About us
Artists Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham Photo

Merce Cunningham

American Dancer and Choreographer

Movements and Styles: Neo-Dada, Performance Art, Queer Art, Postmodernism

Born: April 16, 1919 - Centralia, Washington, U.S.

Died: July 26, 2009 - New York, New York

Merce Cunningham Timeline

"Dancing is a spiritual exercise in a physical form"

Summary

One of the most innovative artists of the 20th century, Merce Cunningham employed a range of tactics to create his sometimes difficult dance productions that confounded and delighted viewers. Often working with his life partner, avant-garde composer John Cage, Cunningham banished dance's traditional reliance on emotive narrative and instead infused it with a sense of the everyday and ordinary. Embracing chance and allowing dancers more autonomy and choice, Cunningham's dances are grounded in the random and unexpected but can also reveal deep meditations on human relationships and how we exist in the world at large.

Working on the edges of Happenings, Fluxus, and Neo-Dada, Cunningham's collaborative practice led him to work with some of the most innovative musicians, including Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, and LaMont Young, as well as artists such as Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Morris. Inhabiting this intermedia landscape for so many decades, Cunningham's influence can be felt in many corners of the art world.

Key Ideas

Mostly defying categories, Cunningham was a central participant in the group of Neo-Dadaist artists that included John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Taking cues from Marcel Duchamp, these artists used found objects to critique high and traditional notions of art and often parodied the self-expression of the Abstract Expressionists. Additionally, Cunningham incorporated the performative aspects of Happenings and Fluxus to push the boundaries of dance.
Perhaps inspired by John Cage, Cunningham largely relied on chance to choreograph his dances. Using playing cards, tossing coins, or sometimes consulting the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese text used for divination, Cunningham would order and arrange movements, sometimes employing ordinary actions, into a dance. According to Cunningham, chance freed his imagination and let him work outside of cultural clich├ęs.
At heart, Cunningham's practice was collaborative. Often he called on musicians and contemporary artists to create scores, set designs, and costumes for his dances. Drawing on Cunningham's interest in chance, the choreographer, musician, and artist would work separately with only the barest structure known to each, and only at the end would the full scope of the production come into focus.
Over the decades, Cunningham employed new technologies and media into his dances, including electronic music, video, motion sensors, and computer programs. In doing so, he explored and expanded the scope of what dance was capable of doing and reimagined the human body in the process.
Merce Cunningham Photo

Merce Cunningham, born Mercier Philip Cunningham in Centralia, a small town in the state of Washington, was the son of a lawyer Clifford D. Cunningham and Mayme Joach Cunningham. While Merce was still a baby, C. D. Cunningham prosecuted members of the radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, for their participation in the Centralia Massacre (an incident between two groups - veterans and industrial workers - that turned violent).

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Merce Cunningham
Interactive chart with Merce Cunningham's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Martha GrahamMartha Graham
Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp

Personal Contacts

John CageJohn Cage
David TudorDavid Tudor
Elaine de KooningElaine de Kooning
Philip GustonPhilip Guston

Movements

DadaDada
SurrealismSurrealism
Neo-DadaNeo-Dada
New Media

Influences on Artist
Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham
Years Worked: 1939 - 2009
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Mark Morris
Beth Gill
Robert Wilson

Personal Contacts

Robert RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg
Jasper JohnsJasper Johns
Robert MorrisRobert Morris
Bruce NaumanBruce Nauman

Movements

Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
MinimalismMinimalism
Performance ArtPerformance Art
American Modern Dance

If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Tally de Orellana

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tally de Orellana
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 25 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly.
[Accessed ]