s dynamic, decades-long relationship with Cage (1912–1992). That partnership began in 1967 when Cage performed alongside fellow Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles at a gala opening of the museum’s inaugural exhibition. It’s interesting to read about the planning behind this work in memos from Higgins to the MCA director. Cage’s own memos to museum staff are also intriguing inclusions, showing a man of bountiful ideas but few words. “He was a little difficult to talk to…and I never got to know him well,” recalls Kyle Gann, a former MCA administrative assistant for the 1982 New Music America festival.


A central feature of the show is A Dip in the Lake… (pictured, 1978), Cage’s score created on a map of Chicago. Recorded at specific street intersections, it—like the artist himself—is ambitious, intricate and not easily explained. The International Contemporary Ensemble will perform nine other groundbreaking Cage pieces on October 6, helping us understand the enigmatic artist’s works a bit better.


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