I have found these lectures to be special. Rather than the usual intellectual masturbation, the lectures are what art appreciation should be; a personal account from the artist and an honest response by the audience.
I’ll get to the lecture below, but first wanted to comment on a cultural nostalgia for artists in Cunningham’s generation that seems to govern the tastes of art patrons at the MFA. This feeling is expressed in phrases like: “In the middle of the twentieth century, American creativity seemed to blossom, and everything after has been derivative.”
That period (1940-1970) undeniably produced wonderful artists through centers of collaboration. A wonderful example is Black Mountain College, the school dedicated to cross-genre arts and artistic experimentation where Cunningham’s dance company was formed. The faculty was an amazing collection of artists and writers including: Walter Gropius, Jacob Lawrence, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, and Alfred Kazin- later a professor of American Studies at Amherst College. The faculty list is not just a trophy case/guest list; Cunningham’s early career was built on collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg and composer John Cage.
Julard School of Music in the 50’s is another great focus of talent in the performing arts. I make the association since William Schuman, president of the Juilliard, was inspired to create the famous dance division, after having collaborated with Martha Graham - and Merce Cunningham started as a dancer in Graham’s company before forming his own troupe in 1953.
But those who grew up during the 40’s and 50’s (like my parents) have a misconception that the American arts communities have not maintained that level of creativity. I believe that such feelings are not new and come from their sense of mortality and a generation gap. Icons of the art/dance world today (Mark Morris, etc) merely have more global competition than the pioneers (Paul Taylor or Alvin Ailey). The cost of producing theater has created a clash between creativity and economic reality so that centers of experimentation and collaboration such as Jacob’s Pillow (dance) and Tanglewood (for music) are more performance space and less centers for experimentation and education. Visual arts have also been over-commercialized with young artists being popularized as the next Warhol and marketed too fast to allow the independent evolution that occurs in communal settings like Black Mountain.
But, collaborations worthy of attention happen inside and out of established schools, artist collaboratives still function. Established artists still mentor students at local colleges, and creativity thrives. As a kid, I remember taking summer trips from camp Greylock (Pittsfield MA) to Jacob’s pillow and being introduced to modern dance in elementary school by an assembly by Jacques d'Amboise.
Back to Cunningham.
The MFA interview was structured around the 4 "innovations" that have defined the Cunningham working method. The first was to separate music and choreography. Each element would be written based on an agreed upon length and a structure of time points in the piece, but music-dance interaction would be accidental, and dancers would be forced to deal with that interaction. The second was the use of chance procedures. Short segments of movement were created; random numbers were used to select the order and frequency of the movements, number of dancers performing them, position on stage, etc. The idea came with the development of magnetic tape, where sounds could be segmented and recombined in random fashion. Again, this forced dancers to push themselves both physically and creatively.(Note: the random selection was not a live event. There is no improvisation: the dancers know precisely what they are going to do before they go on stage). The other 2 elements were film and technology- use of a computer program to plan the dances. Both lifted Merce out of his seat to look at the composition from many angles.
In the hands of an ordinary man these innovations would become a gimmick, Cunningham has used them as creative tools to realize new possibilities for movement and composition, and to drive the dancers to extend themselves. As Merce said “you need to feel the awkwardness of the being a novice to learn new things.”
I would expect the result of such tooling to be very self-conscious compositions. Indeed, the video shown of the earliest works from the 60’s was difficult to watch with no story (In the sense of consistent interaction between the dancers, beginning/end/climax). The music by John Cage was (I assume by necessity) atmospheric and minimal-whining in fact. But, I think these exercises became more of an idea generator with time, and the more recent pieces were marvelously energetic, acrobatic and graceful.
Ultimately, the reason Cunningham was included in the MFA visual artists series is based less that he collaborated with Rauschenberg, and more on his treatment of dance as a visual art than as ballet.
Finally, I want to mention a parallel to the work of Matthew Ritchie. I visited his installation at Mass MoCA called ‘Proposition Player’ last year (2005). Ritchie's work is drenched with scientific symbology, diagrams and equations that suggest some profound understanding of the universe, but in actuality are just juxtaposed elements taken out of context to inspire disconnected thought and to allow the imagination to wander. The elements are, like in Cunningham’s dance, composed through the use of ‘chance’ machines.
By creating odd juxtapositions in his paintings, Ritchie makes us look more carefully at the details of his drawings just as Cunningham forces his dancers to focus on the precision of their movements. The games of chance in both genres allow the artist to more widely sample the possibilities of composition, and their compositions are immensely complex. However, in spite of the complexity, for Ritchie “the emphasis of the art is always on the objects," and analogously for Cunningham' "the emphasis is always on the movements."
I look forward to the rest of the Shapiro series and home M can join me and comment.