Color lithograph by Lois Long in Mushroom Book, Plate VIII, 1972, 22.5 x 15 inches, Edition 51/75. © John Cage Trust at Bard College.
By leaves or play of sunlight, John Cage: Artist and Naturalist at the Horticultural Society of New York is curated by Chris Murtha. The exhibition includes two of Cage's 1978 prints which incorporate his scores from musical composition combined with drawings, and a few works from his Edible Drawing series, with ingredients from the composer's macrobiotic diet dried into sheets (snow peas, bitter melon, greens, hijiki, etc.).
The exhibition is centered on Cage's Mushroom Book (1972), which includes both letterpress and lithographs of poetry by Cage along with botanical lithographs by Lois Long. In Mushroom Book, Cage's handwritten poems are messily strewn upon the pages in darkened patches, organically clustered in colonies of stanzas. The images sustain contemplation even though the physical appearance of the text edges into a state of no particulars. Cage mentions "macromicrocosmic rhythmic structures" and his own writing brings this idea to mind, situated on the page with an improvised and intense structure.
John Cage, Mushroom Book, Plate VIII, lithograph in handwriting, 1972, 22.5 x 15 inches, Edition 51/75. © John Cage Trust at Bard College.
The title of the exhibition (which is presented with the John Cage Trust and the New York Mycological Society NYMS) is an excerpt from Cage's meditation on the navigational impulses and happenstance found in one's experience of nature: "In woods, we're mislead by leaves or play of sunlight; driving along, we sometimes stop, park, and get out, only to discover it's a football or a piece of trash. Learning from such experiences isn't what we do." Cage was a founding member of the reincarnated NYMS, which continues to embark on frequent walks throughout the Greater New York area, in parks and graveyards, seeking and surveying wild mushrooms.
Mirroring the sensibility of a walk in the woods, Cage's densely drawn formations of poetic text include overlaps and strikethroughs, meandering directional line changes and sketches that summon a sense of inspired distraction. As an observer, one must search the words out, similar to foraging, for meaning to arrive. Much of Cage's writing in Mushroom Book focuses on what comes across as an approach of open purposelessness, which "serves flexibility, introduces the stranger." He writes, "Hunting for hygrophoroides, found abortivus instead. Returning to get more abortivus, found ostreatus in fair condition. South to see the birds, spotted mellea. Hunting is starting from zero, not looking for." Cage's eco-poetry also sheds light on shared insights from others within his NYMS community: "Guy Nearing told us it's a good idea when hunting mushrooms to have a pleasant goal, a waterfall for instance, and, having reached it, to return another way. When, however, we're obliged to go and come back by the same path, returning we notice mushrooms we haven't noticed going out." Upon navigating these textual works, Cage's words fit well: "We are audience and visitors," and the visual layout of his poetry invokes the act of the hunt, the wandering, the chance of encounter.