One bonus of working at the Walker is the proximity to primary resources. One minute you can be sitting at your desk, in total office mode, and a few stairs and hallways later you are in the theater, or a gallery space, or art storage, face to face with the actual objects of your study. Around every corner there are visual reminders of why you do what you do. As the Walker begins to unpack some of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s backdrops, the primary resources don’t get much bigger.
Most stage backdrops are around 30 feet high by 60 feet wide. The Cunningham drops arrived folded down into squares, an origami that needs to be reversed in order to eliminate creases and to assess conservation needs. Currently onsite, the Walker is processing drops by Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Lancaster, John Cage, and William Anastasi. Before being wound onto storage rolls, each of the drops are being hung in the McGuire Theater for a week, pulled taut by heavy piping that is inserted into the bottom of the fabric.
When it comes time to exhibit the pieces, their physical scale presents a logistical and curatorial challenge: How do you adapt a stage backdrop to gallery proportions? How do you allow viewers to take in the entire piece? Is it a misrepresentation of the work to display only a small detail of it? What happens when you foreground a work that is meant to have moving bodies in front of it?
A curious thing happened to me when I was standing in front of the backdrops in the McGuire, and I observed it happening to others, as well. When the drops were unfurled, the initial reaction was to get close to them, to inspect the patterns and details. But the subsequent impulse was to turn away from the pieces and look out over the theater seats, to orient oneself to the performer’s perspective. Rather than merely experiencing the backdrops visually, it’s instinctive to want to position oneself within them.
Walker registrar Joe King and I also recently visited the Midwest Arts Conservation Center (MACC), where Rauschenberg’s wooden wheeled platforms for Cunningham’s dance Travelogue (1977) are being restored. MACC is housed within the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and is a resource for both museums and private collectors. In the instance of Rauschenberg’s wooden platforms, the scuffs and smudges that one might casually try to scrub off with Windex and a paper towel are instead painstakingly treated with Q-tips and various solvents.