How Merce Cunningham Moved Art History

The influence of the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919–2009) looms so large that the current tribute to him spans not just multiple departments of one museum, but two entire museums in two different cities: the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. In February, these two institutions simultaneously opened retrospectives honoring Cunningham, both entitled “Common Time.”

I only saw the Walker show, not the MCA’s, but even in that one exhibition I encountered so much that summing it all up is a challenge: costumes, props, and posters; recordings of scores; photos and videos of Cunningham’s most celebrated dance pieces. Plus, there’s a full accompanying program of new dance.

So I’ll just make two points about his significance for art.

Cunningham has a strange status. A dancer’s dancer and a choreographer’s choreographer, he had a magnetic presence onstage and was uncompromisingly experimental in his technical explorations of movement. He danced with Martha Graham’s company from 1939 to 1945—the ultimate modern dancer—but then broke free to found the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953, pioneering his own, unnerving but rigorously dancerly style of movement, at once balletic and machinic.

Installation view of “Merce Cunningham: Common Time” at the Walker Arts Center. Image: Ben Davis.

At the same time, few figures from the field of modern dance have achieved anything like Cunningham’s cachet beyond the field, a fact testified to by the very fact of this museum exhibition, which contains many rambling galleries dedicated to his collaborations with the celebrated artists, filmmakers, and composers he worked with, including major pieces by Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Frank Stella, Nam June Paik, and others.

At one point at the Walker, you find a room turned over to Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1968), the lovable Mylar balloons that were drafted into service as props for Cunningham’s dance RainForest. These are placed opposite a gallery dedicated to a groovy slideshow environment by Stan VanDerBeek, the new media pioneer whose frenzied projections were incorporated into the “collaborative, interactive multi-media event” Variations V (1965). This gives a sense of how wide-ranging Cunningham’s alliances were in the experimental ’60s.

Video environment by Stan VanDerBeek in “Merce Cunningham: Common Time.” Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Such juxtapositions give a potent sense of the fertile atmosphere of freewheeling but exacting collaboration around Cunningham and his dancers. “In some ways, they were precursors to what we see now, where there is just much more unquestioned fluidity between genres,” Philip Bither, the Walker’s performance curator, told me.

Yet there is a very important point to make about what makes Cunningham’s method still unique.

In the late 1950s, when…

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