John Cage’s Experimental Painting about Chess

In 1944, experimental musician John Cage produced an artwork for the “Imagery of Chess” exhibition exploring influential artist Marcel Duchamp’s interest in the game. Cage’s artwork, entitled Chess Pieces, is a painting depicting 64 light and dark squares (in the pattern of a chessboard), with a series of light and dark lines superimposed on top. On closer inspection, the lines turn out to be musical notation. Decades later, when the “Imagery of Chess” exhibit was revisited, it was discovered that the musical notation in the painting was actually a real composition for piano, and in 2005 Margaret Leng Tan performed the musical piece contained in the painting (see the video below).

Chess Pieces beautifully combines vision and sound into one artwork: a painted musical score. Not only does the painting contain musical notation, but the score itself is actively constrained by its physical requirements, similarly to some of Cage’s other works. In “Water Walk” (1960), for example, arbitrary constraints of a kind are imposed onto the music—this and many of Cage’s songs were composed using elements of randomness, frequently relying on the Chinese I Ching. In Chess Pieces, the musical notation is constrained to fit the exact physical space of the chessboard: all the notes must fit perfectly into the 64 squares.

Most likely, Cage is also making a pun on the word “piece” (chess piece versus musical piece) and comparing the discrete squares and pieces of chess to notes and segments in music. The systematic nature of chess probably felt somewhat comparable to Cage’s approach to making music as well, and indeed we know that he was a player of the game.

As is often the risk with avant-garde work, I’m left with the feeling that I may be missing some of the piece’s significance, especially the musical portion, but nonetheless Chess Pieces is a beautiful and exciting artwork, as Cage’s always are.

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