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John Cage, Changes and Disappearances, 1979–1982

Changes and Disappearances is a series of thirty-five unique abstract prints composed of the most basic formal components: solid curved lines, and solid and dashed straight lines. Cage also included fragments of images appropriated from sketches in Henry David Thoreau’s journals. All of the prints were made from irregularly shaped plates selected from a pool of sixty-six. Their quantity, selection, orientation, location, and inking were all determined by chance. Plates could be selected for reuse in multiple prints and new marks could be added so that the prints evolved and became more complex over the course of the series. One of Cage’s key beliefs was that “the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operations.” Here Cage mirrored nature’s complex, chance-dependent evolutionary patterns and seemingly infinite possibilities.

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John Cage with a map for Changes and
Disappearances 32
, 1982, photograph
by Colin McRae, Courtesy Crown Point
Press

The Changes and Disappearances series is Cage’s most complicated print project. Every mark, color, and image resulted from questions answered by numerous chance operations. Cage recorded every result on a score devoted to each print. He then created maps, or printing guides, by tracing the placement of each plate and annotating the tracings with every mark, line, image, and color to be used. Changes and Disappearances 32 was printed using thirty-six unique plates and required eleven maps (Cage is working on one in the photograph at left). The print is composed of eighty-five inked plate edges and 177 inked marks for a total of 262 distinct colored lines and shapes. If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is.

Banner image: Detail, John Cage, Changes and Disappearances 32 , 1982, color engraving, drypoint, and photo-etching, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Kathan Brown, 1996, © John Cage Trust

Next: John Cage, Where R=Ryoanji, 1983