Musings on Merce

Jul 28, 2009

Les Wexner, left, and Merce Cunningham at the 1993 Wexner Prize ceremony at the Wexner Center. Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons

Sad news always travels fast: visionary choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham passed away Sunday night at the age of 90, and tributes immediately poured in. A stunning force in his field over nearly seven decades (he was productive up to the last), Cunningham not only revolutionized dance but instigated collaborations with vanguard visual artists who would ultimately become equally illustrious. At the Wexner Center, memories of Cunningham stretch back to our very first exhibition (which included a Robert Rauschenerg "combine" initially created for a Cunningham dance), but focus largely on May 13, 1993—when the pioneering choreographer accepted the Wexner Prize—only the second to be awarded. The Prize, given to an artist whose innovations have been particularly bold and influential, was presented that day in honor of both Cunningham and his longtime but then recently deceased collaborator and partner, composer John Cage. The recipients could not have been more aptly chosen. And it's certainly no surprise that intimate peers and indirect protégés of Merce Cunningham would themselves receive the Prize in subsequent years: Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, William Forsythe, and Bill T. Jones to name a few. In fact, Jones called Cunningham "the champion in the struggle to say that dance is its own primary language, with its own agenda and criteria." Having just closed our Wexner Center exhibition, William Forsythe: Transfigurations, I can freshly note that Forsythe's impulse to share that language with very different fields of inquiry is itself a testament to Merce's enduring influence, just as Forsythe's cross-disciplinary ethos and rigorously honed physicality link him to the master's powerful legacy. We are gratified to revisit Cunningham's remarks upon receiving the Wexner Prize in 1993: "That this award comes from the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University—noted for its open and generous interest in contemporary art—is not just a plus, but a signal light as to the future of the arts in all our lives." His remarkable presence, spirit, and influence will surely live on as a signal light for all of us.