Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp

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Former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform underneath inflatable plastic boxes that Jasper Johns imprinted with images from Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time of 1968. Left to right: Emma Desjardins and Marcie Munnerlyn. Dancers appear courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust. Photo by Constance Mensh, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"The Philadelphia Museum of Art was central to the encounter among some of the most important artists in the 20th century [...] and tells the story of five extraordinary artists and what happened to art and culture when their lives and work intersected" said Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) curator Carlos Basualdo, in a CityPaper article. "That encounter had ripples, and we're still part of those ripples today." One notable event took place in the 1950s, when artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg traveled to the PMA to view its seminal collection of work by Marcel Duchamp, including his masterwork, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). Duchamp, who radically expanded the idea of what an artwork could be, had a profound influence on Johns and Rauschenberg, as well as composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. He was the central focus of Dancing around the Bride, presented at the PMA.

The centerpiece of the expansive exhibition was the "Main Stage"—one of several elements designed by French artist Phillippe Parreno—on which former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed. As the exhibition's miseur-en-scene, Parreno designed a theater marquee at the show's entrance as well as the show's lighting, and a soundscape of various audio elements, including Cage's music, birdcalls, traffic noises, and the sound of dancers feet on a stage. Around the periphery of the Main Stage were paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and ephemera that documented and showed influence of the artists many interactions and influences on each other. While the galleries were deliberately composed and thematized (one was devoted to the subject of chess), many of the artworks were the results of chance procedures, a composition tactic employed by Duchamp but later used extensively by Rauschenberg, Cunningham, and Cage, and to a lesser degree Johns.

Concurrent with the exhibition, new music organization Bowerbird presented a John Cage festival in conjunction with the PMA, that took place at venues across the city. Cage: Beyond Silence unfolded in 10-day arcs, which gave audiences multiple chances to hear Cage's work and to gain a broader understanding of his impact on contemporary artistic practice beyond the music field. The segments, The Year Begins to Be Ripe (November 30 to December 9, 2012) and At Least We Have Begun (January 11–20, 2013), juxtaposed Cage's mid-career Song Books and his late-career Number Pieces. Several of the same works were performed multiple times by different artists, which underscored the importance of the interpreter and echoed themes of randomness and realization addressed in Dancing around the Bride. "With Cage, guidelines are more open," said pianist Margaret Leng Tan, a participating festival artist and former collaborator of Cage's, in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He asks you to be very much a part of the creative process."

Together, the exhibition and festival demonstrated the continued resonance and impact this multidisciplinary model has on contemporary work. "The explosion not only of creativity but of creative freedom and exchange is highly relevant to the dynamic structures of collaboration being explored by artists today," Project Curatorial Assistant Erica Battle said. Basualdo also pointed out that the overall potential of interdisciplinary exchange continued to be strong for contemporary artists looking back at these five major 20th-century artists and their relationships: "This is about the past, but it's about a past that is never fully past, a past that is still present."