John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg photographed in 1960 by Richard Avedon
In a few days, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform for the last time. I have not been a close follower of Cunningham’s work, except in the New Yorker way, how, for the two decades since I moved to the city, Merce and his company were an integral part of the cultural fabric. Merce? You’re soaking in it!
I was always more of a Cage fan. And so it’s been fascinating, and enlightening, and continually surprising over the last year or so, as I’ve been digging into the early days of Rauschenberg and Johns, trying to understand their formative work and context, to see how closely connected they were with Merce and John. How small the circle of artists was which generated so many incredible works and ideas. And yet how infrequently I consider their work in relation to each other, or consider the nature of their collaboration beyond the basic namecheck.
In a way, I guess Rauschenberg and Johns and their intense, but short-lived collaborative period serves as the antithesis of Cunningham and Cage’s lifelong partnership. But they all began so close, and so much together.
Anyway, as I’ve become more familiar and more admiring of Cunningham’s work and Cage’s work with him, I’ve begun trying to piece together the world they inhabited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they were just starting out. And one thing that comes up in every story about those days is the VW microbus Merce and his fledgling company would pile into to tour the country. Cunningham’s longtime principal dancer Carolyn Brown even titled the chapter in her 2007 memoir “The VW Years.”
But I’ll get to that. First, the story of the VW bus itself, how John Cage bought it, and how it figured into various peoples’ accounts of those crazy, early days.
In 1958, Cage had performed at a blowout retrospective concert organized by Johns, Rauschenberg, and hustler/activist/filmmaker Emile de Antonio; and he’d exhibited his scores at Stable Gallery. Then in the taught and performed in Europe, including at Expo ’58 in Brussels, and then settled into a several months’ residency in Milan at RAI, Italian state television. In February of 1959, after hanging out with Peggy Guggenheim at her Venetian palazzo, he appeared on Lascia o Raddoppia, the local equivalent of the $64,000 Question, where he performed new compositions, became famous by the end of the week–and ended up winning 5 million lira in a series of ridiculously rigged questions about mushrooms.
And so he took his winnings and Italian fame back to the US, where he used part of the money to buy a piano for himself, and a white VW microbus for Merce and the company to tour in.
The most extensive accounts of the Italian game show boondoggle and the VW van purchase are from Begin Again, Kenneth Silverman’s Cage biography, and Stefano Pocci’s guest post on the John Cage Trust blog.
Lascia o Raddoppia, Milan, 1959 [johncagetrust]