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John Cage, 17 Drawings by Thoreau, 1978

Cage arrived at Crown Point in January 1978 with the “sense that I was not an artist, that I couldn’t draw…really…anything.” For his first print project, he found source material in the small ink drawings of natural phenomena in the poet-philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s journals. The selection (hawk feather, hazelnut, rabbit tracks, and so on), position, orientation, scale, and color of the drawings were calculated by what Cage called chance operations. Despite his initial misgivings, Cage later acknowledged that his composition had aesthetically transformed Thoreau’s empirical drawings and they “became beautiful.”

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John Cage examining a proof of 17 Drawings by Thoreau at Crown Point Press, 1978. Still image from John Cage at Work, 1978–1992, a film in four parts by Kathan Brown, 2013, Courtesy Crown Point Press

Banner image: Detail, John Cage, 17 Drawings by Thoreau, 1978, uniquely inked color photo-etching on Japanese paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Kathan Brown, 1996, © John Cage Trust

Next: John Cage, Seven Day Diary (Not Knowing), 1978