PRINT April 2013


“Intimate Collaborations”

View of “Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp,” 2012–13, Philadelphia Museum of Art. From left: Robert Rauschenberg, set for Tantric Geography, 1977; Jasper Johns, set for Walkaround Time, 1968. Photo: Constance Mensh.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I tried to persuade the artist Barbara Kruger to participate in an event I was organizing at the University of Southern California called “Contemporary Conversations.” Seeking to move beyond the staid format of most academic conferences, the event featured a series of unscripted dialogues among artists, critics, and curators. Kruger was reluctant to participate, telling me she was more interested in “the moments between or before” conference presentations—the things said backstage, shared among the audience, or discussed at the reception afterward—than in the presentations themselves. I countered that there could be no moments “in between” unless there was a main event: We needed to stage a public conversation in order to provoke private exchanges and impromptu responses.

Kruger ultimately agreed to speak, but her hesitation stayed with me, even long after the event. How, I wondered, could private or sotto voce exchanges become part of a shared public dialogue? And what, exactly, has happened to “official” institutional conversations that renders them less vibrant than what happens behind the scenes, offstage, or in sundry pockets of the audience?

I attempted a provisional answer by using the last morning of “Contemporary Conversations” for informal discussion in a Los Angeles art bar. By staging the meeting off-campus, I hoped to loosen the reins of professional hierarchy and academic posturing. But it was what followed our bar conversation that really changed the group’s dynamics: an impromptu visit to “Passages,” an exhibition by Walead Beshty at LAXART, a nearby alternative art space. “Passages” included a mirrored glass floor that became increasingly cracked as visitors stepped on it. According to the LAXART press release, Beshty’s floor functioned as a part of his ongoing investigation into “modernity’s transitory and indeterminate spaces.” But three members of our group—one professor, two graduate students, all women, and each wearing a skirt—had quite a different reaction to the installation. Each was palpably discomfited by the public exposure of their bodies that Beshty’s mirrored floor enacted. Rather than remaining on the margins of our group tour, the experience of the three women became a central component of our discussion, and in this way something that might have gone unspoken was suddenly brought into public discourse.

I found myself thinking about this episode during a recent weekend spent at another conference, this one titled “Intimate Collaborations.” Organized by the University of Pennsylvania scholar and critic Kaja Silverman, the conference was inspired by the exhibition “Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an unprecedented examination of the role of collaboration in the work of five leading twentieth-century artists. The conference marked the second in a series of public events organized by Silverman in conjunction with a $1.5 million Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The award—the single largest prize in the humanities outside the Nobel—bespeaks Silverman’s extraordinary stature within the field.

For all Silverman’s prominence, however, she could not bring to pass a primary ambition of the conference. Initially conceived as a joint effort between the university and the museum, “Intimate Collaborations” was ultimately mounted entirely at the former. Tensions between the two establishments hovered just outside the official discourse of the conference, which studiously avoided any direct mention of a problem in working across institutional boundaries. But that knowledge surfaced in private exchanges among audience members, and in the conspicuous absence of any museum staff from the official conference program.

I never discovered precisely what had gone awry in the working relationship between museum and university. I do know that what happened onstage throughout the conference was shadowed by unanswered questions about events offstage. What did these spectral questions reveal about the divides that separate, and sometimes alienate, academic art history from its museum-based counterpart?

Art-world and academic politics typically dictate that critics keep quiet about matters of organizational discord that are not shared or aired in public. I am refusing to do so here because I am tired of the double discourse that often structures events such as “Intimate Collaborations”—the gap between what is said by speakers and what goes on behind the scenes. Despite such gaps—or perhaps, in a way, because of them—the idea of collaboration enjoys an excellent reputation in both the art world and the academy, suggesting as it does a process of relationality, reciprocity, and dialogical exchange. But as anyone who has ever participated in a sustained professional or personal collaboration can attest, such relationships may easily unravel into mutual resentment, envy, or radical asymmetry.

Consider an example especially relevant to “Dancing Around the Bride.” Robert Rauschenberg’s decadelong collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (for which the artist served as set, lighting, and costume designer beginning in 1954) ended badly soon after he was awarded the international Grand Prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale. The publicity Rauschenberg received as a result threatened to all but overwhelm the attention afforded to the financially struggling dance company. Cunningham dancer Carolyn Brown recounts the mounting tension of the moment in her 2007 memoir Chance and Circumstance: “Much was made of Rauschenberg. Rarely did a review [of the Cunningham company, on world tour at the time] fail to mention his Venice Biennale Prize, or his growing European reputation as the bad boy of American art, which only heightened the unease that Merce and John [Cage] were experiencing.” The world tour concluded with a stop in Tokyo, where Rauschenberg agreed to appear in a public event titled “Twenty Questions to Bob Rauschenberg,” which “consisted of Bob making a combine painting on a gold-leaf screen given to him by [ikebana master] Sofu Teshigahara for this purpose. Drink in hand, Bob worked nonstop from 6:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Alex [Hay, stage technician], Debby [Hay, dancer], and Steve [Paxton, dancer] assisted him. Questions were asked. Bob worked. And drank. For four hours. No verbal answers were given. Merce and John arrived late. . . . After five minutes, Merce left, then returned in about an hour. No one knew why. Shortly upon his return, both he and John left.”

Furious with Cage and Cunningham for their lack of support, the artist sent the couple a scathingly short note the next day:

dear john and merce,
i am not going to work with the company anymore.
it was so nice of you to share last nite with me in such a friendly way.
thanks bob.

By the time Rauschenberg resigned from the Cunningham company, he was romantically involved with Paxton, a point worth mentioning because of the overlay of creative and sexual relationships among the two couples who performed “Twenty Questions” (Rauschenberg and Paxton, Deborah and Alex Hay) as well as the couple (Cage and Cunningham) whose behavior as audience members so offended the artist.

The complex intertwining of professional and personal relationships underscores the necessity of nuancing the concept of collaboration, which is clearly not reducible to any single form of social or creative exchange. One of the strengths of “Intimate Collaborations” lay in its embrace of queer collaboration and sexual affiliation as legitimate issues for art-historical attention. In a tour-de-force moment, Silverman opened the conference by responding to a central tenet of the exhibition across town:

One of the overarching topics in “Dancing Around the Bride” is chance. This was of course a privileged concept for Duchamp and Cage, and there is a lot of support in the show for extending it to Cunningham, Johns, and Rauschenberg. However, I must confess that I am always disappointed by this way of accounting for what exceeds our conscious agency, because it is a very controlling way of ceding control. It brackets the unconscious and other intentionalities and promotes an a-relational account of authorship. I find it particularly disappointing in the case of Cage, Cunningham, Johns, and Rauschenberg, since their collaborations were so clearly motivated by profound affinities: aesthetic, philosophical, corporeal, and affective.

As Silverman points out, the urge to cast personal exchanges among artists as thematic subjects for academic research or curatorial display often elides the very fluidity and immediacy that made those exchanges so generative in the first place.

As Silverman’s opening comments suggest, “Dancing Around the Bride” measured a certain distance from the lived intimacies (and sometime rivalries) among the artists on view. The fundamental interweaving of art and life that structured Cage’s partnership with Cunningham (which lasted from the 1940s to Cage’s death in 1992), as well as the seven years in which Johns and Rauschenberg were boyfriends, remained largely unspoken within the exhibition and catalogue.

On the morning after the conference ended, participants were given a tour of “Dancing Around the Bride” by cocurator Erica Battle. In response to several questions about the intimate collaboration between Rauschenberg and Johns, Battle mentioned that the museum had perhaps erred on the side of discretion in deference to Johns’s desire for privacy. Battle’s comment retroactively rendered Jonathan Katz’s conference presentation, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Johns and Rauschenberg and the Aesthetic of Distraction,” both pointed and poignant. A scholar-activist long at the forefront of gay studies in art history, Katz interpreted the early work of Rauschenberg and Johns through iconographic traces of their everyday life, relationship as lovers, and eventual breakup. Katz’s literalist approach sometimes seemed oddly suited to the reticence of Johns’s art and the semiotic clatter of Rauschenberg’s. Yet it served as an effective counter to the museum’s insistent silence on the sexual partnership of the two artists.

There are many ways to understand intimate collaboration, of course, and the conference did not confine itself to sexual exchange as the defining feature of such relationships. Take, for example, historian Eve Meltzer’s account of the profound connection between Mary Kelly and her newborn son in the now-canonical series “Post-partum Document,” 1973–79, or scholar Anne Wagner’s talk “Jessica and Me: An Interim Report,” about her open-ended collaboration with the sculptor Jessica Stockholder.

There is another way in which “Intimate Collabor­ations” embodied some of the complex relational networks it took as its subject. As often happens in the academy, nearly all the presenters at the conference were linked to a single institution: the University of California, Berkeley, where Silverman and Wagner formerly taught. Far from standing outside this network of association, I am myself very much a product of it, given that Wagner and Silverman served as my (long ago) dissertation adviser and outside reader, respectively, at Berkeley .

The collective communities of art’s institutions are small worlds. Why not admit, even embrace, the ways in which we are implicated in webs of collaboration and influence? Let us find new ways to talk about what is normally kept silent—to counter critical distance and academic dispassion with the acknowledgment of our own irreducible intimacies.

Richard Meyer is the Robert and Ruth Halperin professor in art history at Stanford University. He is the author, most recently, of What Was Contemporary Art? (MIT Press, 2013).