Considering Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham, the great modernist dancer and choreographer, died in 2009. His company died in 2011.

Its end was Cunningham’s wish, one sanctioned by a board of trustees: after his death there was to be one final world tour—and then that would be that. And on New Year’s Eve 2011, having spent two years traveling the globe, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company did put on a final show at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City; the following April, the studio’s doors closed.

For what? The journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, who danced with Cunningham in the 1970s, called the self-imposed shuttering “a stunning act of artistic self-immolation.” But that was Cunningham’s way: the relentless pursuit of the “stunning,” the new. He told the New York Times in 1992, at age 72, “Every artist should ask, ‘What is the point of doing what you already know?’” What excited Cunningham was possibility. It makes sense that he would not want his company to molder.

Cunningham’s works lack narrative; there are no stories to his dances. But this is not what distinguishes them. Their innovation is their purposeful discontinuity. From the start, Cunningham and his longtime romantic and work partner John Cage, the composer, felt strongly that art need not be focused or arranged—that it could be cacophonous, like life, with unrelated events occurring simultaneously. There is truth in the glibness that Cunningham was loath to be bored. He said:

Dance, like any work of art, is not interesting unless it provokes you—where you say, “I never thought of that,” and have some new experience … When I see dances where I can perceive from the first five minutes what they’re going to be, my interest drops 50 percent. What’s interesting is exactly the way many disparate things are brought together. That’s the kind of world we live in, and that’s the way I work.

With rare exception, Cunningham choreographed his routines separate from Cage, who himself composed music with no knowledge of the sets that Robert Rauschenberg, say, or Jasper Johns would design. The music and set and costumes and movement were created apart and united only at performances. They accompanied but never depended on one another.

Even in his choreography, Cunningham left much to chance. He would roll dice or flip coins to determine the number of dancers and sequence of movements, even the order of pre-choreographed sections, all in an effort to escape artistic cliché. What is gained by such exertions? Here is the New Yorker critic Joan Acocella:

Vaughan quotes Cunningham to the effect that stories or even themes put the spectator in the position of someone standing on a street corner waiting for a friend who is late: you can’t see the cars or the buildings or the sky, he said, because “everything and everyone is not the person you await.” So it was, he felt, with dancing in which you expect a meaning beyond the physical facts, and he wanted to show us the physical facts, the very cell of movement.

Cunningham was fascinated by what he called the “endless” possibilities of human movement. This was central to his work.

His routines (he appeared in them all until he turned 70) were frequently physically demanding, requiring real mastery of technique. The dancers accelerate and slow down, start and stop, balance motionless in stressful positions, tip themselves precariously. Alastair Macaulay, writing in the New York Times about a performance of Cunningham’s “Split Sides,” called soloist Silas Riener a “marvel of both tautness and pliancy” who “must have done 15 successive acts that were physically astonishing and 50 that went beyond any choreographic precedent.” Macaulay continues:

Much of “Split Sides” is about maintaining equilibrium while the body is tilting one way or another: this solo takes that challenge to new virtuoso extremes, phenomenal in terms of sheer gymnastics as well as rhythm, shape, and linear complexity.

Cunningham was no purist. He had ideas and pursued them, certainly, but he wasn’t doctrinaire about it, which distinguishes him from many other revolutionary modernists. Cunningham did not crusade against narrative, for example, firing away at his forebears’ perceived shortcomings. Instead he learned from his predecessors, borrowed from them, and attempted to use their innovations in new ways.

Cunningham truly was that rare artist who creates without pretension to truth. For him, there were many truths, all worth exploring. Indeed, this expansive tendency has long made it difficult for critics, who necessarily traffic in hierarchies, to evaluate Cunningham’s work. The oft-encountered problem: how does one judge chance?

Perhaps the smartest tack is to say Cunningham gave us a new way of understanding movement and dance. He didn’t insist on his way—he merely provided it and, in so doing, widened our vistas on art and its possibilities.

His dances tend to lack a center, and so, as observers, the center in a sense becomes us. We look and listen, and we have our conceptions challenged and perceptions broadened by Cunningham’s creations.

California Design and the Case Study Houses

Southern California art, architecture, and design supposedly has a chip on its shoulder, and Pacific Standard Time, the months-long parade, from October 2011 to March 2012, of some 170 exhibitions at some 130 SoCal museums and galleries, was the result. As Adam Nagourney wrote in the New York Times, the festival was a “statement of self-affirmation by a region that, at times, appears to feel underappreciated as a serious culture center.”

The inferiority angle may make for compelling marketing but is overplayed. Southern California has contributed oodles of serious culture and knows it. And in perhaps no area is its strong influence felt more strongly than in modern home design.

The star of “California Design, 1930–1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way,’” one of PST’s major exhibitions, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was not the many varied items (couches and clothing and jewelry and suchlike) on display but the aggregate they formed: the distinct interior of the region’s modern, single-family homes. Architecture had pride of place: the exhibition’s curators went so far as to recreate the inside of the famous Eames House of 1949.

The Eames House, also known as Case Study House #8, was one of two dozen structures built between 1945 and 1964, mostly in Southern California, as part of the vaunted Case Study program.

These Case Study houses (most of the buildings were houses) exemplified California’s particular style of modernism: they shared with their European forebears many of modernism’s design shibboleths (flat roofs, no ornamentation, etc.) but not its ideology and austerity. The Case Study houses were lighter, happier, material-consumption-friendly. They were more welcoming than foreboding. More livable than theoretical.

The Case Study program, sponsored by a Los Angeles-based architecture magazine, was strikingly successful and, according to Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, later “helped drive a broader modernist revival in architecture and interior design.”

Hawthorne has a grievance with the Case Study program, however: that “implicitly but powerfully, it endorsed the low-density, car-dependent urbanism of postwar Southern California.” Rather than produce structures that would have led Los Angeles away from its tendency toward horizontal sprawl, in other words, the Case Study architects merely succumbed to it. In his dissent Hawthorne quoted the historian Kevin Starr, who wrote that the houses were disconnected from urban concerns and, as such, merely reflected the abiding spirit of L.A., a city Starr lamented as “enclavist in its sociology.”

There is truth here. But are such criticisms fair? After all, one of the pioneering characteristics of California modernism was its ease with materialism. Perhaps it’s a tad unjust to expect the Case Study architects to have designed apart from their milieu. They were inventing experimental structures, yes, but those structures were created and built in a specific environment.

In Southern California in the mid-20th century the single-family home was revered. For better or worse, L.A.’s postwar denizens saw individual houses on individual lots as endemic to their environment. Tall apartment buildings and narrow streets and mixed-use neighborhoods conjured in their minds scenes of graying urban decay. Their city, they avowed, would escape such supposed blights. Their trinity: sunshine, freeways, and single-family homes moated by carefully coiffed lawns.

Perhaps the Case Study designers could have created buildings that challenged these desires. How successful would they have been? And had they done so, would we still discuss their houses today?