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Zen Ox-Herding Pictures

 by John Cage (1912-1992)


In 1988, Ray Kass, professor emeritus of art, Virginia Tech, invited seminal composer, philosopher, writer, and visual artist John Cage (American, 1912-1992) to paint at the Mountain Lake Workshop in Blacksburg. They began a series of experiments with watercolor pigments that resulted in 55 densely marked paper towels.
Two decades later, Cage's pupil and friend Stephen Addiss created three sets of images that echoed the narrative of the "Ox-herding Pictures," an illustrated parable to which Cage often referred in his discussions and writings.

John Cage (American, 1912-1992) and Mountain Lake Workshop, Zen Ox-Herding Pictures: Set One, 1988, watercolor on paper, 9 x 10 inches, Private colletion

John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures will be on view concurrently in the Lila and Joel Harnett Museum of Art and the Harnett Print Study Center, University of Richmond Museums, from October 2, 2009 to April 7, 2010. John Cage (American, 1912-1992) was a seminal composer, writer, and artist whose interest in East Asian and Indian philosophy led him to abandon intention, memory, and personal taste to focus instead on process and chance in music, performance, and visual art. This exhibition features fifty-five watercolors on small paper towels created by Cage in 1988 at the Mountain Lake Workshop, Blacksburg, Virginia.
The idea of the exhibition was conceived when John Cage was painting at the Mountain Lake Workshop at the invitation of Ray Kass, founder and director of the workshop. As Cage experimented with watercolor for the first time, he used paper towels as test sheets to acquaint himself with the new medium. Kass saw these paper towels as more than just test sheets; they had a beauty all their own, and he suggested to Cage that they should be used to make a new piece. Cage then told Kass that he should make a piece with them.
Two decades later, Dr. Stephen Addiss, Tucker-Boatwright Professor in the Humanities-Art and Professor of Art History, University of Richmond, joined Ray Kass in realizing the potential of these singular images. From Kass' collection of archived paper towels, Kass and Addiss came up with five sets of images that reflect the narrative of the Zen Ox-Herding pictures as well as five additional poem-paintings. The subject of Zen Ox-Herding is an old East Asian parable for the path to and beyond enlightenment and one in which John Cage often referred to in his discussions and writings. Accompanying each of the images is a poetic fragment of writing by Cage, specifically selected by Addiss to further tie the image to the ancient parable.
John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures was organized by the University of Richmond Museums, and curated by Stephen Addiss, Tucker-Boatwright Professor in the Humanities-Art and Professor of Art History, University of Richmond, and Ray Kass, Professor of Art, Emeritus, Virginia Tech. The exhibition and programs are made possible in part with the generous support of the University of Richmond's Cultural Affairs Committee. A catalogue published by George Braziller, Inc. Publishers, New York, in association with the University of Richmond Museums, is available.

Catalogue available
John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures
George Braziller, Inc., October 2009, Hardcover, 8 1/2 x 9 in, 128 pages, 60 full color illustrations, ISBN: 978-0-8076-1601-7, $34.95

From Publishers Weekly
Known best for his music and performances, John Cage also painted and wrote extensively. Zen Buddhism influenced his approach to his work-nature as a path to self, collaboration in performance and happenstance in composition. The art and poetry in this book represent a collaboration both accidental and deliberate between Cage, Addiss and Kass. Cage was working on another series of paintings when he marked a series of brown paper towels. Artist Kass and artist/composer Addiss ordered the towels into a sequence, then Addiss culled Cage's writings to create a cutup or recomposition of found words and phrases into a new work. Cage recognized the importance of the remix long before it became fashionable. The accidental circumstances of this work's assemblage doesn't diminish its charm or delicacy. The introductory material provides essential context, but the best approach may be to read and view the work, read the essays, then review the piece again. Addiss and Kass prove the continuing relevance of the tradition of ox-herding as a format for teaching and connecting the heart to the mind. 50 color and 12 b&w illus. (Oct.)
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Stephen Addiss serves as Tucker-Boatwright Professor in the Humanities: Art, University of Richmond.

Ray Kass is Emeritus Professor of Art in the School of Visual Art at Virginia Tech and founder and director of the Mountain Lake Workshop.