Something happened last week that made me entirely jealous of my hometown city, Philly. NYC is supposed to provide me with all of my dancerly needs, so why is Philadelphia Museum of Art the one to get the first posthumous exhibition on Merce Cunningham? It was my first chance to spend time with him since his company closed in 2011, so I made the short pilgrimage home that weekend.
As a child, I remember taking my sketchbook to the art museum. Of its 227,000 objects, one I was particularly drawn to was Duchamp’s Large Glass. Two others were attracted to the same strange seminal work, decades earlier - Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. There in Philadelphia sat the seed that sprouted postmodernism - reassessing the nature of representation and challenging artistic convention - a movement I would grow to contemplate at Cunningham’s memorial in 2009. And at that event, sat curators Carlos Basualdo and Erica F. Battle, who were planting the seeds for the exhibition that would bring it all full-circle.
Dancing Around the Bride looks at the interwoven lives of Marcel Duchamp (the senior figure), John Cage (composer), Merce Cunningham (choreographer) Robert Rauschenberg (artist) and Jasper Johns (artist). Commonalities between these artists included use of chance procedures, everyday objects, process over product, and blurring the boundaries between art and life.
The exhibition is multi-faceted in a way Merce would approve. Always rejecting convention, he is credited with the creation of “happenings,” interactive experiences as a means of viewing art. When I walked into the space, I was met by music: Cage’s unpredictable, unsettling Number Pieces. Three musicians use various noises and instruments to fill defined brackets of time with undefined durations of sound. I found a place to sit near the stage, a central space - in true Cunningham fashion - void of backdrops or wings and set with a decomposed Large Glass, reminiscent of Walkaround Time (his homage to Duchamp). From the adjacent walls, a Rauschenberg’s stalwart presence permeates the room.
Not far hangs a piece created by dropping paint-drenched scarves randomly onto canvases. From the traceable wayward path of the paint, one can imagine the artist still present, hovering over his canvases, breathing life into them: the encapsulating of a vivacious individual. The haphazard creation of beauty was subsequently occurring backstage, as Cunningham’s former dancers used chance maneuvers to determine which order to perform their series of solos, duets and group pieces. As they took to the space, moments of beautiful individuality blurred seamlessly into moments of collective identity. Breaking away from storybook ballets as well as “dancing an emotion,” Cunningham’s pieces are ultimately a celebration of bodies moving through space. In the exhibition, his ideal of “movement for the sake of movement” is reflected in the painterly field in the nearby art pieces.
The exhibition is gone tomorrow, but it is an appropriate tribute, a chance for homage, and a beautiful beginning of retrospective analysis.