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.”
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.”
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.
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.