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Installation view, Robert Rauschenberg: Channel Surfing, September 10 – October 23, 2021 Pace Gallery, New York © 2021 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Essays

Robert Rauschenberg’s Enduring Legacy in Dance, Choreography, and Interdisciplinary Collaboration

By Claire Selvin
Published Friday, Dec 17, 2021

“I think critically of performers and collaborators, and I wanted the same criticality reflected back onto me—to have others think critically of how I am, in my habits of making and in general,” choreographer Moriah Evans said of the origins of her performance work Be My Muse (2016) in a 2017 interview. “I’m especially interested in critiquing the means of production within the act of making, and specifically doing so through enactment or structure rather than references or signs.”

Be My Muse, which was presented by Pace Live in the context of the fall exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Channel Surfing in New York, exemplifies Evans’s intense interest in upending choreographic conventions through investigating the social dynamics of performance and the performative nature of everyday encounters. Previously staged at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit FD13 in Minneapolis, and Villa Empain in Brussels, the work centers on Evans’s verbal and physical exchanges with a participant—her “muse.” Freewheeling and emotionally charged, the work undermines traditional boundaries between the artist and the audience, interrogating systems of production and display in the art world in the process. Pace is the first gallery to present Be My Muse, offering Evans the opportunity to perform in both the public and private spaces of the gallery and to consider notions of access that cut across art institutions both in the public and private sphere.

Be My Muse was presented in direct conversation with Robert Rauschenberg’s Apogamy Pods (1999-2000), paintings with large swathes of white space. Rauschenberg once said that these enigmatic works “contain their own contradictions and get rid of narrative, which is the sex of picture-making.” The open-ended aspects of Evans’s performances, each of which differed from the other over the course of two days due to the varied responses of Evans's different collaborators (or “muses”), align with this ambiguity in Rauschenberg’s paintings. Evans was also a recipient of a 2021 grant from the Rauschenberg Foundation for her performance REPOSE as part of Beach Sessions at Rockaway Beach in New York. But the connections between the two artists extend far beyond Pace’s walls. Collaborative, experimental performance was a key part of Rauschenberg’s interdisciplinary practice—indeed, he considered the act of painting involving the use of printmaking techniques inherently collaborative—and he is considered a major figure in the development of postmodern dance in the United States.

Rauschenberg’s position in the history of dance and performance can be traced, in part, to his relationships with the pioneering choreographers Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown. His collaborations with Cunningham started with their involvement in composer John Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1 in 1952 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. (Cage was also a longtime collaborator of Rauschenberg and Cunningham.) Rauschenberg went on to join the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1954, designing sets and costumes for Cunningham’s performances for years to come.

The artist’s work with Brown began in the 1960s. It was during this decade that Rauschenberg, following his experiences in choreographer Robert Dunn’s dance workshops, choreographed 13 works of his own. He became chairman of the board of the Trisha Brown Dance Company after its establishment in 1970, and, as with Cunningham, the artist created sets and costumes for Brown’s productions. Among the performances that Brown and Rauschenberg executed together were Glacial Decoy (1979), Set and Reset (1983), and If you couldn’t see me (1994), in which Brown faced away from the audience throughout her solo.

As Brown wrote on the occasion of the Guggenheim Museum’s 1997 Rauschenberg retrospective, “Collaboration is cocultivation. It’s the merging of two dreams into one. It’s life and death in the aesthetic zone … Collaboration is a sleight of hand located in the mind, where both participants remain vigilant to their separate disciplines as they cantilever their expectations in suspense of the result. In our collaborations, Bob does not operate in a vacuum, but effects the development process with me.”

Among Rauschenberg’s other contributions to the history of collaboration in the arts was Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which he co-founded with the engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and the artist Robert Whitman in 1966. The organization aimed to cultivate exchanges between artists, dancers, choreographers, engineers, and scientists, and its New York event 9 Evenings: Theater & Engineering featured performances that made use of new technologies. Rauschenberg’s performance work Open Score was staged as part of the landmark presentation, which also featured contributions by Cage, dancers Lucinda Childs and Yvonne Rainer, and many others.

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Rauschenberg’s efforts to foster socially minded artistic dialogues also had international reach. With the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), the artist mounted exhibitions in numerous countries—including Mexico, China, Venezuela, Cuba, and the USSR—starting in the mid-1980s. He once said that the project, which focused on artistic freedom and social change, encouraged “taking, making, and exchanging art and facts around the world.” The artist made over 125 works as part of ROCI, which concluded with an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1991.

In Rauschenberg’s early collaborations with the artist Susan Weil, to whom he was married from 1950 to 1952, the concept of the female muse played a significant role. Rauschenberg photographed Weil and the pair worked together on a famed series of blueprints between 1949 and 1951. Evans, in turn, has taken a feminist approach to the age-old concept of the muse, upending the gendered conventions of the artist-muse relationship in both the conceptual and physical aspects of her performance.

“Rauschenberg really believed in art as an encounter and that art is inherently collaborative,” Evans said of staging her performance amid Rauschenberg’s Apogamy Pods in a recent interview with Pace Live Curatorial Director Mark Beasley. “Rauschenberg is a muse for me, in a way, as are a lot of other great artists, specifically choreographers who have innovated the performance field: his contemporaries Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, and Steve Paxton; those preceding or working inside of other canons like Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, and Tatsumi Hijikata; then artists working in the wake of Judson era luminaries like William Forsythe, Jerome Bel, Xavier LeRoy, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, Sarah Michelson, Jennifer Lacey, Tino Sehgal, Trajal Harrell, and Pope.L. Rauschenberg and these other artists understood what makes an event and how to find the performativity in quotidian materials and subjects.”

Essays — Robert Rauschenberg’s Enduring Legacy in Dance, Choreography, and Interdisciplinary Collaboration, Dec 17, 2021