A multitalented performer and composer, John Milton Cage Jr. won fame for his unconventional use of instruments and incorporation of electronic music in his compositions. Known for interdisciplinary collaborations with such avant-garde artists as Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, Cage avidly pursued printmaking in his later years, applying his signature exploratory approach to the etching and engraving processes. As both an instructor and artist-in-residence at Black Mountain College, he contributed to the North Carolina school’s integrative learning environment and helped secure its place in American art history.

Cage was born in Los Angeles and began to study the piano in the fourth grade; his talent for sight reading was greater than his performance skills. The valedictorian of his class at Los Angeles High School, Cage enrolled at Pomona College in 1928. Though he aspired to be a writer and to study theology, he dropped out in 1930, having decided that "college was of no use to a writer." He subsequently spent eighteen months in Europe, where he encountered the music of J. S. Bach, Paul Hindemith, and Igor Stravinsky and began to compose.

Upon his return to the States, Cage lectured on art and dabbled in painting in Santa Monica, California. By 1933, he had abandoned painting altogether, later proclaiming: “The people who heard my music had better things to say about it than the people who looked at my paintings had to say about my paintings.” Two years later, he began studying with the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who waived his tutoring fee in exchange for Cage’s promise to dedicate his life to music. In the mid-1930s, Cage worked various jobs, one of which was as an accompanist for the dance program at the University of California, Los Angeles, an experience that would impact his future endeavors. Cage moved to Seattle in 1938, working as an accompanist and composer in the dance department of the Cornish School. It was there that he met Cunningham, who became his artistic and romantic partner.

After a brief teaching stint in Chicago, Cage moved to New York in 1942 and became involved with Peggy Guggenheim’s circle of pioneering artists, which included Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, and André Breton. Despite making his New York concert debut at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, Cage fell on hard times during the mid-1940s. In 1947, he served as a co-editor for Robert Motherwell’s first, but short-lived, art journal titled Possibilities. It was at this time that he developed an interest in Zen Buddhism and East Asian culture. After a 1949 performance at Carnegie Hall, he secured a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation which funded travel in Europe.

At the invitation of Black Mountain College's director Josef Albers, Cage taught at the progressive school in the summers of 1948 and 1952, and then returned in 1953 as an artist-in-residence. Together with Cunningham, he oversaw the creation of Theatre Piece No. 1, a multimedia improvisational event considered to be the first “happening,” a midcentury term for a performance and situational art event. As his prospects improved through the 1950s, Cage secured positions at The New School in New York from 1956 to 1958, and at Wesleyan University in Connecticut from the 1950s until his death. He led courses in experimental music, composed pieces for modern dance, and wrote about his musical theories.

Toward the end of his life, Cage prolifically produced visual art independently and collaboratively. While he firmly resisted being labeled a painter or printmaker, Cage’s technical approach resembled his unorthodox techniques as a composer. His exploratory methods included melding processes and employing unexpected materials like stones, cotton, foam, and fire. The latter was used to ignite newspaper and brand it using the base of an iron teapot, leaving dark, ring-shaped markings. In 1969, Cage was commissioned to make a lithograph honoring the recently deceased Duchamp. Titled after a remark made by Johns, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel is a group consisting of two lithographs and “plexigrams,” silkscreen prints on plexiglass with combined word fragments arranged by chance. Cage started an affiliation with Crown Point Press in 1978 and created a print series each year, sometimes working with his eyes closed. The 2010 touring exhibition Every Day is a Good Day marked the first major retrospective of Cage’s works on paper and featured one hundred objects.

 John Cage, with his vast circle of contacts, collaborators, and students, cast a long shadow on modern music, dance, and theater. His best-known composition, titled 4’33” and dating to 1952, features musicians who are present on stage but do not play their instruments, allowing for only ambientrather than intentional―sound to be heard by the audience. Conceived around the time Cage spent at Black Mountain College, the composer reported that this example of "sound art" was partially inspired by BMC colleague Rauschenberg’s white paintings of 1951.