Blogs Untitled (Blog) Anna Gallagher-Ross

Anna Gallagher-Ross is a curator, editor, and performance-maker. She received a B.A. in Performance Studies and an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto. Currently, she is an M.A. Candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College where she is a contributing editor of aCCeSsions. Anna has curated performances, exhibitions, and programming in Toronto and New York.

Magazine as Storehouse: Merce Cunningham and Aspen 5+6 (1967)

“In calling it a ‘magazine’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”[1] ―Phyllis Johnson It was while attending the Aspen International Design conference in 1964 in Aspen, Colorado, that editor Phyllis Glick (1926–2001) came up with a groundbreaking idea for an art […]

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

“In calling it a ‘magazine’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”[1]

―Phyllis Johnson

It was while attending the Aspen International Design conference in 1964 in Aspen, Colorado, that editor Phyllis Glick (1926–2001) came up with a groundbreaking idea for an art magazine. Named after the town where it was conceived, Aspen would not resemble a run-of-the mill publication, but rather, as Glick wrote in the inaugural editorial note, a “storehouse,” a multimedia magazine in a box that would house artist projects, writings, and objects, all of which demanded a new kind of reader—an active participant. Instead of a fixed format, each issue, of ten produced between 1965 and 1971, reflected the conceptual concerns of different guest editors and designers invited by Glick, who, under the nom de plume Phyllis Johnson, oversaw all aspects of the magazine’s production.[2]

Aspen’s innovative and shape-shifting format defied the very notion of the mainstream magazine. It stymied many, including the US Postal Service, but was welcomed by the American art community who craved an alternative platform for experimental work.[3] The mass-produced, ephemeral magazine format was well-suited to the conceptual art practices of the time, which eschewed the elitism of the art world gallery system in favor of reproducible, photographic, and text-based works.[4]  With its expansive reach through the mail delivery system and price of $8 an issue, Aspen enabled greater access to art and ideas in the United States and abroad.

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Edited by artist Brian O’Doherty (1928–) and designed by Lynn Letterman and David Dalton, number 5+6, “The Minimalism Issue,” remains one of Aspen’s most ambitious efforts. O’Doherty, in his editorial note, referred to the double issue as a “miniature museum,” which had indeed replaced the white cube of the gallery with a small off-white box.[5] Secured by a string and button, the box enclosed an abundance of diverse media that provided a curated selection of 1960s conceptual practices out of New York[6]: artist projects by O’Doherty, Dan Graham (1942–), Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), Mel Bochner (1940–), Tony Smith (1912–1980); reams of art films by Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Robert Morris (1931–), László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), and Hans Richter (1888–1976); five flexi-disc records that included music by John Cage (1912–1992) and Morton Feldman (1926–1987), and recordings of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), Richard Huelsenbeck (1892–1974), William S. Burroughs (1914–1997), and Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008); as well as musical scores and advertisements. It also included three staple-bound essays by Susan Sontag (1933–2004), George Kubler (1912–1996), and Roland Barthes (1915–1980). Incidentally, this was the first publication of Barthes’ famous essay in which he pronounced the death of the author, a claim that subsequently launched an entire field of literary criticism.

Whether it was Tony Smith’s build-it-yourself model of his minimalist sculpture The Maze (1967) or the many films and audio recordings that required hours of attention, in the wake of the death of the author, issue 5+6 championed the birth of the reader, foregrounding his or her role in participating in the production of art and ideas. Therefore, the same year that art critic Michael Fried (1939–) published the iconic essay in which he declared himself against theater, specifically the theatricality of minimalism, which existed only for its audience, Aspen 5+6 was producing minimalist art on a mass level, disseminating the magazine to a reading audience located across the country, who were cast as active participants.

Among the many treasures of issue number 5+6 is a flexi-disc of two recordings by Merce Cunningham. Side “A” features Cunningham reading his seminal 1952 essay “Space, Time, Dance,” in which he expresses the views that initiated a “choreographic turn,” in modern American dance while Side B labeled simply “Further Thoughts” includes an interview with Cunningham from 1967 in which he expands upon his theory of dance fifteen years later.

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Cunningham’s measured, but conversational reading of “Space, Time, Dance” comes through surprisingly clearly on the warm, crackling flexi-disc recording. This essay touches on many key artistic strategies that would characterize his dance career. His discussion revolves around the equal importance of space and time in the dance, and he describes his innovative “formal structure based on time,”[7] as well as his commitment to using chance operations to create indeterminate choreographies that objectify everyday movement, blurring the boundaries between art and life. Just a year earlier, John Cage had begun experimenting with chance operations in his music. Cage created extensive charts that catalogued different musical elements and used the structure of time to determine the order of those elements by way of chance procedures. This method had a profound influence on Cunningham, who sought to use the devices of chance and indeterminacy in his dances, which he experimented with for the first time in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951).[8]

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Jasper Johns’ décor for MCDC’s Walkaround Time, which consisted of seven inflatable plastic “pillows,” each displaying a different image from Duchamp’s masterwork The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1928. Collection Walker Art Center

Reacting to American modern dance that sought to express the “new” but could not shirk the expressionist and narrative forms of ballet, Cunningham saw chance operations as offering a new kind of freedom from the old forms, in which dance could be “a space in which anything can happen.”[9] Using the formal structure of time measured by a stopwatch as brackets that enclosed the dance, Cunningham would precisely choreograph a sequence of movements and then allow chance, the toss of a coin for example, to determine their arrangement. Cunningham insisted that all parts of his dances—choreography, scenography, music—be independently created and only come together afterwards, all corresponding in the same way to space and time. All of the elements of the performance on stage are thus “autonomous” but “connected at structural points.”[10] He describes his artistic process as “man-made” though “the final synthesis” has a “natural result.”[11] As a consequence, the “dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music.”[12] Instead of being subordinate to one or the other, dance and music are free agents that only conform to the predetermined formal structure of time. In doing so, Cunningham was constantly challenging himself and his dancers. They would learn the choreographies in silence, using timed notation and often only hear the accompanying music for the first time in performance. Most of all, his dances challenged audiences who were accustomed to a linear progression of familiar, synchronized movement that took place center stage and in concert with the music. In Cunningham’s dances, audiences was presented with simultaneous but disparate choreographies occurring all over the stage that were independent from the music—a landscape of space and time they could navigate on their own terms.[13]

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For his 1969 décor design for MCDC, Robert Morris created a mobile column complete with airplane runway lights. During the performance, the column traversed the stage from left to right and back, shining the bright lights against a reflective scrim hung upstage and the dancers’ costumes, which were covered in reflective paint. Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Canfield. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1969. Photo: James Klosty

Rather than the expressive or symbolic movement, Cunningham’s interest lay in creating “pure movement,” performed simply as a thing in itself such that “what is seen is what it is.”[14] At the core of his fascination with chance is Cunningham’s embracing of the beauty of the randomness and the logic of everyday life. In a stunning turn of phrase, Cunningham asks the listener to consider an hour of their day, and all of the occurrences that naturally fill that hour, and how “each thing […] succeeds each thing.”[15] Cunningham wanted his dances to have a similar effect, of a set of seemingly natural occurrences taking place over the course of a period of time. Similar to Duchamp’s readymades, Cunningham saw everything in life as eventful and everyday movement—whether riding a bicycle onstage, getting rained on, running out to get a cup of coffee, or simply standing—as worthy in and of itself of a place on the stage. “Dancing,” as he explains, “is a visible action of life.”[16]

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Mobile enough to take on MCDC’s first world tour in 1964, Robert Rauschenberg’s free-standing stage décor for MCDC’s Minutiae prompted interaction by the dancers who moved around and through itRobert Rauschenberg  décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976,  oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror and string, on wood. Collection Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

Issue 5+6 is dedicated to the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), who famously declared that “things exist, we do not need to create them; we only need to seize the relationships between them.”[17] However, it might as well have been dedicated to Cunningham, whose dances grasped the rare and beautiful indeterminate choreographies derived from chance operations. Aspen 5 +6, in many ways, reflects Cunningham’s philosophy of dance. It also maps a network of influential artists and composers with whom he had collaborated or would do so in the future: Cage, his partner in life and art; Rauschenberg, who met and began working with Cunningham at Black Mountain College, served as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and designed more than 20 costumes and stage decors for Cunningham; Feldman, who composed music for multiple productions; Morris whose work greatly influenced Cunningham and Cage, and who would design the stage décor for Cunningham’s Canfield in 1969; Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984), whose film projections would illuminate the stage in Cunningham’s Variations V (and who filmed Morris’s performance Site (1964), which was included in the issue); and finally, Duchamp, whose experimental work with chance, the everyday, and the boundaries between art and life inspired and shaped the practices of Cunningham, Cage, and many fellow artists in their circle. A sustained look at Aspen 5 + 6 provides just a glimpse of the vast constellations of art practices grouped around Cunningham that will be on view in the forthcoming Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition in February 2017.

Peruse all ten issues of Aspen at Ubu Web.

 

Footnotes

[1] Phyllis Johnson, “Letter from the Editor,” Aspen, no. 1 (1965): n.p.

[2] Allen, Gwen. 2011. Artists’ Magazines: an alternative space for art. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press), 43.

[3] Ibid, 49.

[4] Ibid, 52.

[5] Ibid, 49.

[6] Ibid, 49.

[7] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[8] Vaughan, David, and Melissa Harris. 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 58.

[9] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[10] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[11] Cunningham, Merce. 1951 “The function and technique of dance.” 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 60.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Vaughan, David, and Melissa Harris. 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 276.

[14] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Edson, Laurie. 2000. Reading relationally: postmodern perspectives on literature and art. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 63.

 

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