Walker Art Center

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The Muscle of Art: How Cunningham and Rauschenberg Inspire Us to Flex

By Abigail Sebaly

“Activity and open curiosity support the muscle of art. The only thing that exists is more, or as John [Cage] would say, just enough.” —Robert Rauschenberg

In March 2007, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed in Naples, Florida. Riverdance had a recent show at this particular venue, and the crowd who came expecting more Broadway glitz was stretched in new ways. Robert Rauschenberg sat in the audience, a few rows away from two women who clucked disapprovingly during intermission: “The dancers are talented, but the choreographer should be shot.” All of this fresh uproar and ire was targeted at work that had caused people to hiss or throw eggs and tomatoes some 40 years earlier.

The next day, the dance company and staff took a field trip to Rauschenberg’s estate on Captiva Island. Their bus negotiated a long bridge and a single lane road until it arrived at Rauschenberg’s remote compound, where a picnic supper was laid out on wheeled worktables in the artist’s pristine white studio. Rauschenberg and Cunningham, both wheelchair-bound by this time, sat and chatted while The Guiding Light played on a television situated among stacked jars of pigment. Outside on the lawn, Rauschenberg’s 1981 combine The Ancient Incident (Kabal American Zephyr) was silhouetted against a fish house on stilts and, beyond that, the ocean.

As a parting gift for the day of sun and relaxation, the dancers performed an impromptu moment of Cunningham’s choreography on the grass, barefooted. He and Rauschenberg both started whooping and clapping with the other onlookers as the dancers accelerated their speed. Everyone spontaneously experienced the joy and wonderment that was liable to erupt whenever Cunningham and Rauschenberg came together. Although their friendship was not without its textures and occasional rifts, it was grounded in a lifelong appreciation for each other’s work.

As the Walker examines what it means to collect performance, while assimilating its monumental Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, the creative relationship between Cunningham and Rauschenberg offers an important starting point. They collaborated on more than 20 pieces, particularly from 1954 to 1964, but there is more to their work than just the volume of their output. In those early years, Cunningham and his partner, composer John Cage, counted many visual artists among their core group of friends. The visual art establishment, more than the dance or music crowds, showed up to their performances. Meanwhile, Rauschenberg befriended dancers through his interest in movement and theater. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company provided a platform for these artists to continue reaching across the boundaries of their individual disciplines. At a critical moment, the company satisfied a common creative need that these artists could not find elsewhere.

When we talk about “collecting performance,” there are the obvious material objects to consider. But when we inquire about provenance and ask where it all came from, it is not enough to trace the material ownership of the objects without also understanding the personal histories that went into creating them. A biographical investigation of these collaborators is not meant to impose some artificial narrative on the work itself, but rather to offer a human dimension to the conceptual picture. In that sunny reunion on Captiva Island, human interests were of primary importance.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise for Rauschenberg enthusiasts, but he had an intense early interest in both the theater and the body. He designed costumes for his high school plays, and following service in the Navy, he was a packing clerk at the Ballerina Bathing Suit Company. This exposure may have contributed to the sensitivity with which he later handled the Cunningham dancers’ leotards and tights. In the book Rauschenberg/ Art and Life, Mary Lynn Kotz retells the story of how Rauschenberg, as a young art student studying in Paris, created a dress for a classmate attending the Paris Opera. He repurposed a velveteen bedspread from the rooming house where he was staying, and accented it with ivy from a nearby park. When admirers commented on her dress, she said that it was “a Rauschenberg.” Making use of the materials at hand was something that both he and Cunningham did time and again, recasting the familiar and the mundane in a new light, whether a tin can, a bed, or a pedestrian gesture observed in the street.

Through my research on Cunningham and Rauschenberg, it has become clear that, as cliché as it may sound, necessity was often the mother of their inventions. Their creativity was not blind to the pragmatic concerns of a touring dance company. Rauschenberg taught himself stage lighting so that his designs would be lit to his own satisfaction. In addition to dreaming up wildly imaginative costumes and sets for the company, he also handled utilitarian chores such as packing the sets and costumes on top of the Volkswagen bus that the company used as a touring vehicle in the early years. Cunningham was also conscious of practicalities. When Rauschenberg wanted to design white costumes for the dance Nocturnes (1956), Cunningham said of the choreography, “then I won’t put any falls in it,” presumably so that scuffs or bloody knees wouldn’t mar the effect. The company’s first Museum Event, a site-specific performance in which extracts of existing repertory choreography were assembled uniquely for that space, was born when the company was offered a gig, but no theater. Since performing this Museum Event No. 1 in 1964 at Vienna’s Museum of the 20th Century, the company has gone on to do hundreds of Events in such diverse locations as New York’s Grand Central Station and the Piazza San Marco in Venice.

Although Cunningham was known for giving his collaborators creative independence, and Rauschenberg was eager to run with this freedom, the two did not work in separate vacuums. On the contrary, to suggest that their collaborations were about total autonomy is to blur an important ongoing interplay between them. For example, take Minutiae (1954), their first formal collaboration. Before producing Minutiae (1954/1976), a freestanding set piece included in the Walker’s exhibition Dance Works I: Cunningham/Rauschenberg, Rauschenberg created another piece that needed to be hung from the theater’s fly space. Theaters with ample fly space were not a luxury that the dance company could afford at that time. Cunningham informed Rauschenberg of this and he revised his vision, pushing himself to create what was his first freestanding, proto-Combine. The back and forth dialogue sometimes shaped Cunningham’s choreographic concepts, too. For Antic Meet (1958), Rauschenberg proposed using a bear fur coat that he had found at a secondhand store (also in Dance Works I). Cunningham recalled, “He dragged out a fur coat at one point and said, ‘Could you use this?,’ and I said, ‘Of course,’ not having the slightest idea what was I going to do with it, but I obviously was going to use it—it looked alive.”

As I become embedded in further research on Cunningham and his collaborators, getting into the more microscopic “deep cuts,” it still weighs on me to articulate the relevance of this work to a broader audience. Even if you don’t know much about the choreographer or his collaborators, or you don’t like dance, there are still lessons that you can take away, in spite of yourself. The work imparts the importance and creative power of being flexible (in mind and body) and persistent. It inspires an alertness and new appreciation for the movements and objects of everyday life. Rauschenberg summed up the muscle of art and how it manifested in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: “All of us worked totally committed, shared every intense emotion and, I think, performed miracles, for love only.”

John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg in London, 1964

Photo: Douglas H. Jeffery

From a sunny day in Captiva, Rauschenberg’s The Ancient Incident (Kabal American Zephyr), 1981.

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Merce Cunningham in Antic Meet (1958), with décor and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg

Photo by Richard Rutledge

Cunningham research fellow Abigail Sebaly catalogues items from the Walker’s Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection—the single largest acquisition of visual art in the Walker’s history

Exhibition image from Dance Works I: Cunningham/Rauschenberg, with décor and costume designs by Robert Rauschenberg