Looking Back at Avant-Garde

John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg in 1964. Sadler Wells, 1964. Image courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust / photo Douglas Jeffrey / © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg in 1964. Sadler Wells, 1964. Image courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust / photo Douglas Jeffrey / © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Overheard at the Princeton University Art Museum: “It’s more conceptual than his usual stuff; there are no hanging things.”

Robert Rauschenberg’s “Plank” is overpowering in size, and if you’re here in search of “hanging things” your eye may drift toward the work next to it.

With a celestial body made from a crackled red paint can lid encircled with spokes of rusty gears, it strikes the viewer as familiar. The two-tined meat fork, hammer and tweezers also  strike a familial chord in “Tu est Moi” (“You are Me”) by Niki de Saint Phalle.

It is often the banal and the familiar that connect us to art, making us feel it’s a part of our lives. With “Plank,” it’s the bicycle and construction signs and barriers that draw a viewer in. “Plank” was created as a backdrop for a Merce Cunningham dance performance.

XOVER, 2007.  Choreography Merce Cunningham, music John Cage, décor and costumes Robert Rauschenberg, lighting Josh Johnson.  Rehearsal on the night before the first performance, October 5, 2007, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Dancers: Andrea Weber and Daniel Squire.  © Anna Finke; courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust/Backdrop © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

XOVER, 2007. Choreography Merce Cunningham, music John Cage, décor and costumes Robert Rauschenberg, lighting Josh Johnson. Rehearsal on the night before the first performance, October 5, 2007, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Dancers: Andrea Weber and Daniel Squire. © Anna Finke; courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust/Backdrop © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Rauschenberg served as resident designer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1954 through 1964 and created sets and costumes for a number of the company’s early works. Many were his iconic “combines” – i.e., with hanging things.

Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and Princeton University Art Museum are presenting an evening of dance and art inspired by the collaborations between Cunningham and Rauschenberg February 14, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Following a tour of the exhibition, students from the Program in Dance will perform a “MinEvent for Princeton”: a combination of excerpts of Cunningham choreography, staged by Silas Riener, a former member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The music for the performance was composed by Jeff Snyder, co-director of PLOrk (Princeton Laptop Orchestra), and Cenk Ergün, a graduate student in music composition.

The performance will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by visiting faculty member Claudia La Rocco, with Nancy Dalva, Merce Cunningham Trust Scholar-in Residence; John King, composer/performer and former co-director of the music committee for Merce Cunningham Dance Company; Abigail Sebaly, Cunningham Research Fellow at the Walker Art Center; and Riener.

Audiences can see a slightly different “MinEvent” of Cunningham choreography at the Program in Dance’s Spring Dance Festival February 22 through 24 at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center.

Considered four of the most important American postwar artists, composer John Cage (1912–1992), choreographer Cunningham (1919–2009), and visual artists Jasper Johns (born 1930) and Rauschenberg (1925–2008) pioneered postwar avant-garde art in American. Connecting to each other at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, these artists, influenced by Marcel Duchamp, used chance and the incorporation of everyday materials – “hanging things” — to probe boundaries between art and life.

“Rauschenberg is known for his contributions to collage and assemblage, but he is also known for his experimental approach to abstraction, as witnessed by ‘Plank,’ where large fields of blank canvas — areas reminiscent of a monochrome — are punctuated by found images that have been cropped, decontextualized, and recombined,” says Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, PUAM.

Additional works were selected “that address issues around collage and assemblage but also around abstraction,” continues Baum. The selection of paintings, drawings, and prints from the 1960s and 1970s includes works by Johns and Cage. The works by Rauschenberg are on loan from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. The exhibition is the first of several the museum will present through the new Rauschenberg Loan Bank Program, for which the museum was chosen as a pilot institution.

The other Rauschenberg on loan is a 2003 collage of photographs of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1964, framed in five strips of three, to look like large contact proofs, some with 1960s-style scalloped snapshot borders. He plays with the photo emulsion to make it look brushed on, and even eroded in spots, giving it a dreamlike quality.

An exhibition, performance, and panel discussion celebrating the partnership between Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg will be presented on Thursday, February 14, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Princeton University Art Museum. Following a tour of the exhibition, students from the Program in Dance will perform excerpts of Cunningham choreography, staged by former member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company Silas Riener. A slightly different “MinEvent” of Cunningham choreography, part of the Program in Dance’s Spring Dance Festival, will be held Feb. 22 through 24 at the Berlind Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center.

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