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Cage and Cunningham: Chance, Time, and Concept in the Visual Arts

October 24, 2009 – May 9, 2010

gallery installation view of Cage and Cunningham featuring framed artworks displayed on walls and two vitrine display cases with more objects or artworks inside
gallery installation view of Cage and Cunningham featuring framed artworks displayed on walls and a vitrine display case with more objects or artworks inside
gallery installation view of Cage and Cunningham featuring framed artworks displayed on walls and two vitrine display cases with more objects or artworks inside

Overview

Composer John Cage (1912–1992) and choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919–2009) each made seminal contributions to the artistic and intellectual life of the twentieth century. Cage and Cunningham: Chance, Time, and Concept in the Visual Arts explores the influence of these great artists on their contemporaries and on a new generation of artists working today. The exhibition pays tribute to Cage and Cunningham’s fifty-year collaboration through works from the permanent collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as seminal works from collections in the region.

Through decades of collaborating, Cage and Cunningham worked to establish the separation of dance and music–determining that the two could be performed together but conceived of separately. Cage was also known for incorporating non-western thinking, such as the foundations of the ancient Chinese book, the I-Ching, into his compositions. Cage’s interpretation of the I-Ching led to his exploration of chance. Although many equate chance with chaos, for Cage, chance was a regulated system of carefully conceived and structured actions. Cage’s music and Cunningham’s dances utilized both chance and natural systems as one way to elude the subjectivity of the artist.

Several works in the exhibition are by artists associated with Fluxus, a movement which began in New York in the 1960s. Fluxus artists such as George Maciunas, the self-appointed founder of the group, produced works that incorporated elements from daily life. These works were often based on chance or games, and sometimes included ephemeral materials whose deterioration was central to the meaning of the artwork. Other works in the exhibition demonstrate how conceptual frameworks replaced formal structures in works of art. In this way, Cage’s ideas are intricately linked with conceptual art, as defined by artist Sol LeWitt, who famously declared “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.”

The legacy of Cage and Cunningham can be felt strongly in the works of younger artists, including Trisha Donnelly, Stan Shellabarger, and Curtis Whaley, who are active today. These artists frame their works through ideas and allow chance systems to determine their art, but they depart from their twentieth-century forbears by letting selected ancillary ideas permeate the process and the final product.


Exhibition Support

Cage and Cunningham: Chance, Time, and Concept in the Visual Arts was funded by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.