Robert Motherwell’s Unlikely Homage to John Cage
Daniel Haxall, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

In 1949, John Cage was invited to speak at the Artists Club in New York City, an interdisciplinary arts school led by Robert Motherwell that would become a driving force behind Abstract Expressionism.[i] The composer responded with his infamous “Lecture on Nothing.” Discussing precisely what the title suggested, nothing, he asserted, “What we re-quire / is silence.”[ii] Such silence occurred throughout the speech in the form of lengthy pauses, as Cage organized his talk around repetition and read to a rhythm of four measures per line and twelve units per section. He replied to the audience’s questions with “one of six previously prepared answers regardless of the question asked,” and throughout the program reiterated, “I have nothing to say / and I am saying it… / As the talk goes on / we are getting / nowhere.”[iii] Exasperated by the cadence and lack of content in Cage’s presentation, artist Jeanne Reynal interrupted the performance, storming out of the room while shouting, “John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.”[iv]

For many scholars, Cage’s performative silence “launched a major assault” on Abstract Expressionism, destabilizing the grand ambition of the New York School by replacing the artist’s ego with nothing.[v] Considering this notorious rejection of Abstract Expressionist values, it might be surprising that in 1946, Robert Motherwell honored the composer with his collage, Blue with China Ink: Homage to John Cage.[vi] After all, Motherwell’s epic canvases epitomized the subjectivity that Cage would come to undermine, that of the male artistic genius.[vii] In his celebrated Elegies to the Spanish Republic, for example, Motherwell symbolically evoked the prized cojones of Spanish bullfights by painting abstracted phallic forms on a monumental scale. These heroic, artistic gestures were seemingly negated by Cage’s insistence on silence and nothingness. Why, then, would Motherwell create a work of art honoring his adversary, the man whose “Lecture on Nothing” denied his artistic values?

Previous scholarship has cast Motherwell and Cage as rivals because of the aesthetic and philosophical differences they developed later in the 1950s, yet during their formative years the two were close, personally and professionally. Both visited the Cedar Bar in New York, taught at Black Mountain College, and participated in the “Subjects of the Artist” school.[viii] Motherwell selected Cage to be music editor for the journal Possibilities, and their collaboration fostered a dynamic exchange of ideas. Motherwell explained that he spent considerable time with Cage during the 1940s because Cage lived next door to his girlfriend in Cooper Village.[ix] With similar backgrounds, both men hailed from California, the two often shared tea while discussing philosophy, art, and music. Motherwell was fascinated by music and dedicated many artworks to famous composers throughout his career. Perhaps drawn to Cage because of this interest, he bestowed a great compliment upon him with his collage, as Motherwell previously devoted artworks only to those he deemed historically important, including Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, Irish author James Joyce, and French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé. Motherwell considered an homage, “a thanks, an identification,” but by focusing on Cage’s later divergence from Abstract Expressionism, historians have yet to fully consider why Motherwell identified with Cage in the first place.[x]

Asian Sources

For his tribute to Cage, Motherwell employed Japanese rice paper and China ink, appropriate materials considering that both were interested in Zen Buddhism. Inspired by Zenga, the Zen tradition of calligraphy, Motherwell often painted with thin washes of ink applied in an automatic manner. Some of these works conflated art with the samurai tradition, such as his Samurai series of 1974, while others referred directly to master calligraphers, including Shem the Pen Man of 1972.[xi] Motherwell owned many books on Asian art and became interested in the subject during the mid-1940s in San Francisco.[xii] Drawn to Zen’s self-revelatory and meditative capacity, he located a spiritual basis for his art through Buddhism, writing in 1950 that the “rejection of the lies and falsifications of modern Christian, Feudal aristocratic, and bourgeois society, of the property-loving world that the Renaissance tradition expressed, has led us, like many other modern artists, to affinities with the art of other cultures: Egypt and the ancient Mediterranean, Africa, the South Seas, and above all the Orient.”[xiii]

Cage shared Motherwell’s affinity for Eastern philosophy, first encountering Buddhism while in Seattle in 1936. Friends with Zen devotees Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, he read widely on the subject and studied with Daisetz T. Suzuki, a Japanese expatriate and Buddhist scholar, at Columbia University in New York in 1950.[xiv] These sources informed a number of his early writings, notably his 1946 essay “The East in the West,” a survey of “Oriental” music and its “non-thematic, non-harmonic, non-motival” elements.[xv] Cage later cited Buddhist and Taoist texts in his work, including Huang Po’s Doctrine of Universal Mind, the writings of Kwang-tse, and the I Ching. In fact, the idea of “accomplishing nothing” in his “Lecture on Nothing” seems to have been informed by the Doctrine of Universal Mind, which he read while at Black Mountain College in 1952. He came to believe that the self-naughted state advocated by Zen could be achieved through music.[xvi] To attain this transcendent experience, Cage freed sounds from their conventional positions, granting their existence on the basis of other Buddhist principles, “unimpededness and interpenetration.”[xvii] Accordingly, musical elements were considered relational, constituent parts maintained their value and integrity, yet their character and existence was determined reciprocally by their relationship to time and space.

In light of their joint admiration for Zen, the circular inkblots of Blue with China Ink could represent the Ensō, or spiritual circle, of Sumi-e ink paintings. Many Zen masters created open circular forms to denote emptiness since nothing exists at their center, yet rings paradoxically suggest completion through containment.[xviii] Like Cage, Motherwell embraced the rhetoric of Zen, often explaining that his work “represents nothing” and claiming, “the void is beautiful in itself.”[xix] Although the two would eventually diverge in how they articulated absence in their work—Motherwell hoped to animate the void through artistic intervention whereas Cage introduced listeners to the sonic material of nothingness—they negotiated the ramifications of vacancy for the creative act. In fact, Blue with China Ink anticipates Cage’s use of circular forms in his own Zen-inspired watercolors, appropriately alluding to their shared affinity for Asian art and culture.

The juxtaposition of black ink on the white rectangle along the top of the collage further signals the black-and-white palette of Zen calligraphy.[xx] Likewise, the automatic brushwork of Blue with China Ink might be understood as Motherwell’s attempt to mimic the spirit of the Zen calligrapher. He acknowledged “an affinity between certain Oriental—especially Japanese Zen—painting and some of my own work… the obvious reduction of color, the predominance of black and white, and the importance of gesture.”[xxi] Motherwell approached compositions like Blue with China Ink sparingly, employing a limited number of colors and forms for his collages. Zen drawings often possess a minimal amount of adornment, highlighting the interaction of ink and paper by eschewing superfluous elements. When comparing Blue with China Ink with other contemporary collages by Motherwell, such as The Joy of Living (1943) and View from a High Tower (1944), it becomes apparent that this work remains less densely constructed and more lyrical in the colors and gestures used. Although the prominent blues and ochers diverge from the severe black of Zenga, the limited range of hues and designs may have struck Motherwell as formally reductive in the spirit of Zen. Finally, the celebration of exalted figures via calligraphic portraits was common among Zenga artists. Hakuin Ekaku’s famous ink drawing of Daruma (Edo period, 18th century), the monk who introduced Zen to China, may have been on Motherwell’s mind when he produced several tributes to individuals he considered important, thereby providing a historical and Zen-inspired precedent for his homage to Cage.

Pioneers of Collage

That Motherwell commemorated Cage with a collage is hardly surprising since both men transformed the medium: Motherwell, by translating the technique to an Abstract Expressionist idiom; and Cage, for applying a collage-like strategy of appropriation to musical composition. Motherwell first experimented with the medium at Peggy Guggenheim’s request in 1943, when she invited Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and William Baziotes to create collages for an exhibition at her gallery, Art of This Century. Motherwell discovered that collage granted his artistic gestures increased flexibility because he could easily rearrange forms while working. Encouraged by this development, as well as the positive review he received in the New York Times, he focused on collage throughout the remainder of his life.[xxii] Motherwell applied the principles of automatism to reassembled pieces of canvas and paper, working in various scales and materials throughout his career. His paintings also bore evidence of a collage aesthetic through their large floating shapes and clearly articulated borders, indicating the degree to which the medium and its capacities resonated with the artist.[xxiii]

A number of scholars found collage to be one of the most useful terms for describing Cage’s work because he reconstituted noise, silence, and a range of musical genres into “collaged” compositions. For example, Calvin Tomkins considered Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952), “a collage of recorded sounds,” while David Revill characterized the score as “a collage of fragments re-corded on to tape.”[xxiv] Virgil Thomson likewise argued, “Cage’s own music over the last thirty years, though not entirely free of interrelated pitches, has nevertheless followed a straighter line in its evolution toward an art of collage based on non-musical sounds than that of any other artist of his time.”[xxv] Cage’s first percussion performance in New York City, held at the Museum of Modern Art in February of 1943, demonstrated this collage ethos through jarring, disjointed sounds and transformation of unusual objects into instruments, including wood blocks, rattles, tins cans, animal bones, and the prepared piano. Cage encouraged listeners to discover art in the commonplace, and in scores like Living Room Music (1940), his musicians played furniture and architectural elements.[xxvi] He further embraced the quotidian by assembling instruments from everyday materials, creating “prepared pianos” by attaching objects to the strings of a regular piano. Throughout the 1940s, he made collages of the piano, adding foreign matter to its fabric and achieving unconventional percussive effects in the process.[xxvii] Akin to the collage artist incorporating remnants of everyday life into their assemblages, Cage embraced the sonic material of daily experiences.

Like Cage, Motherwell appropriated everyday materials for assemblages, including cigarette wrappers, postcards, and newspaper clippings. He noted:

Instead of having to fuss with drawing things and re-working and changing them, you pick up objects that are in the room and simply place them in a picture—or take them out—whatever you like. Collage is both placing and ellipsis… For a painter as abstract as myself, the collages offer a way of incorporating bits of the everyday world into pictures.[xxviii]

Motherwell claimed that collage granted him the ability to include found objects as his media, but these articles also allowed him to be suggestive and elliptic in representation. These items declared their status as objects while calling attention to that which had been omitted in the process of collage, depiction. In fact, the medium has often been celebrated for incorporating indices of an actual material that render its representation superfluous.[xxix] However, unlike Cage who embraced the quotidian to blur the distinction between art and reality, Motherwell used these resources to create “odd relations” that would offer a diversity of reference and “more dimension” for his art.[xxx] The resulting collages often featured witty puns on Motherwell’s artistic processes, such as The Tearingness of Collaging (1957), or reflections on mass media spectacles and war, as exemplified by View from a High Tower (1944) or The Joy of Living (1943).[xxxi] Ultimately, the two would employ the attributes of the collage medium in slightly different ways. Cage embraced the appropriative strategies and quotidian objects of collage to champion the beauty of everyday life while leading towards a non-musical form of musical experience.Motherwell, on the other hand, interspersed expensive art materials among discarded matter, aligning his work with a tradition of papier collé that included Picasso and Juan Gris.

Despite this distinction, a similar principle underlying their use of collage was chance. Cage and Motherwell came of age during the heyday of Surrealism, and its emphasis on automatism affected generations of artists. Motherwell claimed that the fusion of free association, or “psychic automatism,” with Cubist structure “marks the real beginnings of ‘Abstract Expressionism.’”[xxxii] Driven by theories of chance, he conceded that his own manner of execution originated from trial-and-error rather than pre-ordained subjects. “I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images.”[xxxiii] In collages like Blue with China Ink, Motherwell initiated an unplanned event, in this case the bleeding of ink onto paper, as a point of departure for his subsequent compositional choices. Considering these pictures to contain “layers of consciousness,” Motherwell employed the “secondary or accidental” in order to transcend subjectivity into the unknown.[xxxiv]

These unplanned results would seem to parallel Cage’s music, with the composer similarly embracing novelty and invention by introducing random and unplanned noises into his scores. He first learned the importance of chance from his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he studied in the 1930s.[xxxv] In Music of Changes (1951), for example, Cage arranged thirty-two sounds and silences into a twelve-tone chart. Musicians were free to create tones, noises, or remain silent, and the musical score could be read horizontally or vertically and provided only dodecaphonic parameters rather than specific tempos or notes. In earlier compositions, such as Amores (1943), Cage included detailed instructions for preparing the piano, but despite these guidelines, the composer granted musicians leeway in achieving their desired sounds, noting that the application of materials to the piano could be determined according to experimentation.

However, Motherwell and Cage encountered a major contradiction in asserting the primacy of chance: it often required a pre-determined structure to organize or delineate such randomness. In a 1942 press release, Cage admitted that he played the role of composer rather than anarchist unleashing arbitrary noises upon the audience.

Cage describes his work as the organization of sound. The source of his music lies not in primitive percussion music, but in the contemporary city sounds which are so integral a part of life today. He believes that through organization these sounds lose their nerve-wracking character and become the materials for a highly dramatic and expressive art form.[xxxvi]

Speaking about himself in the third person, Cage stressed the value of organization, arguing that common noises would “lose their nerve-wracking character” if arranged properly. He had not yet fully embraced aleatory music and remained devoted to subjective expression and ordered methods at the time Motherwell completed Blue with China Ink. While his scores featured unconventional instrumentations, Cage predicated his work of the 1940s upon standard notational parameters. In Amores, woodblocks, rattles, and tom-toms were granted improvisatory freedom; however, each instrument was allotted ten sections of ten 4/4 bars within its respective movement. This collage of seemingly random sounds was actually organized within a rigid and programmed method. Likewise, Music of Changes used a chart for selecting sounds as each one of twelve preset tones had to be performed before repetition occurred. As David Bernstein noted, “the fact that Cage employed chance operations in his music did not mean that he completely gave up compositional control.”[xxxvii] Cage, himself, agreed:

If you use, as I do chance operations, you don’t have control except in the way of designing the question which you ask. That you can control. I mean you can decide to ask certain questions and not others. But if you use chance operations, you have no control over the answers, except the limits within which they operate.[xxxviii]

This paradox reappeared in virtually every innovation by Cage because the random percussive effects of his prepared piano were achieved through carefully measured preparations, including charts and grids.[xxxix]

Motherwell also encountered this dilemma, juxtaposing automatism with compositional control because, he believed, the “relative cannot exist without some point of support.”[xl] To many artists of the New York School, this support was Cubism. Critics such as Clement Greenberg noted how “the grafting of painterliness onto a cubist structure was one of the great accomplishments of the abstract expressionists.”[xli] Motherwell’s homage to Cage proved no different as the artist aligned it along the horizontal/vertical axis of Picasso’s Cubist prototypes. In Blue with China Ink, paper cutouts grid off zones of pigment while dark outlines further delineate the structure of Motherwell’s composition. The outlines serve to encapsulate colors, confining them by shape while simultaneously framing irregular inkblots and abstracted forms within rectilinear perimeters. As such, the biomorphic figure on the right contains the only elements to stray from the network of right angles comprising this collage. Favoring neither regularity nor automatism, neither the accidental nor the planned, Motherwell balanced the improvised and structured.[xlii] As such, the artist would seem at odds with Cage’s later efforts to grant indeterminacy complete freedom, but again, Cage had not yet reached that stage in his music and his compositions contemporary with Blue with China Ink remained integrated works.

From Dada to Abstract Expressionism

Although Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” challenged many of the precepts on which Abstract Expressionism was ostensibly based, Motherwell possessed a unique perspective to understand the historical precedence behind Cage’s actions. He acquired a comprehensive understanding of Dada and its attacks on artistic form and expression while editing the anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets, from 1945-51. Among his selections for the volume was Hugo Ball’s Flight from Time, an account of the “sound poems” Ball read at the Cabaret Voltaire. For these legendary performances, Ball dressed himself in painted cardboard and recited, “verse without words,” nonsensical verbiage that rejected conventions of language.[xliii] Motherwell potentially found Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” akin to Ball’s renunciation of poetry, and his anthology helped position Cage as heir to Dada iconoclasm. He told Max Kozloff that The Dada Painters and Poets “did…provide the next rationale” for the younger generation of artists that included Cage, Rauschenberg, and Johns, alluding to the ironic role Motherwell played in establishing the intellectual basis for Neo-Dada attacks on Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s.[xliv]

Cage’s work from the 1940s certainly evoked a Dada sensibility in its irreverent wit, challenge to notions of authorship, and celebration of the quotidian. But Virgil Thomson argued in a 1945 review that Cage’s “sophistication” and “expressivity” distinguished him from Dada, Futurism, and other Eastern sources. Thomson noted, “he writes music for expressive purposes… His work represents, in consequence, not only the most advanced methods now in use anywhere, but original expression of the very highest poetic quality.”[xlv] This expressionism was rooted in Cage’s personal troubles. For example, in 1944 he wrote “The Perilous Night,” a suite about “the loneliness and terror that come to one when loves becomes unhappy.”[xlvi] His marriage to Xenia was crumbling—they would separate and divorce in the following year—and the composer lamented that his emotional score failed to resonate with his audiences: “I had poured a great deal of emotion into the piece, and obviously I wasn’t communicating this at all.”[xlvii] Because of his mental state, Cage sought help from a therapist, but after his first session, he turned to music and Asian philosophy, “which took the place of psychoanalysis.”[xlviii]

While Cage would become renowned for his rejection of expressionism—particularly the heroicized masculine variety as represented by Abstract Expressionism—his music from the early- to mid-1940s was characterized by an intensely internalized position. In fact, Cage’s work and interests at this time placed him squarely within the New York School. In addition to his expressionist subjectivity, Cage shared an interest in Zen, James Joyce, Native American culture, and classical mythology with Motherwell and the Abstract Expressionists. He performed at the Museum of Modern Art, an appropriate venue for the composer because, he claimed, “the musical ideas I was developing seemed more related to modern painting than to anything else.”[xlix] Cage told Irving Sandler that Abstract Expressionism appealed to him because it challenged his “way of seeing” the world.[l] The allover compositional strategy of his New York School peers meant that viewers were confronted with an expansive and multifaceted surface. The singular viewpoint created through Renaissance models of linear perspective limited one’s optical experience, whereas Abstract Expressionism explored the entirety of the picture plane in generating perceptual multiplicity. The expansiveness of this surface not only leads one’s eye across the painting, it suggests continuance beyond the frame. Despite his uncertainty about the Abstract Expressionists’ “intentions,” Cage appreciated how their art altered his modes of perception.[li]

Possibilities and Collage

In 1947, the year after he completed Blue with China Ink, Robert Motherwell co-founded the avant-garde journal Possibilities. This interdisciplinary endeavor featured reproductions of works by David Smith and William Baziotes alongside essays on Hamlet and Dada. With Possibilities, Motherwell hoped to promote modernism while creating a forum that synthesized the arts without regard to genre or media. Motherwell remembered that he “felt badly then…about the isolation of the various arts from each other in New York,” and to reverse this trend, he enlisted Harold Rosenberg to oversee literature, John Cage music, and Pierre Chareau architecture.[lii] For his contribution to the journal, Cage provided background material on contemporary music, preparing an extensive survey of musical scores written by Ben Weber, Virgil Thomson, Edgard Varèse, and Alexei Haieff. The biographies Cage wrote on each composer added an encyclopedic quality to the publication, and Motherwell told Robert Hobbs he was “surprised” by Cage’s “careful research” and expected “something more Dadaist” than his comprehensive study. When Motherwell questioned Cage about these detailed lists, which included information such as genre, publisher, timing, date of first performance, and instrumentation, Cage reportedly replied that no one had conducted such a study of modern composers, and it “was very much needed.”[liii]

Featuring everything from Delacroix to Rothko, the random anthologizing of Possibilities suggested an avoidance of philosophical dogma, and the journal has been described as having a “lack of programmatic intent” and “openness of inquiry.”[liv] Motherwell hoped this openness would activate the reader through its unorthodox manner. Confronted with a variety of sources—Jackson Pollock’s The Key, Andrea Caffi’s essay “On Mythology,” photographs of Oscar Niemeyer’s church in Brazil, excerpts from Edgar Allan Poe’s Marginalia—the reader was forced to construct order and meaning from disparate, and seemingly incongruous, ideas. As Motherwell recalled, “what we tried to do in Possibilities…was not theoretical; we wanted to present the evidence: very factual descriptions presenting the thing—without theory.”[lv]

Despite this free form approach, the format and editorial strategy adopted by Motherwell for Possibilities did have an underlying system: collage. Ann Gibson wrote how the non-linear structure of Possibilities produced a “collage-like effect,” and this editorial philosophy developed, in part, because of Motherwell’s admiration for Cage. He described Cage’s written materials as “almost the kind I might have written in the sense that they’re essentially collage technique—quotes from all kinds of things—odd relations; you try to get much more dimension, more points of reference than straight narrative could.”[lvi] Motherwell followed Cage’s example, adopting what Stephanie Terenzio called an “a verbal collage—a construction that would become his literary ‘style.’”[lvii] In essays like “The Modern Painter’s World,” he assimilated various sources into his text, including quotes from Plato, Spinoza, and Freud among analyses of Picasso, Mondrian, and Joyce.[lviii] Motherwell utilized this collage editorial style for The Dada Painters and Poets as well. To organize his introductory essay to the volume, Motherwell abandoned the typewriter for handwritten notes on sketching paper. He dedicated one sheet of paper to the idea or quotation he wanted to include, tacking each to his studio wall. Like a collagist rearranging materials for a composition, Motherwell experimented with various structures and configurations. While this process was laborious and expensive—the drawing pads he used apparently were high quality—it enabled Motherwell to arrange and rearrange his text like a collage.[lix] Indeed, the aesthetics and strategies of collage extended to all manner of Motherwell’s output, whether artistic or literary.

“An Absurd Premise”

Despite their collaborations and common interests in the 1940s, Robert Motherwell and John Cage eventually parted ways. In the decades following Blue with China Ink, Motherwell maintained his editorial role and achieved acclaim with his Elegies to the Spanish Republic. Cage, on the other hand, continued to explore chance operations through his relationship with Robert Rauschenberg, an artist he collaborated with at Black Mountain College. Their increasingly divergent positions in the art world became apparent when Motherwell insulted Cage in an interview with Calvin Tomkins, who was writing a profile on Cage for The New Yorker in 1964. Tomkins noted how, unlike Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other composers who employed a limited indeterminacy for their scores, Cage “favors abandoning all vestiges of control and turning the entire composition over to chance.”[lx] Tomkins suggested that this removal of the artist’s subjectivity seemed like “pure heresy” to Cage’s “old friends.” He then quoted Motherwell as saying, “John is just spitting in people’s faces now. It’s a kind of compulsion, this pushing an absurd premise to its logical conclusion. He’s just not in the real world anymore.”[lxi] Despite employing chance in his own work, Motherwell used it only as a “start-up strategy.” He never accepted the destruction of the artist’s ego and found Cage’s indeterminacy “absurd.”

Horrified that Tomkins published his statement, Motherwell wrote Cage the day after The New Yorker appeared to apologize for his remark. “I feel very badly about the quotation attributed to me in ‘The New Yorker,’ which doesn’t represent at all my considered opinion, … I will take what steps I can. Meanwhile, my profound regret at the publication of such a canard: I am sick that it appeared.”[lxii] Motherwell’s letter was returned because he lacked Cage’s correct mailing address, but upon learning his whereabouts, he sent a second letter to the composer, including the original.

After I wrote, I had my lawyers contact The New Yorker, which holds the position that even if Tompkins [sic.] agreed to show me any direct quote beforehand, they will not honor it—i.e., the agreement. I am neither a music critic or a psychologist, which makes the remark stupid, & what is more enraging is that all this follows a very considerable eulogy on my part of you. I will ask Tompkins [sic.] to withdraw the remark from any reprinting, but don’t know what he will do. I still find the whole thing incredible, as though I walked into a booby-trap, & have no words to express how distressed, apologetic, and outraged I feel.[lxiii]

Despite feeling that his remarks were taken out of context, he never pursued legal action against The New Yorker, although Tomkins did omit Motherwell’s comments from The Bride and the Bachelors, an expanded and revised version of his essay on Cage’s music. Cage replied to Motherwell the following month, remaining gracious despite Motherwell’s critical slight:

Thank you for your letters. I appreciate your feelings and am sorry that what happened happened. However, just as I have confidence in what I do, I find—rare as our encounters have been but over, now, considerable years—I have confidence in what you do. In other words, your work, your activities, and the few conversations we have had stand out for me and I am grateful. I don’t know what comfort this may give you. But I myself have become impervious to print. I don’t care at all about what people say about me and my work whether it takes the form of vilification or eulogy. I am interested when the writing is “good” (readable) and when it makes me use my faculties. For the most part writing is nothing but opinions and mistakes and not worth the trouble of putting on one’s glasses. I mean writing about something.[lxiv]

Cage noted Motherwell’s presence in the formative years of his career and thanked him for his friendship before dismissing Motherwell’s criticism as nothing of consequence.

Notwithstanding this falling out, Motherwell was drawn to Cage in the 1940s because he considered the composer a “kindred spirit.” Dore Ashton wrote that Motherwell “craved” a “brotherhood” of like-minded artists, including Picasso and Braque as well as Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka.[lxv] These comrades featured Mallarmé and Joyce as well as a younger generation of artists including John Cage and Jasper Johns. Cage had been more successful than Motherwell at the time he created Blue with China Ink, having already appeared in Life magazine and acquiring notoriety for revolutionizing modern music. Calvin Tomkins wrote that Cage’s work “quickly made him the mostly widely discussed young composer of the avant-garde,” and by 1963 Peter Yates declared him “the most influential living composer today.”[lxvi] Motherwell potentially bolstered his modernist credentials by associating with Cage, and his collaged tribute reflects the composer’s prominence at mid-century. Ultimately, Blue with China Ink remains a record of the brief period in which Motherwell and Cage were close. They shared many interests and developed a modernist collage aesthetic rooted in Zen, chance operations, and Abstract Expressionism. The possibilities of collage remained open in the second-half of the twentieth century, with each exploring its ramifications in visual art and music; but as Cage replaced the artist’s subjectivity with silence and nothingness, Blue with China Ink lost its subject.


[i] Although scholars have indicated the manner in which abstract expressionism was not a cohesive movement, many of the artists associated with the New York School organized schools or programs. In 1948, William Baziotes, David Hare, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman created “The Subject of the Artist” school at 35 East Eighth Street. Motherwell planned lectures that took place on Fridays and featured leading artists, composers, and intellectuals. Despite the economic problems that forced the school to close the following year, lectures continued at the loft, dubbed Studio 35. Also known as the “Club,” this group of artists featured over sixty members by 1950. Practically every artist associated with abstract expressionism joined with the exception of Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. For more, see: Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting: Abstract Expressionism (New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1970): 213-222.

[ii] John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): 109.

[iii] John Cage, foreword, Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): ix. Cage rationalized this strategy by suggesting, “a discussion is nothing more than an entertainment.” These predetermined answers were: “1. That is a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer. 2. My head wants to ache. 3. Had you heard Marya Freund last April in Palermo singing Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, I doubt whether you would ask that question. 4. According to the Farmers’ Almanac this is False Spring. 5. Please repeat the question… And again… And again… 6. I have no more answers.” John Cage, “Afternote to Lecture on Nothing,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): 109, 121, 126.

[iv] Cage, foreword, ix.

[v] Caroline Jones wrote that Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” “finished” abstract expressionism’s emphasis on artistic subjectivity, substituting a “technologically mediated selflessness” for the machismo of the New York School. Caroline A. Jones, “Finishing School: John Cage and the Abstract Expressionist Ego,” Critical Inquiry 19 (Summer 1993): 642-645. Irving Sandler also contended that Cage “launched a major assault on the existentialist influence on the visual art” as characterized by Abstract Expressionism. Irving Sandler, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, and London: Harper & Row, 1978): 163. David Bernstein similarly considered Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” an “inflammatory jab aimed at the aesthetics of abstract expressionism.” David Bernstein, “John Cage and the ‘Aesthetic of Indifference,’” in The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts, ed. Steven Johnson (New York and London: Routledge, 2002): 120.

[vi] Robert Motherwell, Blue with China Ink—Homage to John Cage, 1946. Ink, oil and collage on paper, 40 x 31 in. Collection Richard Brown Baker, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

[vii] Jones, “Finishing School,” 642-643.

[viii] While Cage’s time at Black Mountain College corresponded with Robert Rauschenberg, he never overlapped with Motherwell. Cage taught there in the summers of  1948 and 1952 and was briefly in residence there during the summer of 1953. Motherwell taught during the summers of 1945 and 1951. Motherwell and Cage were at the college together in the summer of 1951; Rauschenberg and Cage were at the college together in the summer of 1952. They had met previously in New York. At Black Mountain they became close friends and collaborators. Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1987).

[ix] Motherwell told Ann Gibson that he and Cage “encountered each other in New York, and being from similar backgrounds, there was a rapport. I gave him a picture. For a while I went around with a girl who lived, as did Cage, in Cooper Village—they shared the same landing and often left the door open between the two apartments. He’d invite me in for a cup of tea.” Robert Motherwell, quoted in: Ann Eden Gibson, Issues in Abstract Expressionism: The Artist-Run Periodicals (Ann Arbor and London: UMI Research Press, 1990): 35. Cage moved to New York in 1942, while Motherwell moved to New York after beginning studies in art history at Columbia University in 1940.

[x] Robert Motherwell, quoted in L. Bailey Van Hook, “Robert Motherwell’s Mallarmé’s Swan,” Arts Magazine 57, no. 5 (January 1983): 104.

[xi] Barbara Rose, “Japanese Calligraphy and American Abstract Expressionism,” in Words in Motion: Modern Japanese Calligraphy (Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress; Tokyo: The Yomiuri Shimbun, 1984): 39.

[xii] Stephen Addiss, “Provisional Dualism: Robert Motherwell and Zen,” in Motherwell on Paper: Drawings, Prints, Collages, ed. David Rosand (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997): 59.

[xiii] Robert Motherwell, “The New York School,” reprinted in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, eds. Dore Ashton and Joan Banach (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007): 96. “The New York School” was an essay Motherwell presented at the Mid-Western Conference for the College Art Association in Louisville, Kentucky, October 27, 1950.

[xiv] David W. Patterson, “Cage and Asia: History and Sources,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, ed. David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 53-57.

[xv] John Cage, “The East in the West,” Modern Music 23, no. 2 (April 1946). Reproduced in John Cage Writer: Previously Uncollected Pieces, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993): 24.

[xvi] For example, Cage paraphrased Kwang-tse’s parable of Chaos, wherein efforts to shape the dynamic entity ultimately resulted in its destruction. John Cage, “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” in A Year from Monday (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967): 137. Patterson, “Cage and Asia,” 55-56.

[xvii] John Cage, “Composition as Process,” (1958) in Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): 46. David Bernstein argued that Cage’s understanding of “unimpededness” carried with it a political philosophy. Bernstein asserts that in rejecting the organizational principles of musical compositions, Cage envisioned an egalitarian society. Bernstein, “John Cage and the ‘Aesthetic of Indifference,” 123.

[xviii] Stephen Addiss, The Art of Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks 1600-1925 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989): 73.

[xix] Robert Motherwell, “Personal Statement,” in A Painting Prophecy—1950 (Washington, D.C.: David Porter Gallery, 1945): n.p.; reprinted in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, eds. Dore Ashton and Joan Banach (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007): 46; Robert Motherwell, quoted in Jack Flam, Motherwell (New York: Rizzoli, 1991): 16.

[xx] Helen Westgeest also connected Blue with China Ink with the Shō and Sumi-e traditions. Helen Westgeest, Zen in the Fifties: Interaction in Art Between East and West (Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers, 1998): 61.

[xxi] Robert Motherwell, quoted in Jack Flam, Motherwell (New York: Rizzoli, 1991): 16.

[xxii] Edward Alden Jewell wrote, “One of the best of paintings is a small, delightful abstraction by Robert Motherwell.” Although a collage, Jewell praised Motherwell’s work as a painting, perhaps because of the unconventional materials Motherwell used, including the aforementioned rice paper and ink. Edward Alden Jewell, “Local Shows,” New York Times (23 May 1943): X10.

[xxiii] Brandon Taylor suggested that “Motherwell’s big oval-and-rectangle paintings of the next decade have their origin here [collage], in the way that simple materials subjected to informal placing and tearing establish formats of potentially enormous scale, most often with human resonances.” Brandon Taylor, Collage: The Making of Modern Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004): 105.

[xxiv] Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde (New York: The Viking Press, 1968): 72; David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage: A Life (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992): 143.

[xxv] Virgil Thomson, American Music Since 1910 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971): 31-39; reprinted in Virgil Thomson, A Virgil Thomson Reader (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981): 477.

[xxvi] John Cage, “Living Room Music,” 1940; reprinted in James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 20.

[xxvii] Branden W. Joseph, “‘A Therapeutic Value for City Dwellers’: The Development of John Cage’s Early Avant-Garde Aesthetic Position,” in John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950, ed. David W. Patterson (New York and London: Routledge, 2002): 143.

[xxviii] Motherwell, in Flam, Motherwell, 18.

[xxix] Rosalind Krauss has argued that collage, like any linguistic system, signifies through absence. In exploring the relationship between a signifier and signified, Krauss characterized the sign as “substitute, proxy, stand-in, for an absent referent.” Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1985): 33.

[xxx] Motherwell, as quoted in Gibson, Issues in Abstract Expressionism, 34.

[xxxi] Motherwell commented that, “The Tearingness of Collaging is, like many of my titles, a play on words. It refers not only to angry tearing of a collage that seemed to me in its prior state too hard-edged and formal, but also it emphasizes that part of my contribution to the art of collage, the torn rather than the sharp or cut-out edge.” Quote reproduced in H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982): plate 96. Gregory Gilbert argued that Motherwell “may have also been drawn to the technique [collage] for its historical and provocative use within the modernist movement for directly signifying contemporaneous social and political meaning in art.” Gregory Gilbert, “Robert Motherwell’s World War Two Collages: Signifying War as Topical Spectacle in Abstract Expressionist Art,” Oxford Art Journal 27, no. 3 (2004): 311-337.

[xxxii] Robert Motherwell, “On Jackson Pollock,” in “Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium, Part 1,” Art News 66, no. 2 (April 1967): 29-30, 64-67; reprinted in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, eds. Dore Ashton and Joan Banach (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007): 225.

[xxxiii] Robert Motherwell, Statement in Motherwell (New York: Samuel Kootz Gallery, 1947): 2-3. Reprinted in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1999): 42-43.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 43.

[xxxv] Michael Hicks, “John Cage’s Studies with Arnold Schoenberg,” American Music 8, no.2 (Summer 1990): 125-40; David Bernstein, “John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg, and the Musical Idea,” in John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950, ed. David W. Patterson (New York and London: Routledge, 2002).

[xxxvi] Statement attributed to John Cage in “John Cage Percussion Group Press Release” in 1942, John Cage Archive, Music Library, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. Reprinted in Joseph, “A Therapeutic Value to City Dwellers,” 143.

[xxxvii] Bernstein, “Cage, Schoenberg, and the Musical Idea,” 37-38.

[xxxviii] John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, and Music (Hanover, University Press of New England, 1996): 124.

[xxxix] Paul van Emmerik, “An Imaginary Grid: Rhythmic Structure in Cage’s Music Up to circa 1950,” in John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950, ed. David W. Patterson (New York and London: Routledge, 2002).

[xl] Motherwell, “Statement,” 43.

[xli] Clement Greenberg, “The ‘Crisis’ of Abstract Art,” in Arts Yearbook 7: New York: The Art World (New York, 1964): 91.

[xlii] My reading of Blue with China Ink is indebted to Rosalind Krauss’s analysis of Rauschenberg’s combines, particularly as she argues that the material density and transfer of Rauschenberg’s collage elements into the pictorial surface serves to level rather than transform such materials. In this way, “each image is given the same level of density as object, one is struck not by their multivalence as signs, but rather by their sameness as things.” Rosalind Krauss, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image,” Artforum 13, no. 4 (December 1974): 40.

[xliii] Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary (1927), ed., John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes (New York: Viking Press, 1974).

[xliv] Max Kozloff, “An Interview with Robert Motherwell,” Artforum 4, no. 1 (September 1965): 37.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Calvin Tomkins, “Profiles: Figure in an Imaginary Landscape,” The New Yorker (28 November 1964): 86. Reprinted in Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 97.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] John Cage, quoted in Patterson, “Cage and Asia,” 49. Cage recalled, “it must have been around 1945. I was disturbed… some friends advised me to see an analyst.” Revill, The Roaring Silence, 87. He further explained, “When I went to the analyst for a kind of preliminary meeting, he said, ‘I’ll be able to fix you so that you’ll write much more music than you do now.’ I said, ‘Good heavens! I already write too much, it seems to me.’ That promise of his put me off.” Cage, Silence, 127.

[xlix] Tomkins, “Figure in an Imaginary Landscape,” 83-84.

[l] Irving Sandler, Interview with John Cage (1966), reprinted in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988): 177.

[li] Of the New York School, Cage commented that “I never agreed with their intentions, if I know what they are, and I’m not really clear that I do know what they are.” Regardless of the subject, Cage confessed to enjoying the work of de Kooning, Reinhardt, and Newman in particular. Pollock’s painting, on the other hand, he found inferior to that of Tobey. Ibid., 175-177.

[lii] Robert Motherwell, letter to Brandon Taylor, February 20, 1980. Reproduced in Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Robert Motherwell: The Formative Years (Ann Arbor and London: UMI Research Press, 1986): 163.

[liii] Robert C. Hobbs, “Re-review: Possibilities,” Art Criticism 1, no. 2 (1979): 97.

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] Motherwell, as quoted in Gibson, Issues in Abstract Expressionism, 34.

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Stephanie Terenzio, editorial notes, in Stephanie Terenzio, ed., The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992): 28.

[lviii] Robert Motherwell, “The Modern Painter’s World,” Dyn 1, no. 6 (November 1944): 9-14.

[lix] Stephanie Terenzio, conversations with Robert Motherwell, 1983-86, repr. in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999): 90.

[lx] Tomkins, “Profiles: Figure in an Imaginary Landscape,” 66.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Robert Motherwell, letter to John Cage, November 29, 1964. Box 5, Folder, 2, Sleeve 5. John Cage Archives, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

[lxiii] Robert Motherwell, letter to John Cage, January 29, 1965. Box 5, Folder 3, Sleeve 9. John Cage Archives, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

[lxiv] John Cage, letter to Robert Motherwell, February 4, 1965. Robert Motherwell Archives / Dedalus Foundation, New York, NY.

[lxv] Dore Ashton, Introduction, The Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Dore Ashton with Joan Banach (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2007): 11.

[lxvi] Tomkins, “Profiles: Figure in an Imaginary Landscape,” 84; Peter Yates, quoted in Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 72.