top of page

JOHN CAGE TRIBUTE: William Anastasi

William Anastasi on John Cage: In the early 80s, at a festival of new music in Venice, I attended numerous concerts with John, sometimes several in a single day.

Artworks Biography


In the early 80s, at a festival of new music in Venice, I attended numerous concerts with John, sometimes several in a single day. I made the observation that when another composer's music was being performed I could at times readily pick up echoes of Berg, Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok, Shoenberg—even, once, Duke Ellington. But then something of John's would be played and I was on my own. No traces of ideas from earlier composers peered out. The music was constantly full of new sound experiences and structures—due naturally enough to his use of chance rather than of existing modes of composition. He agreed, but with a smile that reminded me that his way of listening was different from mine—his entire approach was ahistorical.


John and I had many conversations about taste. We were both aware of Duchamp's remark that taste was habit. In that spirit my mantra was, "The only thing interesting about taste is that it's always changing." If I showed John a new drawing I'd cover myself by saying, "What does your aesthetic prejudice of the moment say?"

I told John once of an occurrence far from the subject of aesthetic taste, but still related to the flexibility implicit in Duchamp's stance. On a run through Central Park, on an October morning, I had been hit by the powerful odor of what I would have sworn was human vomit. This odor has on occasion brought my own stomach—and I'm not unique here—to the brink of upheaval, and it did so that day. Once I was beyond the odor's range, the queasiness naturally left, but passing the area on the return trip I again had to fight off nausea. The next day, taking the same run, I noticed the same odor, just as intense, at the same spot. Surprised that it hadn't lost its potency after twenty-four hours, I looked around, and saw a number of tan or white flattened splotches scattered on the ground. This prompted an inquiry that brought the Ginko tree and its habits into my personal lexicon: a friend explained how in the fall its spongy nuts fall tot the ground and split, splattering their soft insides to give off their infamous odor.'

Once this knowledge had taken root, I noticed that passing that area upset me less—and then less and less day after day. Yet the odor was not as all different to my nose; the smell was identical, but once I knew that it was a plant, its power of revulsion vanished. By extension, when John and I were discussing "ugly." I proposed that in aesthetic areas also our physical and psychological predisposition is of tantamount significance and our judgments proportionately malleable.

Without Title, 2004, ink on fabric, 9 x 9 inches Flag designed for the opening celebration of The Rubin Museum of Art, New York

Issue, 1966, displaced site, width 4 inches, height floor to ceiling

Sink. 1963, rolled steel, water, 20" x 20" x 1/2". Collection of John Cage

Relief, 1961, cement, urine, 2 x 14 x 14 inches

His brush with posterity, 1962, acrylic on clear vinyl, 30 1/8 x 24 1/4 inches Collection of the artist

Corrugated cardboard, Untitled [Corrugated Cardboard], 1962, 45" x 46" Collection of the artist

en route, 1964, silica bricks, 17 1/2 x 30 x 15 1/4 inches Museum of Modern Art, New York

Twelve ounces of tap water on a floor, 1966, variable dimensions Commision: Lucrezia Durini, Bolgnano, Italy, 2006

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, 1965, mylar magnetic tape, 80 x 71 inches Collection of Tony Ganz, Los Angeles

Dove Bradshaw + William Anastasi, 1st of 365 Daily Polaroid self-portraits, 1974/1975


William Anastasi is one of the founders of both Conceptual and Minimal Art -- relevant works were made before the movements were named. These works, starting in 1961, include Relief and Microphone, among the earliest examples of Conceptual Art. Between 1963 and 1966, we have Sink --a clear demonstration of entropy -- and Issue and Trespass -- important forerunners to an entire class of works involving deconstruction. Sink (which combines his Conceptual and Minimal approaches) and En Route, are among the earliest forays into Minimal Art. Holding that after Duchamp there was no earthly reason why a blind man could not be an artist, his unsighted drawings were also started in 1963. His 1966/67 Six Sites broke the ground for an entire genre of exhibitions under the rubric Site Specific. Underlying his practice is his sense that the only thing that interests him about taste is that it is always changing.

Anastasi received the John Cage Award in 2010. Slought Foundation, Philadelphia, published his book, The Cage Dialogues: A Memoir in 2011. He has been the subject of four retrospectives: The Nikolaj Contemporary Art Museum, Copenhagen, 1995, the Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, 2005, RAW, The Drawing Center, New York, 2007, and Opposites Are Identical at Peter Blume Gallery, New York, 2008. He is included in all the major American Museum and many in Europe. An important exhibition at The Mazzioli Gallery, Modena, Italy in 2009 was accompanied by the publication of a major monograph, William Anastasi, with the essay by Richard Milazzo. He has been included in Art=Text=Art: Works by Contemporary Artists, University of Richmond Museums, Richmond, Virginia, 2011, Early Conceptualists, Jocelyn Wolff Gallery, Paris, 2010, The Third Mind: Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2009, Intolerance at Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, 2010, and Color In Flux, Bremen Kunsthalle, Germany, 2011.


bottom of page