Now open and staying up through April 20 at Solway’s West End gallery, John Cage: A Centennial Celebration With Friends celebrates and honors the late American avant-garde composer/artist/theorist on the centennial of his birth. (Cage died in 1992.) It features 20 artists who were friends of or influenced by Cage. Plus, there will be some rare artwork and archival material by him.
Perhaps best known for his avant-garde piano compositions (including one featuring silence), Cage may seem an unusual influence for an art dealer, even one as contemporary as Solway. But addressing the group at Pyramid Hill, Solway explained his rationale.
“John’s breakthrough idea was that any sound could be used for making music,” he said. “It could be a foghorn, a radio playing, a car over a bridge. Even silence could be a sound.”
Cage’s partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, then adapted that freethinking outlook for dance. And their friend Robert Rauschenberg, creator of the great “combines” — paintings and sculpture — of the ’50s and early ’60s, took it into the realm of American visual art. (The European Dadaist Marcel Duchamp had experimented with everyday objects much earlier.)
“(Rauschenberg) said, ‘If they can do that with music, then I can say any material is an OK material for making a painting,’ ” Solway related.
Solway’s regard for Cage also has a more personal dimension.
They became friends in 1968 when Cage was an artist-in-residence at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. Solway, with support from arts patron Alice Weston, got Cage to try his hand — and mind — at a first visual-art project. With Duchamp having recently died, Cage created (and Solway produced) the landmark “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel.” Each completed piece in the limited-edition series contained eight editioned sculptural objects, known as Plexigrams, and two lithographs.
Cage relied on chance to decide what to include and how to create his work. It’s come to be considered an important work of contemporary art and is in the collections of major museums.
“Marcel” was also Solway’s first venture working directly with artists on projects — among others in the show he subsequently collaborated with are Richard Hamilton, Nam June Paik, Buckminster Fuller and Yoko Ono.
“This is a cast of characters almost all of whom I met because of John,” Solway said at Pyramid Hill.
For instance, Solway remembered — in a subsequent telephone conversation — how he met Jasper Johns, whose work is in the show, through Cage. They were in New York, where Cage — who also was an expert on mushrooms — lived. Cage grabbed some of his ’shrooms and took Solway with him to Johns’ studio in the Bowery.
“I was blown away,” he said. “We’re going to dinner at Jasper Johns’ and John Cage is cooking mushrooms!”
The Centennial Celebration is Solway’s own contribution to the worldwide honoring of Cage this year. In addition to many music events, the Academy of Arts Berlin and Salzburg Museum of Modern Art are presenting John Cage As Visual Artist this year, and the Vienna modern art museum is presenting a tribute just to “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel” with a show called Wanting to Say Something About John.
For Solway’s own show, he has borrowed some work from museums (Cincinnati Art Museum lent two works by Duchamp) as well as from artists or their estates. (Work from his own inventory, or from some artists, will be on sale.) Pieces by Cage include prints, drawings, multiples and scores. Additionally, his son Michael has organized five free (reservation-requested) Thursday evening Cage-related performances, starting Jan. 19, including an upcoming one by noted Cage interpreters Percussion Group Cincinnati.
The show features “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel,” plus more than 100 pages of handwritten working notes that Cage made while producing it. Solway also has purchased a Cage-related archive from a German collector, containing posters, articles, exhibition announcements and more.
For Solway, there’s no better way to celebrate his own 50th year in business. As he pronounced at Pyramid Hill, “I think John Cage is the most important artist of the 20th Century.”
Carl Solway Gallery is located at 424 Findlay St. in the West End. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.