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Randomness Unites in Cage and Cunningham

Composer John Cage, the man responsible for the world’s first song that consisted entirely of a man sitting idly in front of a piano, adored randomness in its many forms. So did choreographer Merce Cunningham, one of Cage’s most important collaborators and his longtime boyfriend. Though both men were pioneers of avant-garde art and teachers at the super-experimental Black Mountain College (also the home of artists Josef and Anni Albers, Willem De Kooning, and Robert Motherwell), neither focused on visual art. It’s their shared love of randomness that unites the visual works the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art has assembled in Cage And Cunningham: Chance, Time, And Concept In The Visual Arts, on display through May 9.

A lack of structure and formality becomes the show’s common thread, forging connections among pieces from the Bauhaus school, the conceptual art movement, and the ’60s “happenings” of the New York City counterculture. It’s not always clear how exactly the works should be associated with Cage or Cunningham (with some exceptions); perhaps the show’s curator wanted it that way.

Sol LeWitt’s 1991 etching “Vertical Not Straight Lines Not Touching On Color” consists—surprise, surprise—of a smattering of white vertical lines, some more squiggly than straight, on a black rectangle of background. Each line is pencil-thin and hairlike, and several of them veer so close to one another that they appear to touch, despite what the museum’s notes about the piece say. As the title suggests, this piece is more about absence than presence. LeWitt’s idea becomes more important than the execution of his idea, illustrating what conceptual art is about.

Cage And Cunninghan also offers a roadmap for understanding how things such as noise and found sounds have become the musical staples they are today. Two pieces by George Maciunas show how the multimedia Fluxus movement of the ’60s, a precursor to the modern noise-music craze, among other things, used games and chance to create a new set of rules for art and music. “Single Card Flux Deck” displays a deck of 52 cards, all of which are spades. Three sets of four tens are turned up, as if to illustrate a winning hand in a game from another culture—or another dimension. It’s as simple as it is mind-boggling.

“Fluxshop Sheet,” on the other hand, is both a game and an advertisement for one. A poster made of black ink on old, yellowing paper that gives it an old-timey feel, like a wanted poster in a saloon, it contains two blocks of text, one horizontal and the other vertical, that spell out a manifesto (or something like one) for such Fluxus artists as Yoko Ono, Ay-O and George Brecht. It spouts activist terms like “nonprofit” and “nonparasitic” while an old-timey cartoon character entices viewers with “games, gags, jokes, kits.” Sixteen faces at the bottom of the piece hold letters on their tongues (or perhaps their chins) that spell “flux orchestra.” It’s yet another example of how Cage and his followers blurred the lines that separate literature, visual art, and music.

“Weather-ed II,” a color photoetching by Cage himself, ventures into the territory of meteorology. With abstract lines rendered in grays, blues and purples, he doesn’t examine the raindrops and lightning but the randomness of weather patterns, from the way they take shape to the way we interpret them. These lines are framed by two boxes that function as windows for watching one storm happen and another one brew. At the same time, they’re a bit like music players as well, with Cage’s lines forming shapes that look suspiciously similar to sound waves. Perhaps this is a chance resemblance, but if so, it’s one he would probably have appreciated.

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Lewis Koch’s Touchless Automatic Wonder

Pieces of text often come disguised as debris–candy wrappers, discarded receipts, fading patches of graffiti–but they’re still saying something. It’s just a question of what. For photographer Lewis Koch (who speaks this Saturday afternoon at Rainbow Bookstore Co-Op), these letters, numbers, and symbols spell out poems. They might not form tidy stanzas or couplets, and they might not rhyme, but they share the spirit of Surrealism that has fascinated poets such as John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg and free-jazz musicians like Sun Ra. They speak to us in a language that’s alien to our sense of reason, but familiar to our emotions and even our memories.

YES

Koch’s new book, Touchless Automatic Wonder, a collection of what he calls “found text photographs from the real world,” creates a poem that’s both miniature and epic. Though these images contain just a handful of words, they say a lot and ask even more. They also represent nearly three decades of observation and creation by the Madison-based artist, whose work has made its way into the permanent collections of the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and appeared in exhibitions in New York, London, Seoul, and beyond.

The book begins with a black-and-white print of a window, viewed from the inside of a building. Plastered on the glass is the word “yes,” which appears to float above the street outside. A few pages later is a long-division problem, spelled out in sticks–or pretzel sticks, perhaps–on a table peppered with napkins and coffee cups. Other words and letters pop up like guests at a surprise party: The word “dream” (emblazoned on some large, decaying object) hides behind a chalkboard of children’s drawings; a broken record surfaces in a field, among the unruly leaves and flowers. A painting of a lady revealing her garter points at the word “almost,” while a television with a man waving his finger reminds everyone to “wear suspenders,” as if neglecting to do so is a very serious transgression. Meanwhile, a deserted car lot sprouts four signs from its cracked concrete, all of which say “OK,” even though business clearly isn’t booming.

What’s most fascinating about these photos, however, is that they’ll likely mean something different to each person who sees them, dredging up a unique combination of memories and associations. In the introduction to the book, Koch says it’s the images’ fragmented nature that creates a “sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental account of one’s life.” But rather than reading them like a novel, they can be read like a diary, a riddle, or even a dream.