Melissa Harris on Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham in Totem Ancestor, 1942. Photograph by Barbara Morgan. (Courtesy the Estate of Barbara Morgan and Bruce Silverstein Gallery.)
Melissa Harris is Editor in Chief of Aperture magazine, editor of Merce Cunningham: Fifity years and Cunningham’s Other Animals, as well as the upcoming ePub Merce Cunningham: 65 Years, co-edited with Trevor Carlson. She is a Trustee of the John Cage Trust.

The irony is not lost on me—as a photo-editor who has devoted many years to a medium known for stilling, or capturing, time, decisive or otherwise—that I should be equally consumed by another medium, one that defies any notion of “capture,” that I am seduced by dance’s very impermanence, especially in the case of Merce Cunningham. Cunningham’s choreography never leaves even a storyline to hang onto in its wake, but rather evinces a kind of isness, as if each dance has an ineffable essence that might somehow be touched, experienced, and that remains vital and resonant long after the curtain falls, so that endings are somehow intangible.

Cunningham’s sensibility was as much about time as about space—or, better, it was about the coexistence of the two and, unlike what transpires in much photography, time is liberated from illustration in a Cunningham dance. Things don’t have to happen in any narrative sense. Time is more about duration—which is in part why John Cage, and the other composers with whom Cunningham collaborated, had such freedom. In photography, conversely, the precise moment at which a picture is created may make all the difference—from evidentiary images to sports coverage to street shots to dance photography.

Which gets me thinking about the ephemeral—an idea that rarely pertains to the photographic object.

Of course photography can help to anchor that which is fleeting—whether it is Michael Jordan in the air, or Cunningham, as in Barbara Morgan’s image of his early solo, Totem Ancestor, 1942.  (Morgan—one of Aperture’s founders–collaborated closely with Martha Graham, and first photographed Cunningham when he was dancing with Graham’s troupe, beginning in 1939.).

Should art have a life span, like nature’s processes?  Looking at Robert Rauschenberg’s marvelous “Combine,” Monogram (1955–59), in a museum exhibition some years ago—the stuffed Angora goat on its platform, trapped under Plexiglas (I assume)—I was so saddened. This poor creature—once part of an irreverent, funny work built of materials that belie any intent of endless durability—is now subdued by the art world, forever viewable, but oddly spiritless in its cage. . . . Okay, that’s perhaps unfair. The choice of materials may certainly have been in part due to the artist’s poverty at the time of the work’s making. And I understand that if a museum pays millions or whatever dollars for something, the mandate is that it will last. Furthermore, I’m all for artists being able to sell their work—how else might they survive? I am of course grateful, too, for the opportunity to see work that, if not for profoundly good caretaking, I might never have had the chance to see.

But what if the integrity of the work is at stake? How does that affect its value—in more than the monetary sense? Maybe the pertinence of art is the thing itself, its “quality of life,” rather than its longevity?

My guess is that, when the supremely generous Rauschenberg was alive, had something technical gone awry with the aging Monogram, he would have been quite willing to pitch in. I say this with some conviction: in 1999, the New York City Ballet staged Cunningham’s 1958 dance Summerspace, which features an exquisite, pointillist backcloth by Rauschenberg, who from 1954 to 1964 was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s resident designer—décor, costumes, lighting. David Vaughan, archivist of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, in his book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (Aperture, 1997), notes that the original set was executed with the help of Jasper Johns (who had the title of artistic advisor to the Company from 1967 to 1980). During the intermission of the Lincoln Center performance, Rauschenberg paced outside the theater, smoking a cigarette and clearly vexed. He had apparently wanted to do a little work on the backcloth for these performances—but the unions wouldn’t allow him to touch it. Go figure. . . .

Jasper Johns spray-painting Carolyn Brown’s costume for Canfield, 1969. Photograph by James Klosty. (Courtesy the artist.)

It is gratifying, then, to consider Richard Rutledge’s photograph of a hands-on Rauschenberg assembling the “machine” for Cunningham’s 1961 AEon, or James Klosty’s image of Johns spray-painting Carolyn Brown’s costume for the 1969 dance Canfield (as Brown’s partner at the time, Klosty had unprecedented access touring with and documenting the Company, as well as a unique and sensitive perspective.  His exceptional images provide an intimate take on the MCDC from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s.).  Here is the ephemeral in the making: these kinds of moments are the stuff of photography. And then there are images of the dances themselves—from the very earliest photos, at the Company’s inception in 1953, right up to those made by Stephanie Berger and Anna Finke late in Cunnginham’s life, in the natural light of his “Beacon Events” at Dia:Beacon (2007–9). And finally there are the images from New York’s Park Avenue Armory “Events”—first, the memorial “Event” in October 2009, and most recently those of the last six performances of the Company’s farewell Legacy Tour, at the end of last year, danced under Daniel Arsham’s dramatic “clouds.”

If dance is ultimately fleeting, photography makes for a compelling partner.

50 words V/14/72

Sleeping till 11:30. (All previous-night flight, & all day studio-catch-up-late movie TV.) Rare to really sleep long. Real refreshment. Day spent cooking beans, writing article never finish that article (East & West=never best). Evening with CH 13—movies of the 40’s. Old movies are like old photographs. You remember so many surrounding things. John’s call from Koln: back from Bonn, off to London, diarrhea outside hotel, clothes in laundromat.

—Merce Cunningham, from his book Other Animals: Drawings and Journals, (Aperture, 2002)

I first met Merce, thanks to John Cage’s intervention, in the early 1980s, when I was an undergrad writing a senior essay on their collaborations with Rauschenberg and Johns. But it wasn’t until nearly twenty years later, while I was editing Merce’s book Other Animals, that I really had an opportunity to spend time with him. Sometime in 2001, I was invited to his loft–that he had shared with Cage–for dinner (prepared by Laura Kuhn, executive director of the John Cage Trust). David Vaughan was there, as was Margarete Roeder, Cunningham’s gallerist and friend who helped keep him in art supplies. At the end of the evening, as I was leaving, Merce handed me a shopping bag filled with steno pads from the 1970s onward, suggesting that I might enjoy looking at them. A selection of these drawings and journals (with additional works and photographs sprinkled throughout) eventually evolved into Other Animals, and he worked closely with designer Wendy Byrne and me on the format and sequencing of this book.  Earlier, when editing Vaughan’s Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years in the mid-nineties, I had also periodically brought Merce layouts of that book to review. He had one consistent complaint: “Do there have to be so many pictures of me?”   My “YES!” was non-negotiable.

Cunningham may not have liked photographs of himself (or perhaps what he might have felt as the intrusion of the photographer), but photographers loved taking his picture, and therefore evocative images of him abound, by myriad artists, including: Richard Avedon, Imogen Cunningham, Arnold Eagle, Johan Elbers, Allen Ginsberg, Lois Greenfield, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Peter Hujar, Annie Leibovitz, Babette Mangolte, Jack Mitchell, Peter Moore, Max Waldman, and many others. And there are of course other kinds of portraits: both Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, for example, made works incorporating Cunningham’s image; and his footprint appears in Johns’s Numbers (1963), commissioned for the lobby of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. (According to Vaughan: “Johns had Cunningham step in the upper right-hand corner of the painting so that ‘Merce would get his foot in the door’ of the new theater.”) Even William Eggleston, not a portraitist, expressed to me his interest in photographing Cunningham. Eggleston recalled that he’d once driven from Memphis to Little Rock to see the Company perform. “It was marvelous,” he said. “Then after, people were asking him questions: ‘Was the dance supposed to be about this, or about that?’ And he simply said: ‘No, it’s not supposed to be anything but what it is.’” Eggleston added: “People ask me what my work is about. I also just want them to have their own experience.”

Cunningham was adventurous and stunningly prescient. Toward the end of 1989, as part of his choreographic process, he began to use a computer program developed for him, then called LifeForms. His 1991 piece Trackers (the title inspired by the “tracking” function on the computer) was the first work he made utilizing this technology.  And in a 1997 snapshot by digital artist Shelley Eshkar, a seemingly elated Cunningham looks on while two of his dancers don reflective spheres to track their form and movement with optical sensors. Eshkar and his partner Paul Kaiser were introducing the choreographer to “motion capture” (from which derived their 1998 project Hand-Drawn Spaces, and the following year Cunningham’s dance BIPED—the latter titled after a computer program by the same name designed for Cunningham). In the image, one can sense Cunningham’s sheer pleasure in the untried, in moving beyond his preconceptions—always key for him, as for Cage.

Merce Cunningham in the early stages of creating a dance to be incorporated into a multimedia film, installation, and computer project titled Hand-drawn Spaces. Working at the motion capture studio at Biodivision, San Francisco, in April 1997, in collaboration with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar of Riverbed Media, MC choreographs on screen using “Biped,” a computer program designed especially for him by Michael Girard and Susan Amkraut of Unreal Pictures. Reflective spheres are attached to dancers Jeannie Steele and Jared Phillips to track their form and movement with optical sensors. The data is stored in the computer, where MC can refine it, manipulate it, and develop a choreography. Photograph by Shelley Eshkar. (Courtesy the artist.)


Cunningham’s own interest in engaging with new technology was one of the principal motivations behind our forthcoming epub, Merce Cunningham: 65 Years. Aperture, in collaboration with the Cunningham Dance Foundation, is preparing to launch the project this spring (in conjunction with Aperture’s own sixtieth anniversary, as well as the centennial of John Cage’s birth). With the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Aperture, in collaboration with the Cunningham Dance Foundation, is preparing to launch the project this spring (in conjunction with Aperture’s own sixtieth anniversary, as well as the centennial of John Cage’s birth).

Many in the Cunningham orbit have nicknamed Vaughan’s Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years “the bible”–and as one dance aficionado insisted to me: “Nobody lets their bible disappear!”  Inspired by Cunningham’s spirited vision, the original print book will now be transformed:  Vaughan is updating the text of the Fifty Years book to 2009 (the year of Cunningham’s death), and the entire text will be digitized. The epub will incorporate fifteen-second excerpts of dance footage (with sound)—selected by Vaughan, Trevor Carlson (executive director of the CDF), and others—from some forty dances performed over the span of Cunningham’s career. Also featured will be brief excerpts of interviews with Cunningham from writer/producer Nancy Dalva’s remarkable series “Mondays with Merce,” and a selection from Vaughan’s discussions with Cunningham made after the publication of Fifty Years—in this way bringing Cunningham’s distinctive voice into the picture, so to speak.  There will also be selected drawings and journal pages; a consideration of the Legacy Tour by Bonnie Brooks (CDF Legacy fellow); as well as additional photographs from 1994–2009.  With the help of developer Larry Larson and designer Didier García, our hope is to create an enduring, accessible, multimedia project that will be experiential and more of Merce Cunningham and his extraordinary work, than simply about him.

The final stage performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company took place at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris on December 23, 2011. The last dance of the evening was the sublime BIPED. The invocation of nature’s cycles and multiplicity, the poetry in the “non-endings” of so many Cunningham dances—as the curtain falls, one still sees the activity, the movement, continuing beneath it, ongoing—teased this time with particular poignancy. The notion that nothing has stopped just because the curtain has come down fed the desire for the piece to continue, not to end, so that we would not have to say goodbye. The audience’s longing was palpable, and literally heart-in-your-throat breathtaking.

I began this meditation thinking about dance, specifically Cunningham, and photography. Photography, as we know, captures. It allows us to not entirely have to say goodbye, and it offers us the memories of, as Cunningham embracingly wrote,  “so many surrounding things.”

—Melissa Harris, January 2012

Biped, 1999. Holley Farmer (left) and Lisa Boudreau (right). Photograph by Stephanie Berger. (Courtesy the artist.)