Music-Mushrooms-Manuscripts: John Cage at Cranbrook

John Cage Listens to John Cage, 1974. Offset lithograph poster designed by Michael McCoy, with photography by Frances Greenberg. Printed at Cranbrook Press. (c) Michael McCoy. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

In early April of 1974, artist-composer John Cage traveled to Cranbrook to celebrate the opening of Music–Mushrooms–Manuscripts at the Art Museum, an exhibition of his drawings, photographs, books, poems, prints, and sound recordings. Featured works included his 1969 series of Plexigrams, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, and the Mushroom Book, both printed by Irwin Hollander (1973-1975 head of the Cranbrook Academy of Art Printmaking department). On the evening of April 12, Cage attended a concert of his own music—aptly titled “John Cage Listens to John Cage”—performed by local musicians as well as students from the Cranbrook Upper School and neighboring Andover and Seaholm high schools. The program featured a 35-piece ensemble of brass, string, woodwind, and non-pitched percussion instruments for the performance of Atlas Eclipticalis, executed in unison with the multi-piano composition Winter Music. Other works included Variations IV, 4’33”, 0’00”, and Prelude for Meditation, the latter representing his earlier compositions exploring ambient noise and prepared piano. The entire evening was conducted by a seventeen-year-old Steve Tennent, who had just graduated from high school four months earlier, and a promotional poster was designed by co-head of the Cranbrook Academy of Art Design department, Michael McCoy.

Steve Tennent conducts the orchestra from the back of Cranbrook Upper School's Little Gym. Photo courtesy Steve Tennent.

During his week-long visit to the Academy, Cage also performed a 2 ½ hour long excerpt from Empty Words, a text composition he would not complete until the following year. What one reviewer deemed a “metaphysical ode to extemporania,” the work comprised of drawings as well as phrases, words, and sounds randomly culled from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau.

Empty Words folio. Photos courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

Cage spent much of his time at Cranbrook with Irwin Hollander’s Printmaking students, playing chess and conversing but holding no formal critiques. At some point, the “Cage Bag” project materialized, spearheaded by Printmaking students Chuck Baughman and Doug Huston. A suite of droll and imaginative prints–including a program for the concert performance and limited edition postcards–were tucked into white paper bags silk-screened with Cage’s face.

The Cage Bag and its contents. Photo by Doug Huston.

Students assembling the Cage Bag. Kim Rendleman (MFA Printmaking '74) is sitting at the end of the table on the left, with Doug Huston (MFA Printmaking '75) to her right and Stephen Milanowski (BFA Photography '78) standing behind her. John Cage can be seen at the left edge of the photograph, engrossed in a game of chess with a student (or possibly Irwin Hollander). Photo courtesy Doug Huston.

Twelve limited-edition postcards were created, all featuring CAA student Jim Poole wearing the Cage Bag as a mask in various settings around campus. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

Back of Cage postcard. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

"John Cage Listens to John Cage" concert program. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

"John Cage Listens to John Cage" concert program. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

The Cage Bags were distributed to the audience on the evening of the “John Cage Listens to John Cage” performance, with the goal to have everyone in attendance wear the bags over their heads, creating a sea of John Cages staring back at the stage. Convincing listeners to participate proved a fruitless venture, but the night was capped off by two streakers masked in Cage Bags running through the gym and improvising a keyboard piece for Variations IV.

Doug Huston chases runaway Cage Bags on Academy Way. Check out those silver shoes! Photo by Stephen Milanowski.

At 4pm on Sunday, March 23, I’ll be lecturing more on John Cage’s visit to Cranbrook, as well as discussing Mushroom Book and Sounds of Venice, two Cage works currently on display in the Cranbrook Art Museum exhibition My Brain Is in My Inkstand: Drawing as Thinking and Process. Immediately following will be a performance of Sounds of Venice by Detroit musician and composer Joel Peterson (check out his amazing gallery/restaurant/performance space Trinosophes, across from Eastern Market). Special thanks go out to Steve Tennent, Stephen Milanowski and Doug Huston, who provided so many incredible photographs and memories from that week. And if you haven’t yet seen My Brain Is in My Inkstand, be sure to catch it soon–the exhibition closes on March 30!

Shelley Selim
2013-2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum

Valentine’s Day at Cranbrook

Shiro Ikegawa
Valentine’s Day at Cranbrook
Suite of eighteen prints
Photo-Lithography and serigraphy three-color separation relief
Photography and lithography by David W. Wharton and Michael D. Powe
Printed at Cranbrook Academy of Art
All photos of Valentine’s Day at Cranbrook (c) Estate of Shiro Ikegawa

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than by taking a leisurely stroll around the Cranbrook campus in sub-zero temperatures, photographing ice formations and footprints in the snow? In 1977, artist Shiro Ikegawa (1933–2009) did just that, commemorating one of America’s most beloved and reviled holidays with a suite of eighteen photo-lithographs and silk-screened prints. Cranbrook Academy of Art’s printmaking department invited Ikegawa for a two week visit, during which time he led critiques and became an acting art director of sorts, supervising students as they executed his works on the lithographic press.

The three images below were published in a Birmingham-Bloomfield Eccentric article about Ikegawa’s visit. Photos by Barbara McClellan.

Ikegawa surveys the "Valentine's Day" prints

A prophetic reference to Cranbrook Art Museum’s current exhibition, My Brain Is in My Inkstand: Drawing as Thinking and Process?

Czashka Ross remembers taking sunrise walks with Shiro, and making a “to-die-for chocolate sauce for ice cream for 40 for the studio dinner.”

On the morning of Valentine’s Day, Ikegawa spent three hours out in the cold documenting scenes with his camera from around Cranbrook’s grounds. The portfolios he created with printmaking students David W. Wharton, Michael D. Powe, and Czashka Ross included prints of his photographs from that day, as well as a copy of a letter from printmaking artist-in-residence Connor Everts inviting him to visit, maps of Oakland county, and recurring representational drawings of fish, which persisted as important symbols for the artist throughout his career.

Valentine's Day at Cranbrook Portfolio

Valentine's Day at Cranbrook Title Page

Letter by Connor Everts, to Ikegawa inviting Ikegawa to Cranbrook as visiting artist, January 1977

Map of Southeastern Michigan pointing out Cranbrook, Metropolitan Airport and Arrival Time

Colophon for Valentine's Day at Cranbrook

Valentine's Day at Cranbrook, Dolly Varden or the Bull Trout

Various Scenes at Cranbrook

Color reproduction of La Petite Clef, by Mark di Suvero

Foot Steps on Snow -20 Degrees, Snow Pass

Ice Fishing

Color reproduction of Printmaking Studio

Drawing of Fish on Denim Fabric

Ikegawa and the students created the portfolios as a limited edition of fifty. With eighteen prints included in each, the project was extremely arduous. Wharton recalls transferring the images onto lithographic stone, applying the ink by hand, and printing each one individually. The colors in each tri-colored serigraph also had to be separated by hand. After several fourteen-hour days in the studio, a compact and perfectly packaged treasure emerged—the product of a true labor of love!

Posted by Shelley Selim
2013–2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum

Corinne Abatt, “A Commemorative Folio: Artist Visits Cranbrook and Leaves Behind a Gift,” Birmingham-Bloomfield Eccentric, February 24, 1977.

Interviews with David W. Wharton and Czashka Ross.