Backdrops, Blobs, Pods, and Props

The Walker Art Center celebrates its acquisition of a trove of objects documenting artists’ collaborations with Merce Cunningham in a series of groundbreaking shows

A hand-painted unitard from Summerspace, 1958.


The Walker Art Center first brought the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to Minneapolis in 1963, for a performance of the innovative choreographer’s Antic Meet (1958). For this surrealist romp, Cunningham had Robert Rauschenberg make the set pieces and costumes, which included hand-painted tank tops emblazoned with a tattoo-style eagle clutching an American flag in its beak and scrunched-up white parachutes for dresses that flounced and bounced to slapstick effect as the dancers went about their business. Now, two years since Cunningham’s death, at the age of 90, and after five decades of supporting his work through residencies, commissions, exhibitions, and engagements, the Walker has acquired a trove of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s set pieces, costumes, painted backdrops, and props made in groundbreaking collaborations with visual artists like Rauschenberg, John Cage, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as younger artists such as Ernesto Neto, Charles Long, Daniel Arsham, and Rei Kawakubo.

“This acquisition is about the intersection of dance and the visual arts, which have always had something to do with one another but rarely get a focused critical examination,” says Darsie Alexander, chief curator at the Walker. “We want to rewrite this chapter of art history to include Cunningham as a really pivotal artist whose choreography and dance was as adventuresome and rigorous as his visual-arts counterparts and who was able to make an unprecedented connection with other parts of the art world.”

Finding an appropriate home for the diverse objects was a key part of Cunningham’s Legacy Plan, implemented after his death by the Cunningham Dance Foundation. The Walker was a natural fit, given its longstanding performing-arts program and its specific history with Cunningham. In 2000, the museum acquired the transparent, cuboid props that Johns designed for Cunningham’s Walkaround Time (1968). These transportable components evoke Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23) and were manipulated by the dancers during performances. Yet while the Johns pieces fit into the sculptural-object category, the bulk of this new acquisition—textiles, backdrops, costumes—falls outside the Walker’s previous collecting purview.

“It’s all new territory,” Alexander says. “It’s going to be an ongoing process of learning how to display and store and conserve this material.” She and other Walker staff spent more than a year working with the dance company to understand the scope of what they had and to identify a core group of about 100 dances out of Cunningham’s total output of nearly 200. From these dances, which included collaborations with some 40 artists, the Walker is keeping more than 150 works in the stage-decor category as well as each original set of costumes. Additionally, the dance company is providing the museum with digital “dance capsules” filled with video and photo documentation, choreographer’s notes, and anything pertinent to the display and historical context of the dances.

From November 4 to 6, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is scheduled to visit the Walker for one of the last stops on its two-year Legacy Tour to perform three of Cunningham’s works: RainForest (1968), with Warhol’s floating Mylar pillows that meld into the choreography; Pond Way (1998), performed before the serene backdrop of a pointillist water scene by Lichtenstein; and Antic Meet. Opening at the museum on November 3 is the first in an ongoing series of exhibitions drawn from the acquisition that will focus on Cunningham’s collaborations with specific artists.

‘Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg,” on view through April 8, is a concentrated look at the partnership between Cunningham and Rauschenberg, who collaborated on ten pieces between 1954 and 1964—a seminal time in both artists’ careers—and on 24 dance works in total. “Rauschenberg started working with Cunningham right when he began the ‘Combine’ paintings,” says Alexander, who has selected an enormous painted curtain from Summerspace (1958) to go with a freestanding sculpture from Minutiae (1954/1976) that mixes found objects with painting, plus other items from Antic Meet, Nocturnes (1956), and Travelogue (1977). “Over time with Rauschenberg, there’re certain motifs that recur,” the curator adds. “You can see some of his imagery migrate from painting and sculpture into Cunningham’s realm.” Chairs, wheels, and discs reappear throughout these dances. In Travelogue, there were brightly colored pinwheel skirts that seemed to revolve between dancers’ legs and a little train of square platforms on bicycle wheels carrying dinette chairs.

“Dance Works II: Merce Cunningham/Ernesto Neto,” the second of these exhibitions, opens on December 15. One double-height gallery space will have Neto’s biomorphic set elements, titled Otheranimal, for Cunningham’s Views on Stage (2004), featuring a suspended ceiling piece with long, pendulous sacks dangling from a nylon net and a large egglike object on the floor. “Cunningham tended to like abstract work, which is a consistent aspect of the artists with whom he collaborated and was attracted to,” says Alexander, pointing especially to the choreographer’s younger collaborators. The youngest artist to collaborate with Cunningham was Daniel Arsham, who was 26 when he was tapped to design the set for eyeSpace, in 2007. Now he has been commissioned to do the decor for the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York from December 29 to 31, where he will fill the drill hall with a cloudlike ceiling installation comprising thousands of individual colored spheres.

While Cunningham’s collaborations with Rauschenberg and Johns were significant and longstanding, his relationship with the composer John Cage, his life partner, was the single most important on his work. “While Cage only made a few objects that are part of this collection, his influence is everywhere,” says Alexander. “Cage’s philosophy about chance effect, and the way that chance played a role in the conceptualization of Cunningham’s choreography, is really critical. And it was probably Cage who directed him to some of these artists and possibilities.” One object in the collection attributed to Cage is a backdrop made posthumously in 1992, the year he died, created from a drawing of overlapping circles that Cage had drafted in relation to his 1983 musical composition Ryoanji. It was hung downstage for each of Cunningham’s performances that year in honor of his partner.

Among the more visually arresting pieces in the collection are the costumes by Rei Kawakubo, the avant-garde fashion designer who founded Commes des Garçons, for Scenario (1997). The dancers wore bold striped-and-gingham unitards with bulbous blobs that look like growths cropping out in unexpected places. “You can imagine these costumes were quite difficult to wear,” says Alexander. “The costumes could contribute to the choreography in so far as what the artists made had to be worn. You see that when you see Antic Meet being performed. The way that these garments move becomes integral to the gestures of the human body.” Another standout is the bevy of freestanding forms, some over 12 feet tall, that Charles Long created for Way Station (2001). These five canopylike creatures—the artist calls them “pods”—have long tendrilous legs made with brightly painted foil wrapped around steel armatures, creating a surreal environment for the dancers to move through.

In addition to the series of single-artist exhibitions drawn from the acquisition, the Walker is planning a Cunningham symposium in the spring of 2013. The research accrued during this convention will inform a large-scale exhibition scheduled for 2015 at the museum that will take an integrated look at all of Cunningham’s work. “That’s the moment when we’re going to be serious about writing him into a chapter of art history,” says Alexander, who anticipates putting a lot of scholarship about the collection online as part of a “living catalogue” project the Walker has undertaken with Getty funds.

While Cunningham certainly wasn’t the first choreographer to collaborate with artists—Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, for instance, had a long history of commissioning costume and set designs from such artists as Matisse and Picasso—he had his own interpretation of the role of the artist in his work, which was to give them total creative freedom. “One of Cunningham’s great qualities, according to people who worked with him, was he just let people do what they did best and really respected the expertise they brought to whatever facet of the performances they were contributing to,” Alexander says. In a Cunningham work, “the sphere of performance was like a moment of collage where dance, movement, sound, image, object, body would come together, but they would do so in a way that was full of interesting discontinuities and some harmonies. His openness to the way that artists like Rauschenberg and Johns worked within their own world helped introduce something new to the stage, not just subservient to it. That’s why these objects are really good.”

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