Nam June Paik

Cage Waves


Not on display
Nam June Paik 1932–2006
Graphite on paper
Support: 216 x 432 mm
Presented by the Hakuta Family (Tate Americas Foundation) 2014
On long term loan


Cage Waves is a large graphite drawing on lightweight machine-made paper by the Korean artist Nam June Paik. An irregular wave shape appears in the centre of the paper and stretches almost across its entire width, although without meeting the edges of the paper. The drawing is signed by the artist in graphite in the bottom right corner. The title, Cage Waves, also appears at the bottom right alongside a small child-like smiling face, which is connected to the centre of the wave by a single, lightly drawn line, like a balloon on the end of a string.

Paik made this drawing in 1996 in New York, where he had lived since 1964. Its title is a reference to his friendship with the American experimental composer John Cage. The drawing itself, which suggests a series of sound waves, pays tribute to their relationship nearly forty years after Paik and Cage first met in 1958. The visual depiction of sound waves, accompanied by a smiling face, suggests the affection in which Paik held the composer. In 1996 Paik suffered a stroke which paralysed his left side, and it is not known whether the work was made before or after that event. However, similar wave-like forms can be seen in a facsimile of the earlier Notebooks [Riverdale No.1] 1984 (reproduced in Gagosian Hong Kong 2015).

Paik and his family moved to Hong Kong in 1949 during the Korean War and relocated to Japan the following year. He studied music, art history and aesthetics at the University of Tokyo, graduating with a degree in aesthetics and a thesis on the modernist composer Arnold Schönberg. Paik travelled to Germany in 1956 to further his interest in music, studying at the University of Munich and the Conservatory of Music in Freiberg. Through his interest in music, philosophy and aesthetics, Paik became associated with the German Fluxus group founded by George Maciunas. While in Germany he also collaborated with the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and with Cage, whom he first met at the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt. Cage revolutionised Paik’s ideas about music and performance and was largely responsible for his experiments with silence and chance in his musical and performance works.

Cage’s own experiments with silence are best represented by his famous 1952 piece 4’33”. In this work, the performer or performers do not play any notes but simply frame three movements of ambient sound. In 1967 Paik drew an analogy between Cage’s ideas and the writings of the American mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), the founder of cybernetics:

Norbert Wiener wrote that the information, in which a message was sent, plays the same role as the information, in which a message is not sent. It sounds almost Cagean. Cage might say, ‘a notation, with which music is playable, plays the same role as the notation, with which music is not playable’.
(Quoted in Tate Liverpool 2010, p.28.)

In Zen for Film 1962–4, an hour-long blank film, Paik directly referenced Cage’s ideas about music, which had been collected and published in 1961 in Cage’s Silence: Lectures and Writings.

This simple drawing acknowledges Cage’s influence on Paik’s work and their relationship. Paik valued such friendships, noting in 1988:

The one good fortune in my life was that I got to know John Cage while he was considered more a gadfly than a guru and Joseph Beuys when he was still an eccentric hermit in Dusseldorf. Therefore it was possible for me to associate myself on an equal footing with these two senior masters as colleagues even after their stardom.
(Quoted in Gagosian Hong Kong 2015, p.21.)

Further reading
The Worlds of Nam June Paik, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 2000.
Nam June Paik, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, London 2010.
Nam June Paik: The Late Style, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Hong Kong, Hong Kong 2015.

Beth Williamson
May 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

Paik was a music student in Germany when met the experimental American composer John Cage at the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt in 1958. The meeting revolutionised Paik’s approach to music and performance, and he was particularly influenced by Cage’s use of chance and silence in music. Cage was also instrumental in persuading Paik to move to New York. This drawing, suggesting a series of sound waves, pays fond homage to Cage, almost forty years after their initial meeting.

Gallery label, February 2016

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like