Missing John Cage masterpiece revealed at gallery opening

John Cage: Steps and Other Works from the Mountain Lake Workshop opening night at Rauschenberg Gallery. By Austin Tanner

By Lianna Hubbard

For almost 30 years, New River Rocks & Washes, a painting by John Cage, was hidden in a mislabeled crate in a New York art collector’s personal collection storage.  

The world saw it for the first time on April 11, when the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery in L Building opened its John Cage: Steps & Other Works from the Mountain Lake Workshop exhibition.

“It’s like his missing masterpiece,” said Jade Dellinger, director of the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery. “It hasn’t been seen by anyone in 30 years.”

John Cage is best known for his musical composition and as a pioneer of Avant Garde music.

Cage used indeterminism to create much of his music, using unconventional instruments, like conch shells filled with water, and random processes to create unpredictable music.

“His point was really to use instruments that couldn’t be mastered,” said Ray Kass, a close friend of John Cage.

Cage created the 28-foot-long painting in 1988, two years before his death, at the Mountain Lake Workshop, a collaborative workshop in Virginia founded by Kass.

New River Rocks and Washes, a John Cage painting
By Lianna Hubbard

Cage also dabbled in creating etchings of rocks. He was close friends with Rauschenberg and other prominent visual artists at the time.

“Cage was Rauschenberg’s philosophical and spiritual soulmate,” said Dellinger.

Cage began his career in visual art in 1978, he began working with Crown Point Press, a creating etchings of stones.

“He could do this all in his apartment in New York,” said Kass.

“I invited John Cage in 1983 to work [at Mountain Lake Workshop],” said Kass. There, Cage explored watercolor and preparing paper with smoke. He made visits for nine years until his death, creating art out of the materials around the workshop.

“He made art out of things and not out of concepts,” said Kass.

“A lot of Cage’s process was always about trying to recreate nature,” said Dellinger. “That’s how he came across the chance operations.”

Cage began by painting with unpredictable instruments like feathers, staying away from traditional brushes.

“He wanted to choose things by chance, not by taste,” said Kass.

New River Rocks & Washes was made near the end of his life, to pair with another painting, New River Rocks & Smoke, made two years later.

The two painting are outlines of rocks in a row, mimicking rocks on a riverbed.

“He often thought of the solitary individual as being represented by the image of the solitary rock,” said Kass.

New River Rocks & Washes went missing in 1992 after being bought by Adelaide Menil in 1990. It was mislabeled and shuffled from storage to storage.

The crate was uncovered from Menil’s storage in March, a month before the gallery opened.

“While we were planning [the exhibition], I got a call from Ray [Kass],” said Dellinger. “A couple weeks before the show, they opened the box after 30 years.”

New River Rocks & Washes was packaged with newspapers from 1992. The painting was shipped from New York to FSW.

The first glimpses of the painting were shown in the Steps Workshop in the Rauschenberg Gallery on April 10. Steps is another visual art piece from Cage from late in his life. Steps is not only visual art, but performance art. Participants dip their feet in black ink and drag a brush behind them while walking backwards. The brushes used were made at the Mountain Lake Workshop exclusively for Steps.

“This last performance is the last performance of Cage’s tools,” said Dellinger. Now, the brushes will be shipped to Virginia for permanent storage.

The workshop showed the creation of two Steps paintings, one by FSW theater and dance students Chance Cintron and Kiana-Raine Pinder, and another by Lawrence Voytek, studio director and chief fabricator for Rauschenberg.

“I made a lot of stuff with Bob and I listened to Bob, so I don’t play by rules,” said Voytek.

Voytek’s Steps hangs in the gallery now. Halfway through the gallery, Voytek’s piece will be replaced by Cintron and Pinder’s.

“The goal after our exhibition is that [both Cage paintings] reunite,” said Dellinger.

New River Rocks & Washes will stay in the gallery until the exhibition closes on July 29. Afterwards, it will reunite with New River Rocks & Smoke at the Menil Collection museum in New York.

“It took our still impressive exhibition to a new level,” said Dellinger. “I think we’ll have people coming from all over to see this.”

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