January 15th, 2013 · Kelsey Halliday Johnson

Playing with Chance: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, and Rauschenberg at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book: book and author stand automatically on a single line divided into a before and an after. The Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child.

Roland Barthes, Death of the Author, 1967


Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Cunningham Solos and Duets. Performance view, December 21, 2012. Dancers: Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber. Dancers appear courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust. Photos by Constance Mensh, Philadelphia Museum of Art. 


How do artists distance themselves from the intimate act of creation? Or at the very least, how is it possible to set up rules within the studio to un-anticipate the formulaic direction of one’s process and outcome? In the exhibition Dancing Around the Bride, the Philadelphia Museum of Art tackles an artistic moment where artists began to problematize their own hand in the work. On display is a constellation of chance-based pieces (musical, visual, written, and choreographed) by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Fluidly haunting the process and conceptual backbone of the works is the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art.

The exhibition battles the inherent pitfalls of historicizing art in a fresh way that stands out within contemporary curatorial practices. Curator Carlos Basualdo with assistant Erica F. Battle (and help from French artist Philippe Parreno) attempt to recover the not-so-distant past, not necessarily as merely art historians but as sociologists as well. While some contemporary art-lovers tend to flippantly joke (through the words of British philosopher Alan Watts) that museums are “places where art goes to die,” this exhibition proves that museums can be rewarded by active interpretation of their collections that can reenergize our understanding of the artistic past. In the PMA this is primarily accomplished through the exciting addition of a ballroom-like architectural setting (an intervention by Parreno), two Yamaha Disklavier pianos performing “live,” and, of course, the vibrant living bodies of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company within the gallery.

Cunningham is the true ringleader of this show, as he magnetically drew this group of artists together for a lifetime of collaboration and dialogue. Rauschenberg would become the Company’s Resident Advisor from 1954-64 and Johns would take up the role of Artistic Director from 1967 to 1980, creating sets and costumes, but also inviting other visual artists, including Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Morris. John Cage, meanwhile, met Cunningham early in 1938, becoming his partner and eventually the Company’s Musical Director in 1953, a position he kept until his death in 1992. Black Mountain College in North Carolina was the early hub of this artistic network, where they solidified their artistic alignment in 1952 through an event sometimes referred to as the first Happening, as well as Cage’s early lectures on Duchamp.

In her most recent book, Artificial Hells, art theorist and historian Claire Bishop laments,  “the worlds of music, film, literature, fashion, and theater have a rich vocabulary to describe co-existing authorial positions (director, author, performer, editor, producer, casting agent, sound engineer, stylist, photographer), all of which are regarded as essential to the creative realization of a given project. The lack of an equivalent terminology in contemporary visual art has led to a reductive critical framework…” Yet Dancing Around the Bride relives a moment where visual artists attempted to exist within those working systems. And their studio practices, in dialogue with dance and its physical processes, benefited from such rich collaboration. Cunningham was a methodological trailblazer and it is crucial that we revisit this mode of artistic production in an era where artistic co-authorship is once again flourishing.

Basualdo and Battle understand this as one of the critical underpinnings of the exhibition, and in their curatorial statement declare: “Creating individually and together, they arrived organically at an aesthetic model that is also a political model—something to aspire to, a certain way of coexisting not by resigning who we are but finding in the fluidity of ourselves the evolving basis of an enduring connection to others and to the world.” Cunningham would withhold details from his dancers about the structure, duration and number of dancers in a piece— leaving these decisions to the roll of dice. This new process deprived control from the choreographer and dancer equally, letting the end product be a result of their mutual reaction to new circumstances. Meanwhile, the music, set, and costumes would sometimes be used for the first time in formal public performances, allowing ample room for failure but also opening the door to a new unpredictable energy with the fresh conditions set by Cage, Rauschenberg, and Johns.

The strict definition of artistic roles in this exhibition are questioned; the painter becomes a performer, the sculpture is now a figure on stage, and dancers are transformed into mere points in space and time. The staging of the exhibition also battles the iconic aesthetic of these prominent visual artists through unlikely and beautiful pairings of pieces. We are allowed to clearly see the beginnings of a dismissal of authorship and submission to chance with the integrated grid installation of Robert Rauschenberg’s lithograph series Veils (1974) and John Cage’s monotype String series (1980). For these, Cage released pigment-drenched strings from the top of a ladder and Rauschenberg dropped handkerchiefs randomly onto light-sensitive photo emulsion plates. The two gracefully co-exist, each based on a play with materials and the printing press, marked by a distinctive lack of authorial style due to their stochastic process. While many could point out a Rauschenberg from across the room, series like this demythologize artistic ownership. Additionally, the pieces play with the idea of singularity in a mode distinct from Pop Art or Minimalism, a dialogue that infrequently accompanies Abstract Expressionism.

Meanwhile, Cage shines in this exhibition through his fascinating conceptual conversations with chess, visual art, compositional games, and text. His mesostics, poetry, and music made by generative rules with raw text directly from Duchamp are in beautiful dialogue with the artist in the room adjacent to the museum’s permanent installation of Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. 2012 marks the Cage Centennial, and he is given a rousing memorial organized by Philadelphia experimental music nonprofit group Bowerbird and unprecedented live performances in the museum’s gallery from contemporary music stars like Lee Ranaldo, co-founder and guitarist of Sonic Youth. And in one of their most beautiful performances, Lisa Boudreau, Jamie Scott, and Daniel Squire of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company seemingly froze in time and space for the minimalist and austere choreography of Stillness (in three movements) made for Cage’s 4’33”.  



"Dancing Around the Bride," 2012. Exhibition view.*

Despite the honorable attempt to revive a previous artistic moment, the exhibition is still haunted by ghosts and that which has been lost to history. The seldom-discussed or seen set pieces are too few and sometimes replicas, with the stunning stand-alone Minutiae from Rauschenberg (a 1976 copy of a 1954 original) and the aged billowing veils, chairs, and bicycle wheels called Tantric Geography created for Cunningham’s 1977 Travelogue, placed immediately next to the stage. John’s set for Walkaround Time looms like a chandelier over a ballroom, a transparent vinyl-box homage to Duchamp.

The exhibit does offer unexpected gems, including a 2012 restoration of Charles Atlas’s Walkaround Time, a two-channel film documenting the 1973 Cunningham performance while Atlas was filmmaker-in-residence for the MCDC from 1974 to 1983. Fittingly, the film was first shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with two projectors and has been reedited digitally for this exhibit.  Atlas’s film stands alone as a work that pushes the boundaries of how dance can be documented. John’s set pieces in the film are equal characters to the dancers, and a long intermission of the dancers lounging and stretching between movements was voyeuristically filmed. 



Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Cunningham Solos and Duets. Performance view, December 21, 2012. Dancers: Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber. Dancers appear courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust. Photos by Constance Mensh, Philadelphia Museum of Art. 


If this show is to teach us about attempts to take precision and direction out of the work via chance, we are left with a series of artists who still held tight to their own desires. This attempted reinvention of function, both for the artist and the work, becomes irrelevant when we examine the art for what it truly is. Despite attempts to lose control and make generative studio practices for their work, Johns and Rauschenberg still remain kings of beauty and formalism. In Rauchenberg’s Express (1963), an early experimentation in the image transfer process, the elegant bodies of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a ghostly nude figure walking (a photographic nod to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase) become the central classic figures to the nearly narrative piece.

Cunningham wanted to distance himself from the dance in order to allow viewers space for projection and interpretation of the human form, isolated only in time and space. However, through many of the Solos, Duets, and Trios selected for the exhibition it becomes exceedingly clear that his style occupied a unique in-between ground, marked by romantic sensibilities and stripped-down classicism along with the ingenuity of modern dance. (His duets are particularly poetic, such as Scramble, 1967, Trails, 1982 and Rainforest, 1968) The dancers are overtly balletic: stretching, folding, and bending with sculptural precision and accented with the slightest traces of human theater. It is an interesting paradox for all of the artists that were trying desperately to break with history but was still very much bound by it.

Charting this complicated relationship between an artist’s process and desired outcome begins to explain how we arrived at such a diverse moment within contemporary conceptual practice. And it allows us to meditate on the difficulties artists faced while breaking from classicism. But most importantly, this exhibit reunites friends within the type of institution that tends to segregate them based on genre, movement, and media into separate rooms and even under different curators. The dialogue between these seminal artists was lifelong, represented by a recent Johns piece from 2007 (the large aluminum-plated piece Numbers) whose surface was imprinted with the right foot of Merce Cunningham only two years before his passing. As art history canonizes its heroes more rapidly, sometimes even before their death, this exhibit coaxes us to revisit the recent past as a living vibrant moment and not as a series of fossilized artifacts.



"Dancing Around the Bride," 2012. Exhibition view.**

Dancing Around the Bride is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 21, 2013. 


Kelsey Halliday Johnson is an artist and writer based in Philadelphia. She is the Performance Coordinator at Vox Populi gallery.


*"Dancing Around the Bride," 2012. Exhibition view. Photos by Contance Mensh, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Top: Robert Rauschenberg, Bride's Folly, 1959. Oil, fabric, paper, printed paper collage and metal on canvas; 57 1/2 x 39 3/4 inches (146.1 x 101 cm). Private Collection. Bottom: Main stage. 

**"Dancing Around the Bride," 2012. Exhibition view. Photos by Contance Mensh, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Top: Entrance marquee.
Robert Rauschenberg, Set for Tantric Geography, 1977. Row of wood chairs mounted on dollies separated by bicycle wheels, fabric. Eight dollies: wood boxes with four casters, painted white, each marked with numbers 1-8 and arrows; dollies link in a train with joining hardware. Five stainless steel bycicle wheels. Four pipes, aluminium and cast iron; two wood base plates with speed-rail joint painted black; Each (single dolly): 8 1/2 x 23 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches (21.6 x 59.7 x 59.7 cm) Each (pipe): 16 inches (40.6 cm) Each (wood base plate): 15 x 8 1/2 x 1 inches (38.1 x 21.6 x 2.5 cm) Each (folding chair): 34 x 11 x 1 1/2 inches (86.4 x 27.9 x 3.8 cm) Each (wood stool): 18 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 10 inches (47 x 31.8 x 25.4 cm). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, Gift of Jay F. Ecklund, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation, Agnes Gund, Russell Cowles and Josine Peters, the Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Dorothy Lichtenstein, MAHADH Fund of HRK Foundation, Goodale Family Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, David Teiger, Kathleen Fluegel, Barbara G. Pine, and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011. 

Jasper Johns, set for Walkaround Time, 1968. Plastic, paint; Each (Bride): 103 x 41 x 25 1/2 inches (261.6 x 104.1 x 64.8 cm) Each (Occult Witness): 41 x 35 x 25 1/2 inches (104.1 x 88.9 x 64.8 cm) Each (9 Malic Molds): 54 x 80 3/4 x 25 1/2 inches (137.2 x 205.1 x 64.8 cm) Each (Sieves/Parasols): 38 1/2 x 49 1/2 x 25 1/2 inches (97.8 x 125.7 x 64.8 cm) Each (Milky way with Nets): 37 x 108 x 25 1/2 inches (94 x 274.3 x 64.8 cm) Each (Chocolate Grinder): 85 1/4 x 95 3/4 x 25 1/2 inches (216.5 x 243.2 x 64.8 cm) Each (Watermill): 90 x 54 1/2 x 25 1/2 inches (228.6 x 138.4 x 64.8 cm). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2000.

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