Courtesy of the Mountain Lake Workshop, (c) the John Cage Trust at Bard College

Courtesy of the Mountain Lake Workshop, (c) the John Cage Trust at Bard College

John Cage’s Watercolors at The Mountain Lake Workshop

Monday, April 22, 2013

Known primarily as a groundbreaking avant-garde composer, John Cage (1912–1992) was also a prolific visual artist who created an extensive body of watercolors, prints, and drawings. In his visual work, as in his music, Cage embraced an unconventional practice of using “chance operations” as the foundation of his creative process. This method was not haphazard or random, but established a set of rules or parameters that allowed indeterminacy to act as the catalyst for creation. Cage was interested in limiting or eliminating the artist’s personal choice in the production of a work of art, a notion that is antithetical to Western ideas of artistic creation.

I recently co-curated (with Marshall N. Price) an exhibition of John Cage’s visual artwork for the National Academy Museum in NYC and the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, and authored a related book: The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors John Cage’s complete watercolors (National Academy Museum, NYC, and Univ. of Virginia Press, 2011.)

The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Visual Art is an exhibition comprised largely of a selection of watercolors that Cage created while at the Mountain Lake Workshop, an ongoing series of community-based art collaborations, in the Appalachian region of Southwestern Virginia between 1983 and 1990. These works, along with Cage’s prints and drawings, are more than simple visual manifestations of his interest in indeterminacy and chance. They represent the artist’s inclination for experimentation that pervaded all aspects of his artistic life and helped established him as one of the most creative and influential thinkers of the twentieth century. The exhibition is currently on view through May 18, 2013, at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia.

John Cage would paint if I came up with different and new elements for him to work with – he did not like repeating himself. New and unconventional elements of his painting involved his use of glide feathers instead of conventional brushes in most of his 1988 works, specially built large brushes for his 1989 and 1990 workshops, as well as developing techniques to apply “smoke” imagery to his papers. Cage is often cited as a pioneer of conceptual art, but to me he did not seem to be particularly involved with concepts; he made art of things not concepts, and in the course of working with him it was my good fortune to became one of the “things.”

I could go on at great length about how my own artistic development as a watercolor painter was influenced and enhanced by my personal experience in working with John Cage. In order to enable him to paint, I provided him with a “studio practice” in which he could apply the strategic processes of his music and literary composition to painting, as well as new elements that might enter into his paintings. My preparations went beyond organizing and numbering the brushes, papers, watercolors and subjective elements (stones) that were the “choices” that would comprise Cage’s “chance” determined watercolor compositions.

In preparation for his 1988 visit, I experimented by adapting Cage’s process-oriented way of working to my own painting insofar as my study of his work had informed me. To do this, I had to re-examine and objectify every aspect of my own working procedures in order to make them available to Cage’s use of “chance operations.” I deconstructed the watercolor-painting techniques that I applied in my own work (i.e) exterior and interior outline, body washes, surround washes, etc.) used “chance-operations” to determine how they would appear in my paintings. I applied this process to the generally abstract subjects that I liked to draw and paint (rocks and ocean, sea caves, redwood burn-outs, shadows on NYC streets) by drawing outline patterns of them on clear glass or plastic and then transferring them into gridded pattern books where they could be accessed by “chance” and their placement in a painting, specific scale, and degree of painting applications that they received could also be determined by asking questions (i.e. “chance”) rather than by my taste. I also developed a multi-paneled format for joining disparately painted elements together in a rectangular or geometrically shaped imagery that was based on my sense of John’s use of time sequences in his music compositions, which I called “polyptychs.” During the several years that I spent developing the polyptychs with John in mind, my use of drawing and drawn elements, underwent a transformation that had a profound impact on my work, that I do not think I would have gotten to if not for the wonderful challenge of working with him. He was very interested in using the panel format in his upcoming workshop in 1992; unfortunately, he did not live to return. However, I have continued using many of the elements that I developed for him in my ongoing work; my experience working with him was truly a revelation.

Although abstract, my paintings are derived from drawings and life-studies from nature, and attempt to represent the processes of nature at work rather than pictorial description. My recent exhibitions have represented strategic material aspects of my studio practice in serendipitous formal arrangements. I will often paint on - or through - a variety of different materials and surfaces in the course of one project – and then exhibit them together or independently of each other.

Descriptions of Cage’s painting experiences, documentary photos, and images of examples of his watercolors are online at:

The Mountain Lake Workshop home page is currently undergoing an overhaul and will be re-posted in about two weeks. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or requests for additional information.

Ray Kass, Founder and Director, The Mountain Lake Workshop


Ray Kass is an internationally recognized artist whose work is represented by Garvey/Simon ART ACCESS in NYC (247 West 27th St.) and the Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia (1514 West Main St.)

His paintings have been widely exhibited and have been represented in solo exhibitions in New York City by the Allan Stone Gallery, A.V.C. Contemporary Arts Gallery, ZONE: Chelsea Center for the Arts, Baumgartner Gallery, and ir77 Contemporary Art.

He has received numerous grants and awards, including individual artist’s grants from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. His paintings reside in many public and private collections.

Ray Kass is Professor Emeritus of Art at Virginia Tech, and founder and director of the Mountain Lake Workshop, a collaborative, community-based art project drawing on the customs, and environmental and technological resources of the New River Valley and the Appalachian region. In 2012 he had two extended residencies at MQ in Vienna, Austria.

His publications (in English, French, German, Polish and Japanese) include numerous reviews, articles and catalogues, including:

The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors (National Academy and Univ. of Virginia Press, 2011), John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures (with Stephen Addiss), Braziller, NY (2009), Sounds of The Inner Eye: John Cage, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle and London (2002) – (also in German:Klange des Inneren Auges, Kunsthalle Bremen/Beyeler Foundation, Munich, 2002), Morris Graves: Vision of the Inner-Eye , Braziller, NY(1983) and John Cage: New River Watercolors , Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond,VA, and a diary-excerpt of Cage’s painting workshops in (Bernstein and Hatch), Writings Through John Cage's Music, Poetry, and Art, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001,(essay)Cage At the Mountain Lake Workshop, pgs. 244 - 259.

More information about Ray Kass and the Mountain Lake Workshop is available at his website: and at

RAY KASS: Artist’s Statement:

"Over a period of more than thirty five years, my out-of-doors water and mixed media paintings of the natural world have developed in favorite locations in North Carolina, California, Maine, New Hampshire, and Virginia. Although abstract, my recent paintings are carefully derived from drawings and life-studies from nature, and attempt to represent the processes of nature at work rather than pictorial description.

I feel that my painting directly responds to the environments that I work in, however, I no longer paint the landscape with the objective of achieving representational or "realistic" images. However, in my earlier work, I often made representational depictions of specific places after I had made many non-pictorial abstract works in the same locale. My use of realism is not an afterthought – but information-gathering that refreshed and expanded my sense of color and form. My particular development reverses the usual assumption that "abstraction" develops from the confirmed experience of the study of "realism."

Drawings provide the source materials for my recent paintings; I develop them into fragmented patterns of cut-out shapes that I overlay in the process of applying layers of oil emulsion and dry pigment over similarly composite patterns of water media on paper.

My appreciation of the natural world is for the great variety of texture, light, form and eventful psychology that finds its maximum expression in its manifestations. I feel that the Pieces and Garden Pieces paintings that I have made since 2009-2010 have figurative as well as floral connotation; I think that this is a reflection of the experience of my friendship with Merce Cunningham, his choreography, and the amazing performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company."