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Three-Ring Museum

Until his death in 1992 at age 79, John Cage carried out a revolution that aimed to break the hold of the cultural elite. More than a composer, Cage was a philosopher, poet, inventor, teacher and prophet who formulated a new attitude toward content, composition and the function of art. When he advised artists to leave their ivory towers and look at the world around them again, he attacked the century-long alienation of the artist from society. When he refused to impose a fixed meaning to content, leaving interpretation open to the experiences of the viewer, he destroyed the most basic symbolic and metaphoric assumptions of Western art since the Renaissance. In place of a self-expressive art created by the tastes and desires of the individual artist, Cage proposed an art born of chance and indeterminacy. Instead of the accumulation of masterpieces, he urged a perpetual process of artistic discovery in daily life. For Cage, art and life were no longer separate entities -- as they had been in the past -- but nearly identical; his entire career can in fact be seen as a long campaign to break down the barriers between the two.

A Buddhist and devout student of the 3,000-year-old Chinese Book of Changes, also called the I Ching (which uses coin-tossing as a means to arrive at chance formations), Cage rejected the notion that artwork is a supreme act of invention powered by the ego-driven will. For Cage, life and art were exercises in attentiveness, discipline and surrender. In this regard, Cage's use of the I Ching offered a method based in action for arriving at the visual representation of change. Considering the nature of object and process, Cage wrote: "You say: the real, the world as it is. But it becomes! It moves, it changes!... You are getting closer to this reality when you say ... it "presents itself": that means that it is not there, existing as an object. The world, the real is not an object. It is a process." Thus, if the process of making art changes the artist, and if the artwork changes the audience, then this cycle brings about a gradual perceptual revolution. Like nature, one "never reaches a point of shapedness or finishedness," according to Cage. "The situation is in constant unpredictable change."

Just as Cage delighted in the notion of music's being chanced upon without expectations, so he took to dismantling the system of hierarchical judgment central to most museum thinking. At the Menil Collection, Rolywholyover A Circus seemingly takes the form of an exhibition, but is in fact a semi-autobiographical performance piece. In one gallery, for example, works are perpetually reinstalled according to chance operations, thereby creating a dynamic composition without an explicit focus or center. The word "rolywholyover," taken from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, implies revolution and movement.

Conceived by Cage and curator Julie Lazar of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Rolywholyover turns the museum into a three-ring circus, but on Cage's own terms. "This exhibition points to a lot of problems in museums," Lazar commented during an interview at the Menil. "John was really aware of that and put it in very simple terms: museums are stuck in the mud. And part of the mud is the linearity -- that is, everything tastefully hung at eye level. When John did his performance 4' 33", he wasn't just jerking around. He was basically saying, let's relieve ourselves of the bias and prejudice." Similarly, Rolywholyover calls into question the curator's role in defining artistic standards, and the museum's function in preserving them. A chance-generating computer program, designed by composer Andrew Culver in accordance with Cage's compositional instructions, is used in the three exhibition spaces to plot unpredictable and eccentric placements for the art on view. The result is a show of integrity and grace, one that reinforces our faith in the possibilities of the body and the spirit.

The exhibition is a portrait of Cage's passions: mushrooms; chess; the music of Eric Satie; river rocks; plants; Zen; Merce Cunningham; the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Thoreau. Moreover, two of the galleries are devoted to Cage and his milieu: his writings, scores and etchings, as well as the works of authors and artists whom Cage especially prized. In the hallway, works lent by museums within a 60-mile radius of the Menil are shown, in selections also made by chance operations, so that we examine unrelated objects from a fresh, non-curatorial perspective. What curator would even dream of placing a magnificent pair of Lucchese cowboy boots (custom-made for Princess Anne, no less) close to a Kigango commemorative sculpture from Kenya and a portion of the heat shield from the Apollo 12 spacecraft?

The largest gallery holds approximately 150 works by 50 artists important to Cage. Ranging from the obscure to the world-famous, they include Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Dove Bradshaw and Fanny Schoening. The chance process specifies not only where but how long each work is displayed (only about half of this section is up at any particular time), effecting a kind of perpetual-motion installation as preparators move about, consult the computer printouts and relocate Cy Twombly or Louise Nevelson accordingly. That means that on any given day, at any given hour, Merce Cunningham's delicately rendered "playing cards" and a luminous orange Indian sari may happen to find themselves installed alongside one another at ceiling height. On another wall, a mystical painting of a bird in flight by Morris Graves hangs partially over an exit sign, while a small Jasper Johns drawing is placed slightly above eye level at a corner's edge. But a few minutes later the configuration changes, and it will continue to change throughout the show as the staff follows the daily instructions. "The basic idea," noted Cage, "is that the exhibition would change so much that if you came back a second time you wouldn't recognize it."

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."

Asked what impact Rolywholyover will have on future exhibitions, Lazar is confident that it may open doors for curators, giving them permission to take risks not only in terms of the current trend of mixing collections, but also to break ground in mixing ideas together.

More importantly, Lazar welcomes the fact that the show infuriated some people in L.A., raising the hackles of cultural purists in its blend of high and low objects. "Some of our board members at MOCA who had given a portion of their collections thought it was a disrespectful way to exhibit the work, since it's handled and moved frequently. I respect those concerns. But in truth what they are saying was, "You're putting my precious work on an equal level with a lot of things that aren't." It might seem irresponsible, but, in fact, it might be more responsible because it frees the work of his idea, my idea, her idea. It frees the work to be itself. I like the notion that attention is drawn away from me. I like the fact that there's such a multifarious realm of activity going on, that a performance is happening all the time. A theatrical piece is happening constantly in a static art situation."

To her credit, Lazar has produced an enriching, unforgettable exhibition that may serve to galvanize its hosting institutions and communities. After the Menil, the exhibition goes on to the Guggenheim in New York, Japan's Mito Contemporary Art Center and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The respective staff members and various personnel must commit to the daily process of chance operations and programmed activities. Rarely these days do we witness a show of such intelligence and efficiency. Much of the exhibition, for example, is recyclable. All of the walls, files and bookcases constructed for the show will be reusable at the end of the tour. The so-called "Citycircus," which runs concurrently with the Menil showing, ensures that more than a dozen arts and educational organizations throughout Houston will sponsor Cage-related events. The catalog, really a mirror-surfaced metal box la Duchamp that contains reams of loose items -- images on parchment paper, letters, essays, even Cage's cooking recipes -- is a fitting memorial to a free spirit and inventive mastermind seminal in early post-Modernist culture.

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