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The Sight of Silence

John Cage's Complete Watercolors
Ray Kass

BUY Cloth · 144 pp. · 7.75 × 11 · ISBN 9780615401805 · $34.95 · Aug 2011

Best known as an experimental composer and performer, John Cage (1912–1992) was also an active visual artist who created an extensive body of prints, drawings, and watercolors over the last twenty years of his life. The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors provides the first opportunity to see all 125 signed watercolors that Cage created during four week-long sessions at the Mountain Lake Workshop, Virginia, between 1983 and 1990.

In all of his work, regardless of medium, Cage consistently dismissed conventional aesthetics by limiting or eliminating the artist’s choice in the creative process. In composing his watercolors, he relied on his signature method of "chance operations," guided by a system of random numbers derived from the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, or I Ching.

This book’s critical essay and accompanying workshop diaries relate the methods at play in Cage’s visual art to those of his musical compositions and theater pieces. The accompanying DVD offers a "live" view of John Cage at work, featuring a public reading with audience discussion, as well as an interview with him about his watercolor paintings. As visual evidence of the methods of chance that Cage employed for decades, the watercolors in this book and the video footage on the accompanying DVD offer an entrée into Cage’s music and writings and present a greatly enhanced understanding of one of the twentieth century’s most mystifying artists and most creative thinkers.


Composer and performer John Cage (1912-1992), the epitome of the avant-garde artist, expanded from music composition into the world of visual art, and employed the philosophy of non-intention.... Cage's visual works began with etchings called Where R=Ryoanji, a series of outlines of stones, inspired by the Ryoanji Zen garden in Kyoto. He continued to work on this project at Virginia's Mountain Lake Workshop in Virginia, founded and directed by Kass. Cage produced his series, River Rocks and Smoke, using papers burned and pressed, then painted with various washes, and finally outlined using local stones from the New River. His depth of purpose is evident here, as is Cage's incredible talent.

Publishers Weekly

These remarkable paintings bring together fire (for smoked paper), water (the paint and washes), earth (both pigments and river stones for tracing), and wind (the all-important breath) in exciting ways that suggest the great silence that is possible when we allow ourselves to get out of the way.

The Bloomsbury Review

About the Author: 

Ray Kass is a painter and writer who lives in the rural Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. He is Emeritus Professor of Studio Art at Virginia Tech and Founder and Director of the Mountain Lake Workshop, an ongoing series of community-based collaborative art projects. His paintings have been widely exhibited, and he is author of Morris Graves: Vision of the Inner-Eye and coauthor, with Stephen Addiss, of John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures.

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