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Wear Dark Glasses: The Relighting of Merce Cunningham’s Canfield

The décor for Canfield (1969) entered the Walker’s collection with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition in 2011. It is a rare Robert Morris sculpture, little-studied within his practice, and due to its size and logistical challenges, it was only used a handful of times by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before falling out of repertory. […]

Performing Arts Collateral Merce Cunningham Canfield 1969 set by Robert Morris

Merce Cunningham Canfield (1969) décor by Robert Morris

The décor for Canfield (1969) entered the Walker’s collection with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition in 2011. It is a rare Robert Morris sculpture, little-studied within his practice, and due to its size and logistical challenges, it was only used a handful of times by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before falling out of repertory. Following a six-month restoration project by the Walker’s registration and program services crew, the conserved décor is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time.

Stored in three original touring crates, the décor the Walker acquired was a mysterious vestige of the magic environment it was intended to create onstage. The 25-foot-tall column broke down into two joined five-foot units and a single five-foot unit of hammered aluminum. Years of disregard had yellowed the paint, which was still scratched and stained from its last performances.

The design for Canfield was entirely Morris’s own conception, as he would not have discussed or known the nature of the choreography before proposing his design to Jasper Johns, then the artistic advisor of the Cunningham company. Morris’s original vision for the Canfield décor was to have the dancers wear leotards dyed with a reflective paint that would glow when caught by a beam of light. Admittedly, Morris was less than active in his creation of the work; after communicating his concept to Johns, Rick Nelson and James Baird—lighting designer and stage manager for the company, respectively—were put in charge of producing his idea. Nelson and Johns sourced airplane runway lights, which produced a blinding glare upstage when attached to a reflective scrim. Baird mechanized Morris’s column to travel slowly across the stage, from left to right, meaning that most of the choreographic activity occurred outside the lights’ glow, in shadowy darkness.

The exact mechanics of this early design were confounding to us at the Walker as we attempted to reconfigure the apparatus using as much of the original assemblage of pulleys, weights, and steel I- and T-beams as possible. Once successfully mounted in the Walker’s McGuire Theater and safely rewired by Egan Electric, the process of mechanizing the column began. At times the process of mounting the piece felt like a humorous contemporary take on the projects developed collaboratively by Experiments in Art and Technology.

Lead technician David Dick examines an early motor for Canfield Photo: Mary Coyne

Lead technician David Dick examines an early motor for Canfield Photo: Mary Coyne

It was apparent that, in order to properly restore Canfield, the column had to operate as it had in 1969. The traveling beam of light, as opposed to the column itself, was Morris’s vision for the design, and a stationary column hanging from the gallery wall would not have successfully conveyed Canfield’s purpose. Peter Hannah, from the Walker’s program services team, sourced a Teknic motor, which was programmed to traverse the I-beam, stop gently, and return in the opposite direction.

Now operational and installed as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time for the first time since its acquisition, Morris’s desired effect was visible. As an active design, rather than a stationary sculpture, the piece’s relationship to Cunningham’s work of that late 1960s emerged. Perhaps most interestingly, the decor shares a direct relationship to artist Francis Picabia’s stage design for the 1924 ballet, Relâche. Cunningham and Cage had seen René Clair’s film, Entr’acte, created for Picabia and Erik Satie’s ballet, in the late 1950s and, likely through their ongoing friendship with Marcel Duchamp over the next decade, processed the work as an important historical reference. Commissioned by Rolf de Mare for the Paris-based Ballets Suédois, Picabia’s design consisted of hundreds of white lights shining at the audience upstage of the performers. Combined with Satie’s score (it would be his final composition), the ballet was an early Dadaist celebration. The work’s title, which translates to “canceled” or the “show has been canceled,” made any scheduled performance of the work into a pun (the first advertised performance was indeed cancelled, adding to the play). Relâche’s disjointed relationship of dance to music, challenging décor, and seemingly non-narrative action on stage makes it an ideal progenitor of Cunningham’s own choreography.

1924 Relache_001

Relâche, 1924

1924 Relache_002

Relâche, 1924

In Walkaround Time (1968), Cunningham split the dance into two acts broken by an intermission, or entr’acte, during which the dancers remained on stage in view of the audience. Even Cunningham’s “strip tease,” in which he changes costume on stage following the entr’acte, coyly mimed from not only Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (a gender reversal of the bride being stripped bare by the bachelors) but also the male dancer’s onstage costume change from evening tails into white unitards in Relâche, a move responded to as radical in the 1920s.

An advertisement for the ballet carried Picabia’s own disclosure: “Above all, don’t forget dark glasses and something to plug your ears.”1 Writing in 1981 (over a decade after Canfield’s premiere), Rosalind Krauss considered the experience of viewing the ballet against such harsh lights an act of “terrorism” striking out against the audience. This dramatic reading is supported by first-hand accounts of the work; Paul Souday, reviewing the work, wrote that the lights—reflecting off circular mirrors against the wall behind the stage—were “unbearable” to look at, especially once reflected against the small mirrors decorating the dancer’s unitards.

Morris’s design for Canfield could be read as his riff on the historical work. In a reversal of Picabia’s conceit of a tableau against which the audience viewed the activity occurring downstage, Morris’s column, which continually moved across the stage, referenced his interest in actively altering the structures of time and space around the body through acute focuses on light and dark.2 Morris used a similar strategy—the dancer’s body against a dark ground—in his first dance work, Arizona, which premiered at the Judson Dance Theater in 1963. The dancer (Morris) wore white coveralls against a white column against a dark performance space. Spinning electric lights on ropes hung over the heads of the audience while, over the course of the piece, the stage area went dark. Morris would later consider:

the establishment of a focus shifting between the egocentric and the exocentric could be accomplished by swinging overhead in a fully lighted room a small light at the end of a cord. The lights in the room fade as the cord is slowly let out until, finally, in total darkness, only the moving point of light is visible as it revolves in the large space above the heads of the audience.

Cunningham was interested in these affronts to the body of the dancer and, perhaps even more so, that of the expectantly passive viewer.3 In Winterbranch (1964) Cunningham made his perhaps most challenging work to date, a foreboding choreography set to a grading score by La Monte Young. Cunningham opened the dance by moving onto the dark stage carrying a flashlight, the only source of light on stage. Automobile headlights placed on the stage lit the end of the dance; much of the dance occurred in shadows. Further adding to the sense of unrest, the dancers’ faces were marked with eye black (as used by sports players to minimize glare). Cunningham asked then-resident designer Robert Rauschenberg to light the work and to “think of the light as though it were night instead of day. I don’t mean night as referred to in romantic pieces, but night as it is in our time with automobiles on highways, and flashlights in our faces, and the eyes being deceived about shapes the way the light hits them.”4 Rauschenberg, who had worked as the lighting designer for the company since 1954, as well as creating the costumes and stage decors, saw Winterbranch as his pièce de résistance in his contributions to lighting: the deep shadows and harsh lights contributed to the mood.

Winterbranch, 1965

Cunningham’s work often was met with resistance, understood as too difficult to watch. Since the 1940s, scores by John Cage, Bo Nilsson, and others were reported as an affront to the audience. To this day, many viewers comment on how Cunningham’s work is best enjoyed on mute or in silence. By 1965, Cunningham seemed prepared to embrace this challenge, intentionally drawing out what made the audience uncomfortable and thus more aware of their action as viewers of—and participants in—the work.

This planned affront to the audience members initially embraced by Cunningham in Winterbranch took on a sculptural form in the late 1960s. It is difficult not to look at the stage décor presented under Johns as in conversation with what Lucy Lippard termed “Dematerialized Art.” Andy Warhol’s helium-filled Silver Clouds (1966/1968); Bruce Nauman’s décor for Tread (1970), in which 10 fans blew directly outward form the edge of the proscenium stage onto the audience; and Morris’s column of light all capture the elements of Lippard’s dematerialized art. Morris dealt with this indefinite, or “dematerialized,” art not only in his inclusion of light and abstraction such as the time in his early performance works but also in his “sculptures” leading up to the commission for Canfield, including Steam (1967), an amorphous cloud of steam routed via pipes to small ruptures in a rock bed; Dirt (1968) a 2,000-pound pile of soil; and Continuous Project Altered Daily (1969), the latter of which notably was on view at the Leo Castelli Warehouse on Manhattan’s upper west side when Canfield premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Johns’s commissions during the last three years of his tenure as artistic advisor should be understood together, with Canfield at its heart, of the 1960’s preface Morris’s Bodymotionspacesthings at the Tate in 1971, an interactive sculptural installation that allowed him to translate this confrontation of sculpture in space with that of the viewer/participant.


Robert Morris, Bodyspacemotionthings 1971, Tate Modern, London

Watching the now-mobile Canfield column installed at MCA Chicago, generating a steady illuminated glow against the reflective wall (in galleries, walls stand in for upstage scrims) the sensorial aspect of Cunningham’s work of this period was readily palpable. Always ready to physically challenge an audience, Cunningham’s collaboration with Morris, although appropriately developed independent of each other, is a key project within the artist’s interest in the spatial and psychological relationship between dancer, viewer, and object.

Canfield is on view as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through April 30, 2017. The Walker component of the dual-venue Common Time exhibition closes July 30, 2017. 


1 391, no. 19, October 1924.

2 Morris articulates the relationship to light and dark to that of the temporal/spatial experience of the body in his seminal Notes on Dance, originally published in The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Winter, 1965): 179–180.

3 Although Cunningham was not making these choices directly, he clearly supported Johns’s partnerships with Nauman and Morris. When presented with an idea he wasn’t particularly keen on, Cunningham would famously suggest “maybe later,” rather than respond in the negative.

4 Merce Cunningham quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997).

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