View of “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” 2017. Background: Mark Lancaster, decor for Sounddance, 1975. Foreground: Jasper Johns, set elements from Walkaround Time, 1968. Photo: Gene Pittman.

View of “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” 2017. Background: Mark Lancaster, decor for Sounddance, 1975. Foreground: Jasper Johns, set elements from Walkaround Time, 1968. Photo: Gene Pittman.

Merce Cunningham

View of “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” 2017. Background: Mark Lancaster, decor for Sounddance, 1975. Foreground: Jasper Johns, set elements from Walkaround Time, 1968. Photo: Gene Pittman.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM, one of the most celebrated and influential choreographers of the twentieth century, died at the age of ninety in 2009. In 2011, the Walker Art Center acquired his dance company’s collection of sets, costumes, and theatrical props, and in 2012, after a tour of farewell performances, the company was officially dismantled. Both the acquisition and the dissolution followed the scrupulous guidelines laid out in Cunningham’s groundbreaking eighty-nine-page Legacy Plan, which was publicly announced just weeks before his death. Keenly attuned to the paradoxes involved in preserving the fundamentally ephemeral medium of dance, Cunningham had been thinking archivally for decades, and in 1976 officially employed the assiduous David Vaughan to serve as an informal collator of ephemera such as programs, press clippings, and posters.

The amount of material amassed over the life of the company—founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina as an outgrowth of the school’s fertile inter-arts experiments—is staggering: over four thousand objects and texts related to more than 150 dances and eight hundred Events, as Cunningham termed the time-based works that brought independently developed sound, visual elements, and movement into intimate and revelatory proximity on the stage. Extraordinarily collaborative in nature, Cunningham’s practice was closely intertwined with a large cohort of artists, designers, and musicians that included (among many others) Rei Kawakubo, Takehisa Kosugi, Isamu Noguchi, and David Tudor; his philosophy regarding nonrepresentational dance and his frequent use of chance-based methodologies were most importantly shaped in dialogue with his life partner, John Cage.

“Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” curated by Fionn Meade and Philip Bither with Joan Rothfuss and Mary L. Coyne, and copresented with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is the largest and most comprehensive survey to date focusing on the artist and his expansive orbit of associates. (The Chicago leg of the show, which closed in April, had some overlap with the Minneapolis exhibition.) On view at the Walker are artifacts from early company productions, as well as works by artists and musicians who worked directly with Cunningham—artistic advisers included William Anastasi, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg—and who were inspired by his precedent-setting example across multiple disciplines. Challenges that riveted Cunningham also structure the exhibition: how to document dance and make it legible for the future; how to effectively conscript the viewer into the field of the performance; how to foreground the tension between the controlled, practiced elements and the many contingent, variable components of his work.

Over the past five years or so, art museums around the world have placed special emphasis on the curating and collecting of choreography, an emphasis accompanied by a surge of academic activity related to theorizing the frictions generated when white-cube galleries meant for static pieces host dancing bodies. Contemporary art’s long-standing bias against live events—in the museum context, performances such as dance have often been slated as secondary “programming” rather than featured within the vaunted site of the “exhibition”—threatens to become a tired topic. But “Common Time” brings into sharp focus some of these unresolved problems, and it demonstrates the pressing need to continue to develop, assess, and evaluate the most effective, and most ethical, display strategies for this kind of work. With a collage-based, inclusive approach that consistently juxtaposes media across the Walker galleries—from rarely seen footage to listening stations to sketches to a personal copy of the I Ching—the curators emphasize several major themes simultaneously: the polyvocality of Cunningham’s wider circle, his eagerness as a model and a teacher to blur the boundaries of artistic genres, and his prescient embrace of the interface between human kineticism and electronic technologies.

A marvelously tattered red wool suit and skullcap designed by Rauschenberg and worn by a spritely, incandescent Cunningham in his 1957 Changeling is positioned at the show’s entrance; it bears the marks of a heavily used garment and attests to the fragile resilience of textiles. One of the most compelling assertions in “Common Time” is that Cunningham’s innovation was often fueled by thrift, and his improvisations could be born of the necessity of solving a problem. The hodgepodge quality of Rauschenberg’s breakthrough decor for Minutiae, 1954, with its rickety legs, patterned fabrics, gold-braid trim, and comics splashed with hot pink, reminds us that this thing had to function: It was collapsed and strapped to the roof of a Volkswagen van for touring. The show visualizes how, amid such unraveling outfits and garish, shambling props, one of the most austere formalists in the field of modern dance took his place.

At the same time, the wealth of material here raises questions for which there are no easy answers. What kind of access to fleeting past events do we have through their material residues? Do such objects make us feel closer to those histories or rather more distant, excluded? What exactly are we looking at when we view formerly dynamic items, now frozen: costumes on mannequins, stick-figure diagrams of dances, still photographs? Are they inert relics, muffled by this transformed context, or might we understand such things as enlivened, potent storytellers whose activation lies in the mind of the viewer? How do you represent, in the case of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, a dense, international network of activity and overlapping artistic affinities?

Many of the curatorial solutions on view at the Walker are deft and satisfying, including a comprehensive and informative gallery dedicated to Cage’s music, drawings, and scores, and focused presentations of Fluxus activities and Happenings. Other decisions feel more strained. Large-scale backdrops are hung as if they were stand-alone paintings or sculptures deserving of up-close scrutiny, when in fact they were created to be seen in starkly different spectatorial conditions: from a distance, and animated by the bodies and interactions of the dancers. Here I am thinking of the installation of the swooping velour curtains of Mark Lancaster’s decor for Sounddance, 1975, or Frank Stella’s rainbow-colored rectangles in graduated sizes, designed for Scramble, 1967. A room that brings projections of Judson-school dances (Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, 1966) and early video experiments (Nam June Paik’s Hand and Face, 1961) together with Minimalist and post-Minimalist architectural interventions in which the viewer becomes an active, moving agent (Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor, 1970; Robert Morris’s Passageway, 1961), includes pieces that were formally connected to Cunningham and those that were not. The gallery feels like a digression, a smattering of adjacent pursuits, rather than a further illumination of the exhibition’s titular subject.

Indeed, with the record amount of material by artists other than Cunningham in “Common Time,” rarely has the designation of “one-person show” been so inaccurate; this is a fitting testament to his multidisciplinary approach, yet at moments the arguments of the exhibition threaten to become diluted. (A previous exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Dancing Around the Bride,” 2012–13, productively homed in on a tighter matrix of participants.) While the Walker show does an excellent job of illustrating one of Cunningham’s vital contributions to avant-garde culture (his embrace of collaboration), in short supply are the technical details, movement vocabularies, or concrete mechanics of Cunningham’s other main achievement; his choreography. The casual viewer, or even the lightly informed one, will come away learning very little about the actual dances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, its core dancers (with the exception of Carolyn Brown, they largely go unnamed), or the specific motions, transitions, and sequences of gestures that composed Cunningham’s signature work. The exhibition catalogue, a tour de force of scholarship that contains an exhaustive time line of the company and insightful essays by contributors including art historians Juliet Bellow and Douglas Crimp and musicologist Benjamin Piekut, helps to flesh out other aspects that could only be glanced at in the show. And while catalogue and exhibition have divergent purposes, it is disappointing that choreography is treated as supplemental information, found in the catalogue’s appendix, rather than centered, explored, and translated in the space of the galleries. (Invigorating performances of Events throughout the long run of the exhibition, including one I saw opening weekend with company dancers and musicians from Minneapolis and Saint Paul, are far too occasional.)

What comes closest to such an effective translation is Charles Atlas’s MC9, 2012, a nine-channel video installation featuring Cunningham and company “dancing for camera” across many years. Numerous temporalities collide on Atlas’s screens, and different film and video stocks impart variable visual qualities, as they are marked by the time stamps of their own historical eras. In this installation, surrounded by bodies, surrounded by noise, with every sight line combining and recombining his dances anew, we experience some of the energy and excitement of the mutable environments produced by Cunningham. On one screen, an older Cunningham with gray hair dances around a ballet barre to disco music; it is mesmerizing. Similarly effective is the arresting conclusion of the show, Tacita Dean’s Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007, 2008, a tender homage to Cunningham and Cage’s vibrant queer partnership, in which Cunningham, a vision of composure in a purple shirt and scarf, shifts subtly in his seat, enacting a version of Cage’s most famous score—the simplest, and slightest, and most piercing of movements.

“Merce Cunningham: Common Time” is on view at the Walker Art Center through July 30.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is an Associate Professor of contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley. Her book Fray: Art and Textile Politics will be released this summer by University of Chicago Press.

Visit our archive for more on Merce Cunningham, including Douglas Crimp’s feature (October 2008).