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Merce C
April 4, 2008

The American Art Museum mourns the loss of choreographer Merce Cunningham who died on July 26, 2009. This post was published last year as a tribute to Cunningham's creativity and ability to incorporate new methods of expression in his work.

Merce C by Franz Kline

Merce Cunningham, at 88, is still going strong. The esteemed choreographer, who has collaborated with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and many others, is one of the pioneers of contemporary dance. He was also one of the first men to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in the 1940s. Cunningham continues to amaze audiences with his willingness to reach out and grasp various signifiers of the time: in this case the ubiquitous iPod.  "Everybody changes every day, so why shouldn't I change?" Cunningham said the other night when giving post-performance comments from the stage at the Harman Center for the Arts, a new theater that is a short walk from SAAM.

When I arrived at the theater I traded in my driver's license for an iPod shuffle and waited for eyeSpace, the third piece on the program. (Speaking of collaborators, the second dance on the program, Second Hand, created in 1970, featured costumes by Jasper Johns.) When eyeSpace was about to begin I looked around at other members of the audience as we collectively placed the small headphones to our ears and waited for the signal to start. It reminded me of old photos I had seen of audiences from the 1950s viewing a film in 3-D, each one with an awkward-looking pair of glasses. I wonder if one day someone will look back on this and think how strange "the cutting edge" looks from such a distance.

A few seconds later we got the signal to press play. I've never been in a theater before where the collective experience was somehow broken up into more individual units. You could listen to International Cloud Atlas, the music by composer Mikel Rouse, or you could remove the earphones and listen to the "environmental score" being created by the musicians on hand. I heard the sounds of the New York subway and a conductor announcing that 23rd Street was the next stop. We were all listening to the same music, but the movements were "shuffled" so that each member of the audience had, in effect, his or her own score. As Cunningham also said that night, "The experience [of the performance] resides in you."

We who love art and museums have known that for a long time. I kept thinking about Cunningham's words and went back to SAAM the next day to take another look at Franz Kline's Merce C, a painting from 1961. Both Cunningham and Kline taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and shared an approach to art that often incorporated the unexpected. Though Kline's work is not a portrait, it has movement as its primal force; it also shares the composure of a master calligrapher's brushstroke.

With eyeSpace still very much on my mind, I walked around the galleries and noticed that people look at art in their own order, and create their own kind of "shuffle." They could increase the visual volume (or not) by moving closer to the work of art (or not). For decades, Cunningham has been talking about the "randomness" in the creation of his art; perhaps the world has finally caught up with him.

I love how Cunningham embraced a new medium and showed us how art may be produced for many people to enjoy, but appreciation of it often filters down to an individual experience. It resides in you.

Posted by Howard on April 4, 2008 in American Art Everywhere, American Art Here


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