Nature Revealed: two artists happen upon similar discoveries

Janis Goodman’s most recent paintings are like acts of nature—rich with fascinating rhythms, color schemes, structures and serendipities. They don’t mimic scenes as much as present evidence, quite beautifully, of nature’s constant flux. Currents of vibrant, colorful lines criss-cross above (somewhat) more neutral fields of color also marked by wavy, cascading lines. Unseen forces (perhaps the moon, the wind, substances that attract and repel, an undertow or three) appear to have produced these compositions. They are patches of life, windows to natural phenomena—airborne, underwater, earthbound, ectoplasmic. They also remind me of the late composer/thinker John Cage’s forays into picture making.

Cage was no stranger to visual arts, having started out as an art critic, and later collaborated with painters such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. But Cage’s own prints and drawings, like much of his mid- and late-period musical compositions were about letting go (or the attempt to let go) of personal control and taste. Cage “realized” his compositions by employing chance procedures such as throwing dice, using the I Ching, randomizing points derived from street maps, astronomical charts, and notations made from mushroom hunts. I enjoyed seeing the etchings, lithographs, drawings, and sculptures he produced from the late 70s till his death in 1992. Unlike the legions of unfortunate paintings made by musicians and composers over the last century (which were no doubt cathartic experiences for the music maker who wanted to make pictures too), Cage’s visual compositions really contributed something fresh to the visual art scene (though they never received the serious attention his music and writings did). Cage’s abstract images were not about self expression, observation, metaphor, or making a point of some kind. They are compositional maps, notational tracings—the product of heady gamesmanship played out in an attempt to rid himself, in the tradition of Zen Buddhism, of mind, of self, of needing to control (art/nature). The results are often as random seeming as star constellations, stains on a place mat, scratchings on a window pane, windblown chunks of earth. At the same time there is a lightness to his visual works that resemble the soft touch of the man himself, whose beaming smile and Bambi-like way of walking defied his reputation as the philosophical king of the avant-garde. The more Cage tried to divest his work of himself—the more his work became uniquely John Cage. This paradox notwithstanding, the body of his visual art work, produced at Crown Point Press and other ateliers, is the result of a very different kind of art making process than most visual artists engage in.

It’s a great pleasure and curiosity to see resemblances between the work of John Cage and Janis Goodman. When I mentioned this to Janis, she found it curious too, but never made the connection herself. Like two scientists, quietly, obsessively, working to discover true patterns in nature, Cage and Goodman, to my eye, happened on similar findings. The composer, translating his processes with sound composition, using chance procedures as a way of realizing some kind of cosmic order/beauty; the painter, after years of observational painting and drawing, creates a kind of music painting that transcends traditional notions of figure/ground, abstract/representational. Both Goodman’s and Cage’s pictures are as much about the empty spaces as they are about the marks that float, squiggle, rush, bob, bump, and interlace. They both make layered, lyrical fields that live within relatively shallow picture planes, giving the impression of translucent surfaces, not only of ponds and wooded brush but of thought patterns and family/societal relations. While Cage’s images remain cerebral and keep the viewer at a distance, Goodman’s are sensual, more committed to the mark, unabashedly celebratory of color, and draw you in. Once inside these canvasses, you don’t want to leave.

Warren Lehrer