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Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Walkaround TimeA day trip to Philadelphia to see Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp was filled with subversions, underminings, deconstructions, and sincerity.

The exhibition brings together masterworks, collaborations, and homages by these important and influential artists who wanted to challenge the notion of art. They experimented with what is defined as art, how art is created, and how it is experienced.

Throughout the exhibition of over 100 pieces, it is evident the star is Marcel Duchamp. He is the genius who wished to debunk “preexisting ideas about art, which he believed should appeal to the intellect rather than the senses.” He turned the art world on its head with his notion of “readymades” – objects that he found to be art, the most famous being Fountain, 1917. These pieces, as well as other work including drawings, paintings, photographs, scores, and installations tested originality, concept, and taste.

Marcel Duchamp Door 11. Rue Larrey, 1927

Marcel Duchamp, Door 11. Rue Larrey, 1927

The remaining four artists were very much influenced by Duchamp, but also – not knowing all of his entire oeuvre – their thought process in making art in ran parallel in some regards.

In one example, John Cage and Merce Cunningham did not realize that Duchamp had used the idea of “chance” in his artwork. The concept of “chance,” made famous by Cage and Cunningham explored how the outcome of the an artwork was dictated by the unknown. Certain parameters were put in place and the rest was up to chance – whether it was musical notes or silence, or movement or stillness and so on. And so, when Cage found out about Duchamp’s use of chance, realizing that it occurred in the year of his birth – he did not find that to be a coincidence.

In another example, Duchamp’s concept as key, exploring the distinctions between original and replica, object and idea is examined by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg created “combines” – sculptures made from nontraditional materials while Johns made paintings that explored what you were looking at as a physical representation.

One of the most interesting aspects of this exhibition is the interplay between the artists. They all influenced or collaborated or co-opted certain aspects of each other’s work. The portraits by Rauschenberg were so interesting and so spot-on in my opinion. I also enjoyed how Johns used the mold from Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage in his paintings.

And maybe the most meaningful thing I took away from the exhibition is how sincere these artists were about art. They were dedicated to exploring, experimenting, and pushing the bounds. They did not hold back, they learned from each other and challenged each other. I believe that because of that, their influence is pervasive today.

All in all, I thought the exhibition was a unique opportunity to see spectacular works – shown in conversation with each other – by Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and of course, Duchamp.


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Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Second Hand and BIPED at BAM

Merce Cunningham Second Hand 1970I finally saw the show I have been waiting for all season – Second Hand (1970) and BIPED (1999) by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Having spent a brief moment working for the organization, I had the enormous opportunity to see many of the works performed on the Legacy Tour – MCDC’s farewell two-year farewell tour. (At one point, I saw Pond Way performed in costume at the Westbeth studio as a tornado swept across NYC.) BAM’s performances marked the third to last stop before the Company disbands and I was happy to have the chance to see these pieces.

Second Hand was an exercise in shapes. The amount of shapes that these dancers were able to create was astounding and punctuated by the rainbow unitards designed by Jasper Johns. The solo by Robert Swinston – originally choreographed for Merce himself – was strong and stunning, opening the piece with a reminder of Merce’s foresight and flowing into a piece that worked with the shapes shifting throughout solos, duets, and group work.

Merce Cunningham BIPED 1999BIPED felt like a celebration of movement (though I saw someone sobbing after the curtain fell). It’s use of motion capture technology projected onto to a scrim in front of the dancers, adds a level of profundity to the work. Suddenly, these large shapes representing human forms, dance across the scrim and then disperse into fibers, accentuating the fleeting moments on stage. BIPED becomes a metaphor for life, illuminating the transitory existence we all share.

And in this case – it really hits home.

It is of course, a sad moment in dance to have the Merce Cunningham Dance Company disband, but it’s also a move to protect the artwork and its integrity. The Merce Cunningham Trust is set in place to preserve the Merce’s life-work and share it with those who are capable of performing and presenting it. In addition to maintaining artistic authority over the work, this will (hopefully) create the potential in the New York arts scene for other dance companies to find capital to create their own work and leave their own mark.

All in all, Merce Cunningham’s legacy will live on for generations.

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