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Merce Cunningham and the Visual Arts

Cunningham's interscapeby David Vaughan

In his book "Changes: Notes on Choreography" (edited by Frances Starr; New York: Something Else Press, 1968), Merce Cunningham wrote:

I had always been interested in working with artists: Isamu Noguchi with the ballet "The Seasons" for the Ballet Society [1947]; David Hare with a handsome but unfunctional costume for a solo ["Mysterious Adventure" 1945], unfunctional in the sense that it was too heavy to wear to do anything; Howard Bay with mediocre costumes and set for the Brandeis [Festival of the Creative Arts] production of "Les Noces" (1952). These were not collaborations so much as designs after the fact of the dance.

But with "Minutiae" [1954] a different idea about the addition of décor came in. I asked Robert Rauschenberg to make something for it. The dance was not finished. I did not tell him what to make, only that it could be something that was in the dance area, that we could move through it, around it, and with it if he so liked.

He made an object and beautiful as it was, I knew it wouldn’t work, because it needed a pipe to hang on. He made a second one through which we walked, huddled, and climbed. It was like an object in nature.

For the next ten years Rauschenberg was the Company’s resident designer, frequently traveling with it as stage manager. The works for which he designed décor, costumes, and lighting included "Nocturnes" (1956), "Summerspace" and "Antic Meet" (both 1958), "Æon" (1961), and "Story" (1963). For the last-named, Rauschenberg would improvise a décor for each performance using materials he found at the theater.

In August 1967 Jasper Johns was appointed Artistic Advisor to the Company, in which capacity he selected designers for new dances as well as designing some himself. There followed a series of celebrated collaborations with contemporary visual artists: Frank Stella’s mobile decor for "Scramble" (1967); Andy Warhol, whose installation piece “Silver Clouds” provided the décor for "RainForest" (1968); Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” was adapted for the décor for "Walkaround Time" (also 1968) under the supervision of Johns himself; Robert Morris designed "Canfield" (1969); Bruce Nauman placed a row of industrial fans along the front of the stage for "Tread" (1970); Johns designed "Second Hand" (also 1970) "Landrover" (1972), and "Exchange" (1978); the décor for "Inlets" (1977) was based on a concept by Morris Graves.

In 1973 Cunningham, John Cage, and Johns received a commission from the Paris Festival d’Automne to create an evening-length ballet, "Un jour ou deux," for the Ballet of the Paris Opéra. Johns’s assistant in this project was the British painter Mark Lancaster, who then became in effect the Cunningham Company’s resident designer, and officially replaced Johns as Artistic Advisor in 1980. Among the works designed by Lancaster were "Sounddance" (1975), "Squaregame" (1976), "Roadrunners" (1979), "Duets" (1980), "Trails" and "Quartet (both 1982), ""Roaratorio" (1983), and "Pictures" (1984). William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw succeeded Lancaster in 1984, but he continued to design for the Company from time to time, notably for "Five Stone Wind" (1988), "Neighbors" (1991), and "CRWDSPCR" (1993). Anastasi designed "Native Green" (1985) and "Polarity" (1990), the latter based on drawings by Cunningham; Bradshaw designed "Arcade" (1985), "Fabrications" (1987), and "Cargo X" (1989); together, they designed the videodance "Points in Space" (1986).

Rauschenberg returned to collaborate with Cunningham on "Travelogue" (1977) and "Interscape" (2000); in 1994 he painted a large canvas entitled “Immerse” for use as a backdrop for Cunningham’s “Event” performances.

Other artists who have designed works for Cunningham include the installation artists Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel ("Field" and "Figures," 1989); “Afrika,” the Russian painter Sergei Bugaev ("August Pace," also 1989); Marsha Skinner ("Beach Birds," 1991, "Change of Address" and "Enter," both 1992, and "Ocean," 1994); Mary Jean Kenton ("Breakers," also 1994); Leonardo Drew ("Ground Level Overlay," 1995); Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons ("Scenario," 1997). The décor for Windows (1995) was taken from an etching by John Cage, and that for "Pond Way" (1998) from a painting by Roy Lichtenstein. The digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar created the décor for "BIPED" (1999), using motion capture technology. The late Suzanne Gallo, for many years the Company’s costume design coordinator, designed the costumes for "Ground Level Overlay," "Windows," "Pond Way," and "BIPED." The sculptor Charles Long designed the décor for "Way Station" (2001), with costumes by James Hall, who succeeded Gallo as costume design coordinator. Cunningham’s most recent work, "Loose Time" (2002), was designed by Terry Winters.

It has often been said that Cunningham’s record as collaborator with contemporary visual artists rivals that of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, which brought painters of the School of Paris such as Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and Gris to the stage. As long ago as 1974 an exhibition on this theme, “Diaghilev/Cunningham,” curated by Robert Littman and David Vaughan, was held at the Emily Lowe Gallery, Hofstra University, Hempstead, Long Island NY. In more recent years a major exhibition curated by Germano Celant toured in several museums in Europe, and in the spring of 2002 a trio of exhibitions devoted to John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham was held at the Gallery of Fine Art, Edison College, Fort Myers, Florida.

This article appears by kind permission of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

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