The last of a great triumvirate, Merce Cunningham, died over the weekend. I’m the least dance-savvy person around, but it’s fair to say that not a day has passed in my art existence without contemplating Cage, Rauschenberg and Cunningham. What they possessed like the Three Graces passing a chalice was an unstinting awareness of the world around them and its positive possibilities.
When the garbage truck loads up at 4 in the morning, Cage turns irritation into music. When HBO posters pile up under a construction, Rauschenberg calls. When a hundred young folks stare down at their iPods, forgetting how to walk, Cunningham does a stutter step.
These three were and are New York, its secret identities and public celebrations, furtive yet joyous interpreters of the rooftop and the alley. They borrowed from Jerome Robbins, Edward Hopper and Aaron Copland and took art further, beyond loneliness into the realm of the universal. Not an action in the art world of the last 50 years has been free from their touch, only their collective optimism has been sometimes ignored.
Even death was an inspiration for John and Bob and Merce, for in death are limits to be pushed against, temporal pleasures to be seduced, reflections leading to the next dance, the ringing of a gong, the spreading of paint. They refuted Duchamp and Picasso and Warhol, because they allowed for living in all its gay, fecund glory without fear or neurosis. Artists overdose, galleries close, collectors hide in a prison of possessions.
Of Cage and Bob and now Merce it can and must be said, they are not dead. As long as hearts beat and hands create and hot breath turns to long, cool smiles on all our faces at what these three continue to give us, they live!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).