“Common Time”: In Making a Case for Merce Cunningham, the Walker Art Center Makes a Case for Itself

“Common Time”: In Making a Case for Merce Cunningham, the Walker Art Center Makes a Case for Itself

Merce Cunningham: Common Time is an enormously ambitious program mounted by the Walker Art Center in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago. It makes the case for the choreographer as a central figure of 20th century art — not just influential, not just respected, but absolutely pivotal. As well it should: in making a case for Cunningham, the Walker is making a case for itself.

The Walker and Cunningham were closely associated for most of the choreographer’s career, with the Minneapolis museum hosting performances and premieres of Cunningham pieces including, most grandly, the outdoor epic Ocean (2008). After the choreographer’s 2009 death, the Walker successfully bid to acquire his company’s entire archive: costumes, sets, and other material spanning Cunningham’s long, fertile career.

That material now fills the Walker’s entire Edward Larrabee Barnes building, as well as exhibition space at MCA Chicago, where high ceilings permit the display of some large-scale pieces that won’t fit on the Walker’s walls. The exhibition is accompanied by performances and screenings — including both Cunningham’s own work and new work by other choreographers inspired by his legacy — that run into the summer months.

There are as many ways to describe Cunningham’s rich legacy as there are people to describe it (and a lot of them are in Minneapolis this week), but focusing on an artist like Cunningham is focusing on performance as a linchpin of contemporary art from the postwar era forward.

That’s a bet the Walker placed long ago, and it’s paid off: with the boundaries blurring between performance and other art forms, peer institutions around the world are racing to meet the mark that the Walker set half a century ago. The Walker’s relationship with Cunningham has been part of a wider embrace of contemporary performance that’s now manifest in the way the McGuire Theater is embedded at the heart of the center’s Herzog & de Meuron expansion.

Cunningham respected collaborators like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns as true co-creators. Aside from the length and breadth of Cunningham’s creative life, there aren’t many performers whose work would lend itself to such an extensive museum exhibit; the surviving costumes and props simply wouldn’t have enough interest outside the context of a performance.

Not so with Cunningham, who enlisted artists like Rauschenberg and Johns to create decors that were in dialogue not only with the dance but with the wider art world. One piece on display, for example, is considered the first of Rauschenberg’s influential mixed-media “combines.”

As with all great artists, Cunningham’s legacy lies not just in the people his work substantively inspired: that includes all contemporary choreographers, of course, as well as many performers from across genres. His gift to the art world more broadly was to grant permission for experimentation, to combine a formal rigor with an intoxicating disregard for the rules we thought we knew. A number of pieces in Common Time serve as bridges out of Cunningham’s world and into the larger universe of creative ferment.

For example, Charles Atlas’s MC9 is a nine-channel video homage to Cunningham, comprising Atlas’s favorites among his own films of Cunningham’s work projected onto screens of various sizes in a maze-like arrangement. With most other choreographers, the format would be deliberately disruptive, forcing careful compositions into a chaos of contrasts. Given Cunningham’s appreciation for chance and contrast, however, the nonlinear format works.

Considered with respect to pieces like Christian Marclay’s wildly popular The Clock (seen previously at the Walker), MC9 illustrates how Cunningham and his cohort pioneered the discovery of strange beauty in unexpected juxtapositions. It’s even possible to argue that Cunningham, Cage, and their contemporaries anticipated the appeal of today’s screen scrum: a Snapchat story, boiled down to its essence, isn’t that far a stretch from an interactive minimalist composition.

Maria Hassabi’s STAGING, a world premiere being presented in the Common Time galleries through Feb. 19 (seen above at a press preview), features eight dancers performing loops of movement with slowly sustained tension. We don’t quite know what to do with these dancers when we encounter them, and that’s just the point. Is it dance? Is it sculpture? Is it an encounter with the performer or the choreographer — sometimes they’re one and the same — and what’s its relationship to the work on display?

Discovering those answers is up to us, and we have Merce Cunningham — as well as the Walker — to thank for inviting us along on the journey.

Jay Gabler