Much has been said and written about the Philadelphia Museum’s “Dancing Around the Bride” exhibit—a dynamic, somewhat breathless exploration of the intellectual threads connecting Marcel Duchamp with a quartet of American artists: John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Merce Cunningham. Together and apart, these five were responsible for a sea-change in American art, helping to pull the plug on the grand gesturalism of Abstract Expressionism, the heroic narratives of modern dance, and the tightly controlled compositional techniques of the Serialists. The protagonists are well known, but perhaps they have not been looked at “in the round” in quite this way before. Calvin Tomkins came the closest to doing so in a series of New Yorker profiles that later became an excellent book, The Bride and the Bachelors (1965). The subject of both Tomkins’ book and the exhibit, in a way, is the rise of American conceptual art, as refracted through the imaginations of these unique and unconventional artists (all men, one should note) who were also friends and sometime collaborators.
The curators of the exhibit—Carlos Basualdo, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, and Erica F Battle, a curatorial assistant— came up with the idea shortly after Cunningham’s death in 2009, while attending a memorial at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. As they write in the catalog’s introductory note, Cunningham’s dancers “moved like tireless atomic particles…a highly coordinated ensemble,” each dancer “rooted in his or her own individuality, like points on a map.” The de-centralized nature of Cunningham’s movement scheme seems to have inspired the flow of the exhibit, which meanders from one work to the next with a kind of loose internal logic, like a series of happy coincidences. It’s a lot to take in at once, and it helps to read a little bit before you go, and to give yourself some time to criss-cross back and forth between the paintings, scores, letters, and installations. Like the painting-cum-installation that provides the show’s name (Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, usually referred to as The Large Glass) many of the works in the show are quite difficult to “read.” Where is the bride and who are the bachelors? It takes some outside help to figure it all out, and even now, I’m not sure I have. Conceptual art may no longer be shocking—we’ve accepted its basic principles by now—but it can still present problems of interpretation.
The web of relationships between the artists is multi-layered. Duchamp, considered by many to be the father of conceptual art, began as post-Impressionist in pre-WWI Paris, influenced by the Cubists and the Fauves. He soon developed an interest in capturing the dimensions of time and movement in pictorial art. Thus was born his Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) which, like, say Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, may be one of the most instantly-recognizable paintings of all time. A human figure, unfolded like origami into a jumble of planes and geometrical shapes, seems to move diagonally down the canvas. The effect is produced through the superposition of multiple versions of the figure, creating a kind of smear through time and space. Then, in 1914, Duchamp exhibited a bottle-drying rack he had picked up at a local hardware store and called it art (specifically, a “readymade”), and ta-da, conceptual art was born. Duchamp proclaimed his rejection of “retinal” art in favor of art “at the service of the mind.” The consequences of this seemingly flippant decision are still with us: Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans, post-modern dance, soundscapes, you name it. As Tomkins says, “art can be anything,” which also means that anything is art.
The composer John Cage met Duchamp in the early forties, after the artist had moved to New York, where he would spend the rest of his life. The two did not really become friends until the early sixties, when they began to play chess (both were fanatics) and see each other regularly. (An entire section of the show is devoted to works inspired by the game of chess.) Also in the early sixties, Rauschenberg and Johns were introduced to Duchamp. Rauschenberg, Cage, and Cunningham had met in 1952, during the summer arts program at Black Mountain College where the Cunningham company was born. Johns was Rauschenberg’s friend. Cunningham, of course, was Cage’s life partner and artistic co-conspirator. The four felt an affinity with the work and ideas of the elder artist, a man of few words who, as far as anyone knew, was no longer making art. (When he died it turned out that all along he had been working on a final piece, an erotic three-dimensional tableau vivant, Étant Donnés. Ironically, Étant Donnés was completely “retinal” and realist and bore little resemblance to Duchamp’s proclamations about conceptual art).
The other element that binds them together is the use of “chance” proceedures. Cage, Rauschenberg, and Cunningham famously found ways to introduce chance into their work (as had Duchamp), allowing the outside world and coincidence to encroach on their own creative efforts. Cage, a Buddhist, used the I-Ching, which he had discovered in 1950, as a tool for scrambling his compositional choices. He did this, he argued, in order to frustrate his own ego and such artificial systems as key signatures and meter and formal structure. He went further, embracing “found” sounds such as crying babies and traffic noise and birdsong. Rauschenberg, who became the de-facto designer for the Cunningham dance company through the early sixties, was known for spontaneously putting together sets with random odds and ends he found in and around each performance space. (The Rauschenbergs in the show are riotous and messy, filled with color and bits of text as well as borrowed images. They look like they were made in someone’s kitchen, which is part of their appeal.) Johns, Rauschenberg’s friend, used everyday elements like numbers and cutlery and flags as the subject matter and material of his paintings. He also took over Rauschenberg’s design duties after Rauschenberg had a falling out with Cunningham and Cage. Ironically, the rift was exacerbated by rivaling egos. The ego is not so easily denied, it turns out. In any case, it was Johns who created the clever designs for Cunningham’s Walkaround Time in 1973, by reproducing sections of Duchamp’s Large Glass onto clear plastic cubes. These were scattered about the stage. In the final moments of the dance, the cubes were assembled by the dancers, momentarily re-creating Duchamp’s enigmatic work. Nevertheless, Johns, with his meticulous use of impasto and obsessive attention to craft, remains the most impenetrable of the artists in the Philadelphia show. Somehow, he doesn’t quite fit with the others.
As one enters the galleries, one passes through a section devoted to Duchamp’s Bride (a Futurist painting from 1912 depicting a barely recognizable female figure). The curators have placed it against a glass pane in the middle of the gallery, perhaps in order to allude to the transparency of Large Glass (which is shown in a separate gallery). This room also contains Rauschenberg’s homage to Bride from 1959, Bride’s Folly, a composition that includes letters and a fork and is dominated by a vertical white streak which one assumes is his stand-in for the bride. On the opposite wall one finds a small photograph, Dust Breeding, by Man Ray, in which one can just make out what looks like a lunar surface and turns out to be a glass covered with a thick layer of dust (and dust bunnies). It is in fact a section of The Large Glass, which Duchamp intentionally left out for a year to gather dust. (In the post-Duchamp world, this act is also art.) Then there are works fashioned from “found” objects, like a composition by Cage made of edible plants (kudzu, hibiscus, and barley) and one of Rauschenberg’s craggy, moldy-looking “dirt paintings”—the name more or less says it all. More pleasing to the eye (for those stuck on “retinal” pleasure) is a section devoted to chance procedures, most particularly Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages, from 1913-14. The artist dropped lengths of string onto canvas strips, then cut out lengths of wood that echoed the curves in the strings. The sinuous wooden slats look like oars, or fragments of a model ship, their curves sensual and smooth. These useless, inexplicable objects have a kind of surreal magic, and may in fact be the most beautiful pieces in the show. Cage and Rauschenberg were also taken with Stoppages and created their own tributes to its methods, Veils and Strings, which are affixed to the opposite wall. They have none of its mystery. (Other contenders for most beautiful works in the show are various castings of Duchamp’s small sculpture Feuilles de Vigne Femelles scattered around. As the legend goes, they were made from casts of female genitalia, though you wouldn’t necessarily guess. Again, they are filled with mysterious beauty. For whatever reason, Duchamp’s are the only pieces in the show with an erotic charge.)
The centerpiece of “Dancing Around the Bride” is a large room, dubbed the Main Stage, containing a square platform. One one side there are risers. The space and walls around the stage are filled with large works (including Nude Descending a Staircase) as well as a player piano that sporadically emits Cagean sounds. For me, one of the great mysteries of John Cage’s music is that for all the playfulness and innovation that went into its making, it usually doesn’t sound like much. It’s neither agreeable nor disagreeable. It simply exists. Perhaps that’s the point. The presence of the player piano (there’s another one next to the rather flashy marquee that announces the entrance) adds a raffish, somewhat vaudevillian note to the show, which I suspect the mischievous John Cage would have liked. Other musical passages, for the human voice and other sundry instruments, are played over the sound system. Every so often one can hear the unmistakably deadpan voice of Valda Setterfield, a Cunningham dancer from the UK and a born actress, telling stories. In a way it’s like a family reunion, except that the uncles and cousins have stepped away and left their shadows.
When the stage is not occupied by dancers, it is littered with the plastic cubes that make up Johns’s set for Walkaround Time; there they sit, quietly wrinkled and undecipherable for all time. Over the past months, dancers from Merce Cunningham Dance Company— which shut its doors last December, two years after the choreographer’s death—have been cycling through the show, performing intermittent bursts of Cunningham choreography on the weekends. The selection and presentation of excerpts, culled from Cunningham’s five-decade-long body of work, has been assigned to Daniel Squire, who performed with the company from 1998 to 2009. (One of the bitter ironies, at least for dance lovers, is that both Squire and another of the dancers here, Holley Farmer, were actually let go by Cunningham in the last year of his life. No-one outside of the company really knows why. They are extraordinary performers and many people have traveled to Philadelphia for the pleasure of seeing them dance these works.) The sequence of excerpts changes from week to week, and is listed on xeroxed pages discreetly piled next to the risers. I suggest you grab one of these lists. A courteous museum employee informed me that the concept of the show was that visitors should simply encounter the dancing spontaneously, but I find that it is always nice to know what one is seeing. (One of the challenges of this kind of exhibit is that an inquisitive visitor wants more information, more contextualization.) The day I attended, short sequences (solos, duets, and the occasional trio) from nineteen separate Cunningham dances were being performed by Squire, Farmer, and Melissa Toogood, all of them exquisite. Once the dancers entered the scene, all else faded away. The plastic cubes were raised up and remained there, hovering above the stage like wrinkled clouds.
Cunningham’s company closed at the end of 2011, and the opportunities to see his work are fated to become fewer and fewer. The dancers will move on to other things. But what a joy it is to see them perform this choreography, even in small doses such as these. What one is immediately struck by is how essentially different the dances are from everything else in the show. After all, they are about the body, and the body transcends theories. Then there is the craft of the choreography itself. The clarity, control, and virtuosity required to perform Cunningham’s movement phrases is astonishing. Cunningham used chance procedures (rolling dice, flipping coins, the I Ching, and, later, computer programs) to increase his options and scramble his choices. But the will of the choreographer is always present. As his muse and founding dancer Carolyn Brown wrote in her extraordinarily enlightening book Chance and Circumstance, chance allowed Cunningham to add levels of “richness, depth, and variety” to his work that would otherwise have been impossible for one man. That is not to say that he was not extremely painstaking in his work, or that he didn’t have a point of view. Brown’s book paints a portrait of an extremely reticent personality, not unlike that of George Balanchine, another choreographer who did not like going on about what his dances were supposed to signify. “Just do the steps, dear,” Balanchine used to say, with a little sniff. Cunningham, too, simply stated what he wanted from his dancers and expected that they would eventually be able to comply. The choreography was meticulously rehearsed, many many times over, and the dancers were not involved in the dice-rolling or choreographic decisions in any way. This was not a collaboration. Sol Le Witt’s notion that in conceptual art “execution is a perfunctory affair” emphatically does not apply to Cunningham. Nor does Tomkins’ argument that this particular group of artists had no interest in creating “some concept of the sublime.” In fact, the sublime is a constant subtext for Cunningham, who once declared that dance was a “spiritual exercise in physical form.” It’s just that he didn’t make a big deal out of it.
One can see this in his dancers. Many times they stand or move with arms held out, back curved slightly, head tilted toward the sky. I distinctly remember the dancer Andrea Weber in this pose at the final Cunningham Events at the Armory. The intense focus required to perform these complicated steps gives the dancers a kind of serene, glowing aura. We know that they are involved in a nearly-impossible task, and thus they take on a heroic aspect. And for all its experimentalism, what strikes me most about Cunningham’s choreography in the context of the show is its classicism. One recognizes many steps from ballet; coupé, arabesque, chaîné turns (lots), attitude (a favorite), classical arm positions, even composite steps like cabrioles, jumps in which the legs tap together in the air. First position—heels together, toes out—returns again and again as a kind of “home” position, much like the fifth position (with the thighs crossed) in Balanchine. There are fourth position pliés; retiré positions, with the toe lifted to the opposite knee, thighs rotating outward as in ballet. This isn’t modern dance or pedestrian movement. At all. But as they accomplish these movements, the dancers are also tilting and twisting and flattening or rolling their backs, or moving the upper half of their bodies at a different pace from the lower half. They don’t have the time or inclination to tell stories or emote. In Cunningham’s choreography, the body becomes an extraordinarily intelligent instrument, subdivided in various ways, much like Duchamp’s Nude on the staircase. These complicated articulations create surprise and sometimes even humor. There are a lot of silly walks, wiggles, and flapping fingers. But there is also harmony, tenderness between partners (quite a bit of tenderness, actually), and a surfeit of classical beauty. The poses held by Farmer and Toogood during Cage’s 4’33” were stunningly beautiful, in part because the dancers are themselves stunningly beautiful, and, like all exquisite dancers, know how to present their bodies at just the right angle so as to appear beautiful from every perspective. (Important, since Cunningham dances are often seen in the round). One pas de deux (from Fractions) reminded me particularly of Balanchine’s Agon, with its shifting dynamics of eroticism, conflict, and mutual dependence. At that moment, it occurred to me that Cunningham may be closer to Balanchine than he is to Cage or Duchamp.
On this particular afternoon, as the dancers went about their business, the guitarist Lee Ranaldo, a founding member of the band Sonic Youth, performed his own experiments in sound. He swung his electric guitar around from a rope, played with reverberations, dropped the instrument on the floor, fiddled with the knobs on his amplifier. I was struck by the solemnity of his attitude, the blandness of his ideas, the seeming lack of imagination in his choices. Meanwhile the dancers did extraordinary things, as if unaware of his existence. (One of Cunningham’s innovations was that music and dance were completely detached from each other.) Their cues came from elsewhere. Once in a while, one could hear the recorded sound of their steps (one of the curator’s ideas), or the tinkling of the player piano. Cage’s sense of fun, that twinkle in the eye, so similar to Duchamp’s in spirit, was like an echo from another, more whimsical time. There is a danger in such exhibits; for all their virtuosity, they fossilize what may at first have been meant as gestures of lightness. Perhaps lightness does not age well. But the clarity of Cunningham still shines.
“Dancing Around the Bride” continues until January 21, after which it moves on to the Barbican in London.