John Cage, legendary composer of experimental sounds and silence, was absolutely fascinated with mushrooms. This little-known legacy consists of his revival of the New York Mycological Society in the 1960s and his extensive fungi collection, now at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A new exhibition opened this week at the Horticultural Society of New York celebrates this overlooked side of his life.
By leaves or play of sunlight — John Cage: Artist and Naturalist takes its name from a poem on one of the folio pages from the Mushroom Book (1972), the exhibition’s central work:
In woods, we’re misled
by leaves or play of
sunlight; driving along, we sometimes
stop, park, and get
out, only to discover it’s a football or a piece of trash. Learning from such
experiences isn’t what we do.
It’s that sense of discovering the hidden that the amateur mycologist found so thrilling about mushroom hunting. The pages of the Mushroom Book — a collaboration with mycologist Alexander H. Smith — include these disjointed poems alongside beautifully executed mushroom illustrations by Lois Long, as well as fields of seemingly random text with sporadic mushroom drawings and details scrawled by Cage all over the page. As he described it in a 1991 interview with John Retallack, this writing was meant to show “that ideas are to be found in the same way that you find wild mushrooms in the forest, by just looking”; you can’t just come upon them directly, they “come to you as things hidden.”
The Horticultural Society exhibition isn’t grand — it fills just one room in front of the organization’s shelves of botanical books. But it does shed some light on Cage as an aficionado of chance, a method which he also used to compose some of his music. Cage himself, however, insisted on not reading too much into connections between mushrooms and music, telling the New York Times in 1981: ”I am not interested in the relationships between sounds and mushrooms any more than I am in those between sounds and other sounds.”
A couple of his 1990 “Edible Drawings” made from snow peas, bitter melon, hijiki, and black beans — ingredients in his macrobiotic diet — are on display, the label text noting “it’s quite possible that he intended the Mushroom Book to be edible.” Indeed, although you may consider there were some psychotropic reasons behind Cage’s mushroom quests, he was constantly tinkering with food in his diet the same way he played with sound. This didn’t always go well. In the 1950s, in an attempt to encourage his friends to eat organic, he served a poisonous hellebore he’d mistaken for skunk cabbage, and everyone got ill, with Cage himself hastened to the hospital to have his stomach pumped.
There could definitely be some arguments made about parallels between his free-thinking music and the unstructured way mushrooms sprout up haphazardly. But you can also look at a photo of Cage frolicking with his mushroom basket or read the playful wind of words in the Mushroom Book (“we never find/enough. We keep on/looking for mushrooms/until we’re obliged (an engagement or the fact/the light’s failing) to stop”) and see that this really was a passion in its own right. Luckily he didn’t keep it totally separate from art, and left these curious trails of words and art to scavenge through like a forest.
By leaves or play of sunlight — John Cage: Artist and Naturalist is at the Horticultural Society of New York (148 West 37th Street, 13th Floor, Midtown, Manhattan) through May 16.
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