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Cold Storage and New Brightness: The Cunningham Acquisition Moves in at the Walker

ARRIVAL: Many items from the Cunningham acquisition are now living at the Walker.  In preparation for the November opening of Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg, the art storage basement is filled with Robert Rauschenberg-designed costumes and set pieces (or decors, as Merce referred to them).  Rauschenberg collaborated with Merce Cunningham on pieces from 1954-1964, […]

R-L: Details from Robert Rauschenberg's costume designs for Summerspace (1958) and Antic Meet (1958). Photos by Abi Sebaly.

ARRIVAL: Many items from the Cunningham acquisition are now living at the Walker.  In preparation for the November opening of Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham/Robert Rauschenberg, the art storage basement is filled with Robert Rauschenberg-designed costumes and set pieces (or decors, as Merce referred to them).  Rauschenberg collaborated with Merce Cunningham on pieces from 1954-1964, 1977, 2000, and 2007.  The pieces in the Walker acquisition reflect this broad span.

IMMIGRATION AND PASSPORT CONTROL: Following their journey from New York, all items must undergo a thorough inspection, cleaning, and cataloguing before they can fully move into the Walker’s collection.  While the rest of Minneapolis sweats it out in the midsummer swelter, the art storage, and the acquisition items within, remain stable in a temperature-controlled environment that is cold, very cold.   Last week, textile conservator Beth McLaughlin visited to school us in preparing the costumes, decors, and other performance ephemera for their new lives as museum holdings.  Each costume (and there could be well over 1,000) will be vacuumed with the Nilfisk (more than your average Hoover—a device with special brushes and filters), inspected, and carefully tagged and folded into boxes layered with acid-free tissue.  Décor backdrops, which typically measure a very large 30’ x 60’, will have to be hung in an actual theater setting to allow their storage folds and wrinkles to relax, before they are then rolled onto long dowels.  A bear fur coat, which Rauschenberg found for the piece Antic Meet (1958) will have to be frozen at the Science Museum of Minnesota so that potential fur-loving pests stay away. The painting vacuum, appropriated for cleaning costumes. Photo by Abi Sebaly.

EMERGING QUESTIONS: Until now, these items have been cleaned and cared for with the aim of sustaining their use in performances.  But now they are now handled with cotton gloves.  In light of this transformation, how should we treat the traces of performances past, such as the lingering residue Merce’s stage makeup on a shirt collar?  Should gummy labels and fabric wrinkles be treated and repaired, or stabilized and left as intact as possible? How do we create new spaces for this acquisition in the art storage area, in the catalogue database template, in the way we share these items across departments and disciplines?  How do we convey the multiple stories of these items as objects of function, objects of design and aesthetic interest, and launch pads for broader learning?

NEW BRIGHTNESS: Items that were once meant to be observed from afar, in motion, on bodies, lit by stage lighting, are now stationary objects exposed to close, raw-light scrutiny. This may sound like a more clinical vantage point, but as I begin to examine the costumes, I am constantly surprised by the unexpected details that pop at this close distance.  For instance, Rauschenberg’s Summerspace (1958) costumes look uniformly dotted from stage.  But up close, you can see that he applied the colorful dyes in more layered, varied patterns. And even after more than 50 years, the day-glo hues and intensely saturated colors keep blazing.

 More updates to follow soon!

L: Detail from Rauschenberg's costume design for Summerspace (1958). R: Derry Swan in Summerspace. Courtesy of Cunningham Dance Foundation.

L: Summerspace (1958) costumes. R: Textile conservator Beth McLaughlin holding Rauschenberg-designed hooped tank tops from Antic Meet (1958).

 

R: Detailing from Merce's Antic Meet (1958) tank top. L: More detail of Rauschenberg's tattoo motif on the Antic Meet tank tops (scooping the likes of Christian Audigier and Ed Hardy, 50 years before their time!).