New York

Merce Cunningham

Margarete Roeder Gallery

It should come as no surprise that Merce Cunningham’s drawings demonstrate an extraordinary talent for catching the tiniest ripple of a muscle, or that his hand so deftly manipulates the shapes of moving objects on a plain white surface. Yet his collection of pencil and pen drawings, more than twenty of which were exhibited here alongside his better-known dance notations, does manage to surprise. Confident with his tools, Cunningham builds full-blown three-dimensional forms as fully with colored-pencil cross-hatching as with a single continuous he in ballpoint pen. When he colors white paper between black outlines, the effect shows both his formal understanding of composition and his pleasure in the decorative amalgam of geometry. Animals (a running dog, a strutting duck), not dancers, and plant life (flowers and twigs], not stage sets, are eloquently rendered. These works capture the vitality of a dancer and choreographer who for more than five decades has been driven by a highly visual sensibility, as well as that of an artist viscerally attuned to the movement of objects through space.

Most of Cunningham’s drawings of animals and nature are strongly centered, as though the poised heads or feathery roots were responding to the strong symmetry and balance of a dancer, so precisely do they sit on a page. Some images overlap within a drawing—such as a deer, a giant squid, and a seaweed frond in Untitled (5-3-97 #I), 1997—with all the grace of well-timed entrances and exits on a stage. One can’t help but see the mind of a dancer in evidence here.

The other half of the exhibition comprised working drawings. They show a range of techniques developed by Cunningham to propel his dancers from points A to B, including walking, prancing, and leaping, as well as places to stand still and reconsider or await the crossing paths of other dancers. Rune, 1969, is one of the few early dances to be completely notated; these charts and written phrases were on view here. Using a counting system determined by the toss of an I Ching coin, the notes for Suite by Chance, 1952, with instructions such as “sitting on both knees,” “back round,” and “legs closed,” are numbered one through twenty and accompanied by stick figures. Drawn the same year that Cunningham and John Cage organized their now legendary Untitled Black Mountain Piece during a summer at Black Mountain College, these squares and rectangles of graph paper show Cunningham’s application of rigorous conceptualism to choreography that would later affect the thought processes of dancers who trained with him (Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown) and who would form the cerebrally oriented Judson Dance Theater in 1962.

This exhibition evokes a record far broader than simply a selection of drawings and notation. It suggests the range of an artist who, in collaborations with Cage, Mark Lancaster, Jasper Johns, Isamu Noguchi, David Tudor, Rei Kawakubo, and Robert Rauschenberg, has connected the dots between disciplines for at least two-thirds of the twentieth century. Amazingly, Cunningham also bridges the past and the future; from Martha Graham (he was a soloist with her company) to computer-generated motion capture, he continues to lead the way.

RoseLee Goldberg