What happens when two powerful artistic personalities come together to create work for the stage? This question is at the heart of the exhibition Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg, which explores the initial transformative 10-year collaborative relationship between the eminent dancer/choreographer and the visual artist known for his complex compositions that merge painting, sculpture, and multimedia art.
Between 1954 and 1964, Rauschenberg was the resident designer and stage manager for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, traveling with the group and creating—sometimes only hours before a performance—an astonishing array of props, backdrops, and costumes for some of Cunningham’s best-known dances. These works (in addition to contextual documentary materials) are the subject of this focused exhibition, the first in a series of Walker projects devoted to unpacking, often quite literally, the extraordinary trove of works that constitutes the Walker’s expansive acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.
Over the next several years, shows featuring work from the many artists who passed through Cunningham’s studio as creative partners, including Jasper Johns, William Anastasi, and Rei Kawakubo, will be the source of study and research, laying the foundation for a large-scale exhibition in 2015 designed as a retrospective of Cunningham’s significant contributions to the fields of dance and art history. By giving visual artists total creative freedom to do what they wanted for the stage, he empowered them to experiment, often for the first time, with the scale and drama of live performance.
How and why Cunningham opened his space—and the setting of dance in particular—to the presence of visual artists is a story unto itself. A singular talent bent on freeing dance from the burdens of drama and narrative, Cunningham was a leading force in the avant-garde movement who worked closely with partner and collaborator John Cage to establish a new set of rules for the formation of choreography. Rather than perceive dance to be sequential and progressive, they strove to introduce aspects of daily life—including the random effects of chance—to its creation. Simple gestures such as rolling dice or cutting a deck of cards were methods Cunningham used to organize dance elements, a strategy that eliminated storytelling and human emotion from the compositional process.
This collagelike approach was ideally suited to the work of Rauschenberg, whom Cunningham and Cage had gotten to know in 1952 at Black Mountain College, a multidisciplinary experimental arts program in North Carolina, where together they participated in the nowlandmark performance Theater Piece No. 1. Only two years later, Rauschenberg was collaborating in earnest with Cunningham back in New York, creating a set that some consider to be his first Combine painting, Minutiae (1954). The performance replica will be included in the exhibition, along with other props and artifacts made then and in the years that followed.
Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg is neither a “dance” nor an “art” exhibition, but like other projects that fall somewhere between disciplines, a little bit of both. To look at the décor and drops that Rauschenberg created for the stage is to get a glimpse of a known artist from a completely different vantage point. At the same time, the exhibition provides a more expansive understanding of Cunningham beyond his lauded role as choreographer and dancer. His creativity, openness to risk, and visionary support of artists across disciplines enabled him to advance the interests of many different art forms at once. Dance Works I is an inaugural foray into a study of Cunningham’s enduring role as a creative thinker and catalyst for some of the most significant artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.