John Cage stepped out of two pans of black ink and walked backwards over paper placed on the studio floor while pulling a large brush containing dark grey-black watercolor wash over his footprints. The painting was performed in Ray Kass’ studio in Christiansburg, Virginia, and was planned in several phone consultations between Cage and Kass in the weeks preceding Cage’s 1989 visit to southwest Virginia.
—description of the performance procedure from the “score” of STEPS
STEPS (1989) is a late work in the long continuum of Cage’s engagement with artistic process, dating back fundamentally to the 1940s. It’s also a further stage in Cage’s development as a visual artist, an aspect of his creative life, present from the beginning, that had been subsumed into music for several decades until the late 1970s. It probably couldn’t be considered a piece of music, from any but the broadest—which is to say the Cagean—perspective, but it is a performance, an inclusive invitation to the dance, and a demonstration of that very Cage-like statement of the visual artist Joseph Beuys, “Every man is an artist” (“Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler”). In Cage’s words after performing/creating STEPS for the first time, “It doesn’t matter who holds the brush.”
Already in John Cage’s early scores, his concern for the beauty of lettering and calligraphy draws attention to itself among the standard elements of musical notation. His study of Eastern aesthetic and spiritual ideas in the 1940s and ’50s, via Ananda Coomaraswamy (Indian aesthetics) and then D.T. Suzuki (Zen Buddhism), upended what, in Cage’s work, was already a destabilized Western approach to authored and intentional art. As he began to incorporate graphic elements to better portray theatrical and non-traditional performance elements in his music, his scores in their visual beauty and abstraction more and more closely approached works of contemporary visual art in themselves. His vocal piece Aria, for Cathy Berberian, is a particular case in point. His use of overlays and charts for such works as Fontana Mix and Cartridge Music combined ideas from both collage and printmaking. A culmination of this was his Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel series, an homage to Marcel Duchamp.
Meanwhile, Cage was also associating with some of the leading American visual artists, including Duchamp (one of Cage’s most important influences), Morris Graves, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. He had met Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College in 1948, and immediately felt a connection: “We were born accomplices!” Cage’s and Rauschenberg’s work at that time already had quite a few commonalities. Rauschenberg’s late 1940s monochrome paintings are analogous in many ways to such contemporary Cage pieces as the String Quartet in Four Parts. In the early 1953, after the painter moved to New York where the composer was then living, they collaborated on a piece that featured Rauschenberg as conceptualizer and Cage as activator for Automobile Tire Print. This twenty-two-foot scroll painting is the inked tread marks of two tires of Cage’s Model A Ford (which Rauschenberg had “met” also at Black Mountain) on twelve sheets of paper. Rauschenberg poured black house paint in front of the tire and told Cage to drive “just as straight as he could” and related that Cage was fascinated by the process, which took place in a rainfall that jeopardized the finished product.
As driver of the Model A, Cage was himself the master printer for Rauschenberg’s monoprint. It was only years later, in the late 1970s, that Cage became deeply involved with printmaking as a traditional discipline when he began working at Crown Point Press in California. (I am indebted to the artist and writer Ray Kass, author of the exhibition catalog The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors, for the historical context of John Cage’s late printmaking and watercolors.) Cage’s avoidance of intentionality, at first abetted by his lack of technical skill, gradually required the adaptation of unpredictable outside elements in the process, such as the river rocks that provide the contours of his Ryoanji series of watercolors and its related musical scores. In both printmaking and watercolors, he sometimes used inks and washes that were diluted to the point of near-transparency. In many cases Cage used the I Ching to determine materials and tools, such as the types of brushes and the placement of elements. He also changed the pace and outcome of his printmaking by setting the printing paper on fire during the process, so that each print is the product of a kind of dynamic, slightly chaotic performance-piece. These and other practices led not only to an unpredictability of final result but also a sense of temporal fragility that has strong analogs in Cage’s music.
The performance/painting STEPS, created in February 1989 at Ray Kass’s Virginia studio, was partly suggested by Kass’s idea of creating very large, wide brushes for applying washes, and also by Cage’s experience more than thirty years earlier of helping to create Automobile Tire Print. (Cage had first visited Kass’s Mountain Lake Workshop in 1983 and returned there for an extended workshop in 1988.) To create STEPS, Kass and Cage mixed black watercolor with a neutral wash in a trough for the brush and black ink and watercolor in two pans, into which Cage (wearing sneakers) stepped. Cage stepped backward out of the pans onto a long sheet of rag paper and continued walking backward as Kass handed him the 56”-wide tint-loaded brush. The brush stroke smears and obscures the footprints; both brush stroke and footprints diminish as they get further from the tint sources. The resulting painting, STEPS: A Composition for a Painting (72” X 208”), is the trace or documentation of the original event, which is itself a performance piece with its own “score” or set of instructions. A “second notation” of the piece, called John Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for a Painting to be Performed by Individuals and Groups was developed by Ray Kass’s Mountain Lake Workshop and is performed in collaboration with Mountain Lake Workshop.