In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time will be on view at the Walker as a centerpiece of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. It will be the third time the décor elements have been on view since their acquisition in 2000, although their exhibition history, both at the Walker and at fellow arts institutions far precedes this date. Why has Walkaround Time become such a fitting icon for interdisciplinary collaborative practice, despite being one of many striking stage décor works created by leading visual artists for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company?
In late 1967, Jasper Johns, who used his role as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to act as a curator rather than a creator, expressed to his mentor, Marcel Duchamp, his desire to create a stage décor for Cunningham’s new work based on the design of Duchamp’s famous The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, aka The Large Glass (1915–1923). Duchamp’s now well-known quip, “certainly but who is going to do all the work?” enabled the resourceful Johns to create the setting for one of Cunningham’s most well-known and richly created dances. Working in critic David Whitney’s loft on Canal Street, which afforded more space than Johns’s own studio, he stenciled the imagery from The Large Glass—”The Bride,” “The Seven Sisters,” “The Milky Way,” “The Cemetery of Uniforms,” “The Ocular Witness,” “The Glider,” and “The Chocolate Grinder”—onto vinyl sheeting, which was stretched over seven metal cube frames.
For performances, the images “The Bride” and “The Milky Way,” which appear in the upper register of The Large Glass, were suspended from stage flies, with the remaining five units arranged below. This honored Duchamp’s request that the décor mirror the composition of his work during at least one portion of the dance. As composer Nelson Rivera has aptly noted, the dance relies on lateral movement—the dancers continually enter and exit the stage from the wings and move longitudinally across the stage either across or behind the décor elements. This choreographic structure wryly comments on the dance’s title, which Cunningham explained references the seemingly protracted minutes spent waiting for early computers to process information. The entire dance, from David Behrman’s spoken-word remixed score, to the décor, to the choreographic structure, is an homage to Duchamp. If it’s at all possible to summarize Marcel, Walkaround Time approaches this; the work is, in a sense, Cunningham’s variations on a Ballet Mécanique.1 The dancers themselves seem to take on the movement of machines, often stiff, mechanized. During the work’s intermission, or enter’acte, the dancers remain on stage, seated among the décor, stretching, talking—an adaptation of René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte, which screened midway through performances of the Ballet Suédois’s Relâche. During the second act of the dance, Cunningham removes his warmup clothes while running in place, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (1912). Although the movement and character of the dance is uniquely Cunningham’s, the choreographer embraced Duchamp’s evasive attitude towards authorship and style.
Johns himself is hesitant to claim ownership of the décor, calling the design, in a letter to former Walker Director Kathy Halbreich, “something other than a work by me.”2 Johns is correct in that Walkaround Time is something outside a work by a single artist, more a material embodiment of Marcel Duchamp’s impact on the post-war avant-garde and continued influence today.
The Walker was the first to exhibit Walkaround Time within exhibition galleries in 1994 as part of Duchamp’s Leg, an exhibition that looked to this very lineage of Duchamp’s impact on the younger generations of artists. Although the company was still actively performing—Cunningham had yet to create many of his most iconic works such as BIPED (1999) and Scenario (1997)—curator Joan Rothfuss thought outside the proverbial box in seeking to include these décor works, which were recently retired, but still owned by the company in the exhibition. Only a pair of the seven vinyl pieces on view were installed in the Walker galleries. Displayed in this way, their scale and texture simulated the haptic experience of moving and carrying the pieces across a stage. In the opening sequence of Walkaround Time, Cunningham is seen running in place behind The Chocolate Grinder, allowing the clear vinyl décor to simultaneously frame and obstruct his movement. Walkaround Time is one of the few dances in which the choreography itself was developed in consideration of the décor (Cunningham had his dancers use cardboard boxes in rehearsals until Johns’s work was completed). Dancers lift and carry the cubes and then each other with little differentiation. The cube becomes body becomes readymade. 3
In 1998, Walkaround Time returned to the Walker for Art Performs Life: Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones, Merce Cunningham, for which the complete décor was installed and contextualized within Cunningham’s practice and within the designs artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Rei Kawakubo had created for the company. Following this seminal installation, the Walker approached the acquisition of the décor from the Cunningham Foundation, and the work formally entered the collection in 2000. It was only the second object created as a stage décor element for Cunningham to enter a museum collection (the Art Gallery of Ontario acquired Story (1964), a combine created by Robert Rauschenberg during a performance of Cunningham’s dance of the same name).
Ironically, Walkaround Time has never been installed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. In 2011, soon after the Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, included in which was an exhibition copy of Walkaround Time, the work was displayed on a low stage within the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp—a “conversation,” in the words of curator Carlos Basualdo, rather than an exhibition, that explored relationships between the leaders of post-war avant-garde. In this active and transitional installation, Basualdo and co-curator Ericka Battle allowed the work to move between décor and sculpture. When the stage was used for performances, the vinyl boxes were drawn up towards the ceiling, creating a newly configured setting to Cunningham’s choreography
The following year the décor was included in A House Full of Music: Strategies in Music and Art, an exhibition that celebrated John Cage’s centenary at the Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt. Although Cage did not create the score for Walkaround Time, his fingerprints on the vinyl cubes are undeniable. Cunningham’s partner since 1945, it was through Cage that Johns and Cunningham developed their close, if reverential, relationship with Duchamp. This is one of dozens of key collaborations Cage fostered through his easily generated and far-reaching network of composers and artists. Cage was more than simply a social interloper between these individuals, and it is key to note how the design of Walkaround Time was in keeping with Cage’s own artistic practice. For Cage, music contained elements of the visual. Outside of being drawn to the theatrical and dedicating much of his life and work to Cunningham’s dance company, Cage’s own musical scores, including his well-known, largely-blank pages for 4’33” (1952), conveyed an acute sense of space, that of both the paper and the space in which the composition was performed.
In 2015, Philippe Parreno included the set elements for Walkaround Time as part of Hypothesis, an installation at the Hangar Bicocca in Milan. Parreno understood the unfixed qualities of Walkaround Time as expressed nine years before Walkaround Time by Johns: “It seems less the machine’s True Story capacities for romance than the capacity of the work to contain Duchamp’s huge precisions of thought-in-art that is conveyed by its vitality.”4
Parreno’s rearrangement of the décor in relation to the stage underscored Cage’s idea of the theatrical space as one that is inherently decentered, a space beckoning to be moved through much as the clear vinyl (or glass in Duchamp’s original work) is to be looked through. For Parreno, the décor element became an object of regeneration, a motif he re-contextualized after its creation by Duchamp and application through Cunningham and Johns. Parreno’s appropriation of Walkaround Time within his installation was a scheme used to indicate the “ability of an artwork to host another,” a type of parasitic homage in which each creation creates a possibility for something else to occur. In this way, he completed the transformation of one artwork into another, leaving the space below the suspended décor empty, a blank stage on which the shadows of The Large Glass suggested the possibility of new interpretations, embodiments, and regenerations.
In this way, Walkaround Time, with its origins at the nexus point of conceptual, performance, and composition practice, indicates superbly the shared and intersecting wavelengths Cunningham, Cage, Johns, and Duchamp rode at that moment in time, but act as a type of Rosetta Stone, rich with ideas from different perspectives that continue to foster an embodied approach to contemporary practice. The décor’s creative exhibition history to date is only the prelude to a performance in and around its clear shadows.
1 Ferdenand Léger, 1924 “dance” of Dadist collage for film.
2 Jasper Johns, letter to Kathy Halbreich, December 8, 1998, Walker Art Center archives.
3 David Vaughan notes how Walkaround Time was, at the time, one of the few times that Cunningham diverged from his philosophical approach that the music, décor and choreography be developed individually. See David Vaughan “‘Then I Thought About Marcel’: Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time” in Merce Cunningham : Dancing in Space and Time (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), Richard Kostelanetz ed., 66–70.
4 Jasper Johns “Duchamp” in Scrap, no. 2, December 23, 1960, 4.