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STEPS, A Composition for a Painting

Baltimore’s Full Circle Dance Company partnered with Maryland Institute College of Art to present a free live performance of John Cage’s STEPS, A Composition for a Painting on February 2 in the atrium of MICA’s Brown Center.

STEPS was first created in 1989 by the famous composer in partnership with the artist Ray Kass at the Mountain Lake Workshop in Christianburg, VA. The work involves the creation of a large-scale painting using inked feet as well as a giant paintbrush built by Kass. STEPS has been performed on other occasions, notably in 2008 by the modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s longtime collaborator, whose centennial is being celebrated in 2019.

For the February 2 performance in Baltimore, members of Full Circle Dance Company danced on paper 20 yards long, making marks with inked bare feet. Their actions were directed by several choreographers affiliated with the company, who were free to experiment in collaboration with the dancers. Observers of all ages joined to watch the creation of the painting from both the ground level and the glass balcony above. Ray Kass will brought to Baltimore the original giant brush created for STEPS, and he was present as the dancers used the brush to complete the work.

The live performance event accompanied an exhibition in MICA’s Decker Gallery entitled Rural Avant-Garde: The Mountain Lake Experience. The exhibition includes paintings, sculptures, installations, and other works by artists who attended the Mountain Lake Symposium, among them John Cage, Sally Mann, Howard Finster, and Merce Cunningham. The new Baltimore version of STEPS, created Feb 2 by Full Circle Dance Company, is now apart of the exhibition.

Video by: Maxwell Boam

More about John Cage’s STEPS, A Composition for a Painting

John Cage Painted STEPS in collaboration with Ray Kass and the Mountain Lake Workshop in 1989 at Kass’s Christianburg, VA, studio. The format and method for the performance painting were conceived in a series of telephone conversations between Cage and Kass. The work was intended as an homage to Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 painting, Automobile Tire Print, in which Cage collaborated by driving the car, and also as a “zen” painting depicting the image of the solitary person passing through life, a theme that had previously engaged Cage’s interest during his watercolor painting workshops. Cage stepped out of two pans of black ink and walked backwards over a long sheet of rag paper placed on the studio floor while pulling the handle of a 56-inch-wide brush over his footsteps. The wide brush applied a dark, grey-black wash over the black impressions of his footsteps. Upon completion of the painting, Cage remarked (as he had on several occasions in his Mountain Lake painting workshops), “It doesn’t matter who holds the brush.”


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