Jasper Johns & Merce Cunningham – Mind/Mirror of art and dance

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror is an expansive retrospective of the artist’s artwork co-presentation of by The Whitney Museum in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It was scheduled to open this month at both institutions but had to be postponed until fall 2021 because of the Covid pandemic. 

The exhibition presents over 500 works of art by Jasper Johns – paintings, sculptures, sketches, and mixed-media pieces. It also includes pieces that revisit his work from the collaboration with choreographer, Merce Cunningham, and his dance company.

While this defining exhibition waits in the wings, Johns was presented with a film performed by The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) titled Event2 for Jasper Johns. It is comprised of a cast of former Cunningham company dancers performing remotely from all over the globe. The film was created in just three weeks as a gift to artist Jasper Johns for his 90th birthday and as a tribute to the artistic partnership between the artist and choreographer.

THE EXHIBITION

Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Carlos Basualdo, in a ZOOM interview last week, discussed the exhibit and the Johns/Cunningham legendary artistic partnership. Basualdo and Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf wanted to bring a fresh perspective to the scope of Johns’ work and its towering influence on modern art.

Basualdo previously curated the museum’s 2013 exhibit, Dancing Around the Bride, that included events that revived Cunningham’s classic Walkabout Time that was set with Johns’ original sets (décor) and costumes.   The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed in that show, during Cunningham’s final tours before disbanding in the years since Cunningham’s death in 2009. 

Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf and Basualdo wanted to mount a comprehensive Johns exhibit.  “Scott and I thought, how can we celebrate this person who has been an inspiration to so many generations of artists across the Atlantic,” Basualdo said, “and what else can we say that hasn’t been already been said.”

“So we thought there was an opportunity to explore how Jasper goes about his work and process. What’s in his mind.” Basualdo further explained that he and Rothkopf didn’t think the exhibition would be as big as it is.

“Before, earlier retrospectives created a sort of hierarchy of mediums. For Jasper, there are no artistic hierarchies…or borders,” Basualdo explained.

A key element would be to bring together visual context, private artwork, and documentation of how Johns developed his work.  The retrospective unveils, “a whole range of previously un-exhibited work through our show.”

For instance, there is more representation of his connection to South Carolina. Basualdo noted that “he was born there and he did beautiful, tough work there.”

The exhibition includes many private drawings that have not been shown but made so much sense in relation to the way he works.  For example, Johns creates his drawings after he does the painting.

Because of the postponed opening, a number of complicated issues have to be handled by both museums.  “We’re working through it, it was clear that the exhibition could not have happened within the given time-frame when the pandemic hit,” but he added that “we will eventually be able to do the show as we imagined.”

On Event2 for Jasper Johns

Meanwhile, Basualdo said he was moved by the Cunningham dancers gift to Johns, “They gave it to Jasper on his birthday and he loved it. And he said we could share it with the public, with our new schedule for the opening of the exhibit.”

“I am so happy that we were able to share it with the public. Jasper loved Merce so much and the film is a beautiful work of art… a testimony of their relationship. It’s more than admiration. Jasper found constant inspiration in Merce. He said Merce was one of the most complex artists that he ever encountered.”

“You can see some of the procedures that Merce used to make his dances, you see them at play in Jasper’s work. there is a fundamental affinity at the structural level.”

Daniel Madoff. Photo by Zoë Markwalter, 2018

MAKING THE EVENT

Last Spring in anticipation of Jasper Johns’ 90th birthday, Patricia Lent, a trustee of The Cunningham Trust contacted former MCDC dancer Daniel Madoff, about contacting dancers to make a virtual film tribute to the artist and to honor his collaboration with the choreographer.  They had three weeks to make the film.

Madoff is now a visual artist and filmmaker who has created films for corporations and media outlets. A former New Yorker, Madoff moved to Philadelphia last year and talked about the project earlier this month. We spoke via ZOOM from his studio in South Philadelphia.

He danced for MCDC for a decade, and when the company disbanded he quit dancing professionally. “I did come back, in a few things,” he said, adding “When you dance at a level like that, it’s hard to do something different.”

“Patricia Lent called me with this idea for Jasper’s birthday. We asked people to submit videos and I expected things more along the lines of amateur ZOOM dances in confined spaces, which can look so flat.”

The dancers had three weeks to get their videos in and Madoff had one week to make a film that would represent a panoramic vision of the art and technique of Merce Cunningham.

Dancers filmed themselves performing sections and fragments of Cunningham’s choreography in their remote locations from around the world.   Many of the original cast members from Merce’s most defining works, performed along with the more recent generations of Cunningham Dancers.

Madoff intimated that he didn’t expect to get such compelling performance clips, considering the time the dancers had to produce them. He was expecting that most of the dancers would be dancing in their homes or private spaces. “My goal was to try to replicate in some way, what I had learned and participated in as a dancer, as much as I could, at Merce’s events.”

“I started receiving these gorgeous videos,” Madoff said,  “obviously produced by the dancers with Cunningham’s artistry in mind performing his choreography in forests, on beaches, in gardens, on rivers, across fields, in cities, apartments, cottages, and along remote trails, just to mention a few locales.”

Madoff was surprised at the disparate locations.  In some of the footage, by coincidence, you can see people running by in masks and other markers of this year of pandemic. It fit right in with an aesthetic component of Cunningham’s choreographies in purposeful environments, not merely backgrounds.

 Madoff used an editing design program called Adobe After Effects, to bring a certain aesthetic, not just stringing together programmed virtual film clips.

“I was new to this program, but just went for it. It allowed me to act as if I was controlling a camera and could move between scenes more seamlessly. It was a more interesting way to present dance on film.”

“Even if we are not dancing in the same way that we used to, the corporal knowledge that the dancers have stored in their bodies – that’s the essence of Cunningham. It’s in their blood. And if want to see a purely authentic Merce performance you have to see these dancers.” 

The film, he notes is ” a time-capsule of a very specific moment in time, not only of these dancers and Merce’s work but about the world right now and we’ll always know when we see it…what it felt like in our time.”

Jasper Johns writing about Cunningham’s choreography puts it all in perspective, “Emotion is rarely the subject of his work, but it does seem to be a source of the work. It prompts the movement, qualifies the time.”


Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror
September 29, 2021–February 13, 2022
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Info

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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