Merce Cunningham Common Timeby Elliot J. Reichert
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
February 8 – July 30, 2017
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
February 11 – April 30, 2017
To stage a retrospective of the works of Merce Cunningham is to take up two of the most challenging concerns of museum display: how to exhibit the ephemeral, and how to manifest a vast network of artistic collaboration without losing focus on its central figure. The dearth of answers to these questions is too often mistaken for insignificance in the work itself, when in fact institutions are generally more culpable for marginalizing performance in their canonical narratives. The Walker Art Center has handily avoided that trap in its expansive, ambitious exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, shown simultaneously at the Walker and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Fittingly, Cunningham’s notion of “common time”—the physical co-presence of disparate bodies, materials, and sounds united in one moment—echoes in the co-presentation between these two Midwestern museums, as well as in the polyphonic spaces of the galleries themselves.
The exhibition stands in its genre because it is both well researched and eminently material, due in large part to the Walker’s holdings of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s complete scenic and costume archive. The company’s papers and films are kept by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but the objects are cared for by the Walker, which has come to know them well over the years. The wealth of contextual information in thematic threads—these include “Time,” “Events,” “Studio,” and “Technology”—and the object labels speak to the love of a material trace that only a vigilant archivist could muster. After all, the objects are stand-ins for the performances themselves, dozens of which are shown on projections and monitors throughout the exhibition, often near the things leftover from them. At several points throughout the exhibition, a gap opens between the video of a performance and the real thing exhibited beside it. In most cases, this distance serves as a welcome reminder of the vitality of dance and the sheer impossibility of capturing it in the gallery, as it is with Robert Rauschenberg’s massive painted backdrop and costumes for Summerspace (1958/77); occasionally, however, the manifestation appears contrived, like Bruce Nauman’s stage design for Tread (1970), represented by a massive photograph from the performance and six still fans meant to demonstrate the human scale of the stage décor.
With Cunningham at the center, the show enfolds the work of his many collaborators. Along with Nauman and Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Robert Morris, Pauline Oliveros, Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, many others make exhibition cameos in sound, set objects, and video. These well-known anchors help inspire interest from formalists and materialists who might be surprised to know that Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings materialized from his making set pieces for a Cunningham world tour when he was the Company’s artistic director. Immersed in an exhibition materialized by way of stage sets, costumed mannequins, photographic documentation, and archival ephemera, individual works of art appear unusual and precious, or else impossible to distinguish from the rest of it all. In Chicago, the inclusion of an early Warhol painting from the collection speciously justifies itself because “the repetition across the canvas is a corollary to the repetition of dancers’ movements in space.” Other discrete works are more helpful, like Nauman’s 1968 film recordings of studio-based performances of repetitive bodily actions, which unite the sculptural and the kinetic gestures as well as any of the Cunningham arrangements on display.
Indeed, display emerges as the most impressive achievement of the exhibition. A mixture of well-worn and contemporary strategies aims to preserve the gravitas of the work while enhancing the liveliness of the lived performance. Props stand before large-scale photo enlargements of scenes from their staged renditions, while the ambient sounds of the accompanying compositions float through the galleries. Other works are played on headphones near related objects, and a wealth of screens—big and small, new and old, projected and monitored—fill the spaces with movement and vitality in part because their sheer proliferation leaves little room for erudite contemplation.
The differences between the two simultaneous versions are less consequential than they are symbolic of the relationship between choreography and rehearsal. The shows are two performances of the same script, interpreted with the inflections of the house style of each museum; taken together, they produce a kind of syncopation that defies the increasing franchise-quality of most major traveling exhibitions today. In the spirit of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which performed its culminating Legacy Tour in 2010 and 2011 shortly after Cunningham passed away, Common Time comes together unexpectedly and unconventionally. This retrospective sets a new bar for exhibiting performance and collaborative collectivity with spirit and dignity, an achievement that suits
ContributorElliot J. Reichert
is a Chicago-based critic and curator. He is Art Editor of Newcity and formerly Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.