This work was executed in 1959.
Property from the Collection of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Sold to Benefit the Merce Cunningham Trust
Merce Cunningham and John Cage were undeniably two of the most important figures in the arts to emerge in the American post-war era. Cunningham, the most celebrated choreographer of the second half of the twentieth century, and Cage, the most influential composer of that period, had a profound and wide-ranging impact not only on their own respective fields of dance and music, but also on visual and performance art. Their shared investment in moving the American avant-garde forward, whether by exploring the incorporation of chance procedures or advocating innovative forms of collaboration between artists, dancers and musicians, forever changed the landscape of contemporary art. The works in their collection are an eloquent testament to some of the many friendships and creative partnerships they forged with artists - such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Guston, William Anastasi and Dove Bradshaw - who offered their works to Cage and Cunningham as gifts to express their esteem and friendship.
Cunningham and Cage first met at the Cornish School in Seattle around 1937-38, in a creative environment where artists such as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves were working and exploring notions of Northwestern mysticism. After pursuing independent paths for the next few years, Cunningham and Cage met back in New York City in 1942, and they soon became both collaborators and partners. Cunningham, who had distinguished himself as a dancer, was urged by Cage to explore choreography, presenting in 1944 a performance of solo dance works accompanied by music by Cage that he would later consider his formative work as a choreographer. In the early fifties, they together developed and promoted a radical vision for music and dance, contending that the two art forms should be developed separately but preformed simultaneously, so that they would be coexistent yet autonomous forms of expression.
Both Cage and Cunningham experimented with using chance as a constitutive element in their compositions, embracing I Ching (the Chinese "book of changes" that one is meant to consult after tossing a set of coins) as a means of freeing their work from the constraints of predictability. They also shared a broad interest in Eastern philosophy, in particular Zen Buddhism, which at times manifested itself in their work in a sense of detachment or acceptance in the face of conflicting forces.
In 1953, Merce Cunningham Dance Company gave its first performance at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, Cage and Cunningham met the young artist Robert Rauschenberg, who soon became an important collaborator, serving as artistic advisor for the dance company. Together, these three artists became compelling exponents for the autonomy of theater arts. Each of them developed his part of their collaborations independently, often only revealing the costumes, stage sets and music to dancers at the dress rehearsal or even on the night of the first performance. They also collaborated on other notable projects, such as Rauschenberg's famous Automobile Tire Print of 1953, for which Cage drove his Model T across an expanse of paper.
It was through Rauschenberg that Cage and Cunningham met Jasper Johns in 1954. They would in turn forge lasting bonds as well, mutually influencing each other. Johns would also serve as artistic advisor to Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1967 to 1980. It was in honor of this important partnership that Johns created his celebrated Dancers on a Plane series, including the large-scale painting of this subject that he gave to Cage and Cunningham as a gift.
Although Cage passed away in 1992, he continued to have a lasting influence on Cunningham, who created innovative works up until his death in July 2009. During the five decades they spent together, Cunningham and Cage developed a creative bond that was truly legendary, spurring each other on and inspiring successive generations of artists in diverse ways.