Category Archives: Exhibition

John Cage’s life in the woods

Display Case Cage

Bulbous and ridged, minuscule or robust, mushrooms come in different shapes and sizes. Some have medicinal value or are enjoyed in risotto and on pizza, or taken as hallucinogens. They have a certain mystery and peculiarity that has enchanted artists and scientists alike. John Cage, a seminal experimental composer and artist, was one of them.

Cage’s fascination with mushrooms began in Stony Point, New York, where he lived in small quarters as part of a cooperative. For privacy, Cage took long walks in the woods and found a lot of different types of mushrooms. Cage referred to himself as an amateur mushroom hunter. Nevertheless, Cage co-founded the New York Mycological Society. With co-founder and friend Lois Long he published “The Mushroom Book” in 1972. Lois Long provided lovely illustrations with classification from mycologist Alexander H. Smith. “The Mushroom Book” was on display recently at The Horticultural Society of New York in an exhibit titled “By leaves or play of sunlight.”


Installation view of display case with Mushroom Book (1972) by John Cage with Lois Long and Alexander H. Smith, © John Cage Trust at Bard College. Photo: The Horticultural Society of New York.

Display Case Cage

Chris Murtha, the director of membership and programs at The Horticultural Society of New York, curated the show. When Murtha went to the exhibition “Dancing Around the Bride” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he was struck by Cage’s edible drawings. The edible drawings are compositions made of organic ingredients that could be found at a health food store. When Murtha saw these sheets of pepper, beans, and bitter melon, he made a note to do something at the society relating to Cage’s use of organic matter.

A little over a year later two edible drawings are on display at the society alongside “The Mushroom Book.” More a portfolio than a book, “The Mushroom Book” consists of images of mushrooms and text inspired by nature on large unbound lithographs. “The set that is on view in our show was framed for a performance and one-day exhibition organized by the New York Mycological Society at Cooper Union,” said Murtha. “When I heard that it was only on view for one day, I figured we should display it for a longer period, so more people could see it.” The John Cage Trust, which preserves and archives Cage’s legacy, lent The Horticultural Society framed work from “The Mushroom Book.”

John Cage, Edible Drawing #4, 1990, Bitter melon, pepper, and greens dried into a sheet, Edition of 6, 9 x 11 ½ inches. Courtesy Margarete Roeder Gallery; © John Cage Trust at Bard College.

Mushroom Detail

Cage’s intention with the written pages was to have viewers hunt for the text, in the way you would hunt mushrooms in nature. Cage used ancient Chinese techniques for composing his handwritten prints. His pages included stories about mushrooms, quotes from Henry David Thoreau, Buckminster Fuller, and incorporate mesostic poems, which are built around a “spine” word or phrase. The text brought to mind field notes, overlapping  and randomly composed on the page. Without realizing, I walked a full circle around a display table reading one print.

Is there a relationship between Cage’s interest in chance and his attraction to the random ways that fungi appear in nature? Murtha suggested that’s not likely. “Because Cage applied chance operations to many of his projects we tend to associate that with chaos and messiness,” said Murtha. “As much as he liked the idea of chaos, I can’t help but feel that he also liked to create a structure in which he could experiment.” Even so, I think the exhibition is an example of how archives can still surprise people who think they’ve seen all sides of a well known figure.

Detail of Mushroom Book


There’s a pleasure in eating don’t you agree?
But you couldn’t live on mushrooms?
No, they’re not nourishing.
Do you have favorites?
I like the ones I have. If you like the ones you don’t have, then you’re not happy.

- Lisa Low (1985)

Excerpt from “Conversing with Cage” by Richard Kostelanetz.

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Interference Archive Exhibition and Open House

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On a mild night this past December, the Interference Archive hosted an open house for their exhibition “Serve The People: The Asian American Movement in New York.”

The late ‘60s to early ‘80s were critical time in Asian-American history, when Asian-Americans were developing a new political and cultural identity. Bay Area activism had sent waves to New York City, empowering Asian-American activists there to take a stand on issues of labor, war, and police brutality.

On display are photographs of street demonstrations and strikes, albums of protest music, and activist posters and journals. Journals like “Bridge: Asian American Perspective” and “Amerasia Journal,” started by Yale students in the early ‘70s, proliferated artistic work and political commentary to a wider audience. Visitors are able to see one of Interference Archive’s newest acquisitions, the prints and music of Yellow Pearl, a band that released an album of folk music about the Asian-American experience in 1973.

Activists don’t always think about saving papers. Interference Archive in New York City aims to preserve the history of activism by being both an activist hub and an archive. The archive consists of ephemera and documents created by participants in different social movements.

“Serve The People: The Asian American Movement in New York” is on exhibit until February 23rd.

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See: Last Year at Marienbad Redux

Last Year At Marienbad

Entering Last Year at Marienbad Redux, a group exhibit and event series at a Midtown gallery, visitors are welcomed by tall mirrors, reminiscent of a funhouse, skewing their reflections.

Artworks in the exhibit reflect the themes of “Last Year at Marienbad,” a 1961 French New Wave film. Like the film’s puzzling nonlinear plot, the art attempts to piece together past events and document people, places, and things.

“The exhibition seeks to remind us that our understanding of a reality is a constructed one,” said James Voorhies, the exhibit’s curator, via e-mail. The inspiration first came out of the 2012 Presidential election. “I think many people watched in awe,” said Voorhies,“at the intense and repetitive narrative spun through the media machines of sound bites and images to become accepted fact for a majority of the American population who believed what the media told them about these candidates.”

The exhibit’s artwork again and again unveils human perceptions as flawed, a theme explored in the film “Last Year at Marienbad.” Voorhies said, “Our understanding of history is edited and cobbled together through the pieces of information and artifacts that survive and come down to us through both digital and printed materials.”

Iman Issa

Iman Issa recalls past events using three individual objects in Triptychs. In this example, a photograph, architectural detail, and larger still life photograph vaguely reconstruct an event.  While we can guess at some of the crucial elements, our inability to put the pieces together speaks to the flaws in the narrator’s storytelling. (Images from Rodeo Gallery)

Gordon Matta-Clark

Blast From the Past, a playful, but sinister puzzle from the estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, instructs players to recreate a scene from a history of a floor. A pile of cigarette butts, dirt, screws and rusty nails swept together in a vitrine awaits interpretation.

Josh Tonsfeldt

Josh Tonsfeldt created Marion, an installation based on documents the artist found in a box of a New York socialite. In the example above, from afar you can see a photo of Marion (or another woman?), but when looking directly down at the image, a layer between the viewer and the photo renders the image invisible.

Karen Cytter

In Video Art Manual, a how-to montage, tips about making video art are combined with scenes of familiar television shows and original footage by the artist, Keren Cytter. Messages are convoluted with news footage and a cheer-leading Richard Simmons.

The Bureau for Open Culture (I first found them at the NY Art Book Fair, but they are based in Vermont) have organized a number of interesting exhibitions and programs and publish related books. “Bureau for Open Culture publications are results of lived engagement in real time with the public,” said Voorhies. “Each of the books departs from exhibitions, performances, research and residencies. Over the years, the books are increasingly less documents of these projects and more integrated extensions of them.”

The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts hosts Last Year at Marienbad Redux until October 26, 2013.

Many thanks to James Voorhies for answering our questions. Images courtesy Bureau for Open Culture, Zach Feuer Gallery, and Library Manifesto.

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An Archive Whose Subjects Are Permanent Residents

Green Wood Cemetery

Last week I spent an evening in a cemetery chapel crowded with archivists, genealogists, and Sunset Park locals. We were gathered at  Green-Wood Cemetery, where some of New York’s most infamous VIPs RIP, to hear cemetery staff highlight their collection of ephemera and records spanning their 175-year history.

Professor of archival management at Brooklyn College, Green-Wood Archivist, and boxer Anthony M. Cucchiara has dedicated some elbow grease toward making the archives at Green-Wood a usable and accessible resource. Cucchiara gave much credit to volunteers and interns who have -with Cucchiara at the helm- spent approximately 6,000 hours processing archival materials. Volunteers still meet some Saturdays to refine and continue their work.

Green Wood Box of Stereographs

Jeff Richman, Green-Wood Historian and writer, spoke about the collection and showed off some stereographs from the cemetery’s archives. Photographers, he said, were drawn to the cemetery as a peaceful break from the city scenes. Richman displayed some on tables for post-talk browsing.

Of the many types of archives housed at the cemetery, burial orders sparked my interest most. The documents can show family relationships and fill in gaps researchers might not find in U.S. census records. Burial orders are packed with useful information like official death dates and interestingly, signatures of relatives that might verify other signed documents. If you’re lucky they might also include renderings of monuments on site.

Green-Wood also introduced a program, “Green-Ealogy,” which allows you to submit research questions online. Mark Daly, Manager of Genealogical Research Services, said they receive an impressive 30 or so research inquiries a week.

Green Wood Cemetery

Brooklyn’s Green-Wood celebrates its 175th anniversary this year with an exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York.

Green-Wood has recently purchased a beautiful abandoned greenhouse that resides across the street on 5th Avenue. They plan to restore the lot into a welcome center. The cemetery offers creative programs, walking tours and trolley tours throughout the year. Check them out here.

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Can Drawing Give us a New Perspective on Archives?

The Brooklyn Rail Matthew Barney Review

Anyone who’s ever picked up a pencil to draw knows that, most often, the end result and what we saw in our heads are not the same picture. How much is an archive a trace of something rather than complete and trustworthy representation?

I had just this thought while reading about artist Matthew Barney’s multidimensional approach to drawing in Thyrza Nichols Goodeve’s “A Possible Reading of Matthew Barney’s Drawings” in the July/August Brooklyn Rail. American artist Matthew Barney is known for his epic video works, but he is sharing his sketches in “Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney” up at the Morgan Library through September 8th. In the show, framed drawings hang on the walls beside vitrines holding books selected by Barney from the Morgan Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (where the show will be on display October – December, 2013). In the context of The Morgan Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, these drawings bring to mind the relationship between creating a drawing and creating an archive.

In the article, Nichols Goodeve interprets Matthew Barney’s drawings through the guiding words of another artist, Roni Horn. Horn explains how drawings and the act of drawing can mirror memory making and documenting. A drawing in the words of Horn, “is a record of energy spent and mime recorded.” So, in a way, a drawing is a retelling of what has already happened. A drawing is layered with a series of sweeps, marks, dashes and dots. A drawing is a product of a continual thought. It builds on the previous idea. Each decision influencing the next.

Horn eloquently makes the connection between drawings and memories with this observation: “Sometimes a drawing is palimpsestic in nature, becoming a history of itself. The cumulative record of acts committed or a sum of memories recalled. It’s been said that every time you use a memory you change it, and that the safest memories are in the minds of amnesiacs. But for non-amnesiacs we have stories, traces, and drawings.”


The article has made me look more deeply at drawing which the reviewer Nichols Goodeve defines as “both a vehicle for action (verb) and an object of production (noun)” because isn’t the same true for an archive? I hope that examining the process of drawing can bring a new perspective to the practice of archiving.

Image: Cetacea (2006), via Art Observed

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