Three-Ring Museum

Lazar points out that by having works moved in time and space, Cage hoped audiences would also notice the same quality about the change of natural light, the space between works, the passage of art handlers, even the traces of their own footsteps. Without a thematic focus, the "circus" provides viewers' minds the freedom to see what is normally taken for granted in the gallery.

Is the exhibition worth all the trouble? Yes. Without a curatorial imprint, the chance encounters of pictures and objects become unexpected pleasures that summon forth Cage's palpable spirit.

Opening night at the Menil was a joyful participatory event evocative of the performances by Philip Glass, Jon Gibson and Dickie Landry held frequently in Houston during the early '70s, not to mention the Contemporary Arts Museum's raucous shows under former director James Harithas. As costumed members of Skate Trash bladed through beams of light from photoelectric cells spanning the corner of Mandell and Sul Ross, a computer sampled from both random sounds and Cage's work. Inside the Menil, hundreds of viewers became part of the zeitgeist, moving randomly as if subject to the same chance operations processed by the Menil staff.

Most interesting is the Museumcircle installation, which provides a unique composite portrait of the Houston area through side-by-side juxtaposition of such disparate works as a mid-century fire extinguisher (a glass grenade enclosed in wire cage) from the Houston Fire Museum and a 1940 stainless-steel letter-board from the railway post office car "Silver Messenger." The centerpiece amid all the curiosities is a tableau seemingly taken right out of Cage's living room: Shaker-inspired cabinets, with drawers containing Cage scores and books from his library, are interspersed with long tables and chairs where viewers can sit to read books or play chess. Strewn among the furniture and objects are small gardens of tropical plants and river rocks. The array keys into the Menil's penchant for the surreal, but the installation also brings back an innocence that the art world somehow lost with '80s gonzo careerism and excessively calculated museum exhibitions.

In a separate room nearby, a daily program of film and audio recordings is likewise presented according to random selection. Appropriately, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup was the pick for opening night.

However, the vaudevillian tone shifts considerably in the first gallery, which houses the etchings, musical scores, watercolors and edible drawings by Cage. A mycologist who maintained a strict macrobiotic diet for the last 15 years of his life, Cage had an abiding interest in the relationship between physical and spiritual health and the laws of nature. His visual art incorporated organic materials and processes: smoked paper for a series of watercolors, feathers for the application of paint and ink, rocks traced onto sheets of paper.

Most of the opening-night revelers convened in the large gallery, which is filled with works by Cage's supporters, admirers and collaborators. Unrelated works are hung cheek-by-jowl in clusters and individually in off-center or oblique configurations extending from floor to ceiling. Viewers, looking like they were engaged in a treasure hunt, got down on their knees to investigate an Edward Weston Clouds photograph or craned their necks to make out a Mondrian canvas hung several feet above eye level. Meanwhile, the staff deftly navigated an orange lift (which clanged like a trolley) through the enthusiastic throng, maintaining a professional demeanor throughout their measuring, hammering and switching of works, without so much as bumping elbows. Like some Pavlovian experiment, viewers excitedly turned their attention toward the lift at the first sounds of the motor. What acrobatic feat would be required of preparators to install the next work? What new and surprising combinations would be forthcoming?

Most of the works are abstract and monochromatic, but the magic they exude stems from the non-hierarchical luck of the draw. There is something very leveling about works by venerated masters (Ad Reinhardt, Yves Klein, Alexej Jawlensky, Barnett Newman, Arshile Gorky) brought together with less recognized artists (Jackie Matisse, Alison Knowles, William Anastasi, Irwin Kremen, Lois Long). Significantly, the more time one spends in the gallery hunting out the gems, the less important the individual works become. Rather, what emerges is an orchestration of images, a chorus of sounds, all of which merge as a masterful portrait of Cage.

But for all of Cage's altruistic beliefs in the integrity of life, his practice of chance and the Duchampian idea of welcoming whatever happens next have confused some people into thinking that anything goes. "Cage had a huge ego," comments Lazar. "He never said that he didn't make choices. As a composer, he has structures and within those structures he has a whole lot of room to move creatively. He was very attentive to details. While he was completely open to circumstantial things aligning themselves, he definitely made choices, which everyone finds a contradiction. He chose to use Thoreau's journal as his source. He chose to use Finnegan's Wake. He chose Buckminster Fuller as a teacher. Cage's work embraces the contradictions. Or perhaps they may not be contradictions at all, and that's the harmony. It does take night to have day, dark to have light. Cage was always challenging himself to try to find new issues and ways to exemplify them through his work. That took a lot of courage, because he knew he would be questioned as a charlatan."

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