John Cage

The large loft on West 18th Street that John Cage shared with Merce Cunningham was a simple, sunny, skylit living-working studio. It was divided into a sleeping area, a working space with a desk right off the kitchen (which was the center of John’s universe since he and Merce were strict macrobiotics), and an area for playing chess that was literally overgrown with plants. There was a long row of south-facing windows and a large central skylight. There was a cat in the loft that he and Merce named “Rimpoche Taxicab.” They amused themselves by putting a cardboard box over Rimpoche the cat and watching it move through the loft inside the box, becoming “Rimpoche Taxicab.” Everything was fun with John Cage – he was extremely serious without ever taking himself seriously. In his twilight years John was preserving his early work and making new work, drawings of smoke and river rocks and new compositions; receiving friends and pilgrims; and always cooking.This was probably John’s last portrait. The chess board is one that he played at with Duchamp; the tool box photographed with all the little screws and nuts and bolts was from his first prepared piano piece in 1937. It was a magical day for me: the guru and his disciple. I said to him: “You know John, reading your book Silence at eighteen had a profound effect on me. And your encouragement over the years has meant more to me than you can imagine.” Without hesitation, he answered in his even high-pitched voice, “Yes, many people tell me that.” And we both laughed. John laughed a lot. He was goodness and generosity personified.

He wasted nothing. Everything was grist for his extraordinary mill and he was appreciative of everything. He took nothing for granted. He talked about how fortunate he and Merce were to have the space, how much he appreciated any kind of recognition. He was gentle, serious, hard-working, brilliant. He was also endlessly quotable: “Avant-garde is a consumptional necessity as we’ve used up all the rest.” and “Anything can be art, all you have to do is change your mind.”

Photographs and words by David Seidner. Artists at Work: Inside the Studios of Today’s Most Celebrated Artists. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1999. pp. 42-49.

Several photos featuring plants in John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s loft and a Polaroid portrait to commemorate John Cage, who was born 106 years ago today.

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