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  • Merce Cunningham and the Aesthetic of Collage
  • Roger Copeland (bio)

The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the 20th century in all media.

—Donald Barthelme (1997:58)

In sum, the collage is an awkward amalgam of three unresolved elements (1) purely worldly elements, especially such fragments of dailiness as newspapers; (2) purely artistic elements such as line, color, and shape—the typical constituents of form; and (3) mixed or impure elements, or residual images of an imitated nature, ranging from the famous imitation wood grain and chair caning to traces of such domestic objects as clay pipes and such studio props as guitars. [...] The elements are already "relative" by reason of their displacement from the life-world into the "art world," and by reason of their fragmentary state. [...] They are an experiment in time and space—which shows that the old idea of Modern art as an experiment concerned with articulating the fourth dimension has, for all its charming naiveté, a certain truth to it.

—Donald Kuspit (1998:55-56)

A piece of string, a sunset, each acts

—John Cage (1961:x)

Collage is a practice we tend to associate most often with the visual arts, where it originated. Nevertheless, its modus operandi is readily observable in the time-based and performing arts as well. Collage is a principle organizing strategy in the work of Elizabeth LaCompte and the Wooster Group, the plays of Heiner Müeller, the theatre pieces of Robert Wilson, the choreography of Pina Bausch, the music of John Zorn, and the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, and Dusan Makavejev. But the earliest—and arguably, still most influential—practitioner of collage in performance is the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Collage in fact has been central to Cunningham's work from the very beginning.

In 1952, when Cunningham choreographed a new dance to excerpts from Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry's "Symphonie Pour un Homme Seul," he [End Page 11] became the first choreographer to utilize musique concrete as the score for a dance. (Indeed, this performance at Brandeis marked the first time musique concrete was heard publicly in the U.S.). Schaeffer and Henry's concept of musique concrete was derived directly from the example of collage in the visual arts. In their work, concrete—i.e., "real" or preexisting—sounds were recorded on newly available magnetic tape, which was then elaborately edited in a cut-and-paste, collage-like fashion.

Significantly, a year later, when Cunningham formed his company and added this dance to its emerging repertory, he retitled it Collage. Reportedly, Cunningham's movement vocabulary in Collage was unprecedentedly diverse (Cunningham 1999). It juxtaposed his usual modifications of ballet with utterly pedestrian movement (hair combing, nail filing) as well as steps drawn from ballroom and social dance. In other words, varieties of "found" movement existed alongside varieties of "found" sound. In order to understand the significance of this expanded field of movement possibilities, this side-by-side juxtaposition of the vernacular and the virtuosic, we need to examine the etymology—both linguistic and "art historical"—of the word "collage."

The English word "collage" is adapted from the French verb "coller": translated literally, it connotes "pasting, sticking, or gluing" onto a surface. The most famous early example of collage comes from the visual arts: Picasso's cubist collage, Still Life with Chair Caining (1911-1912). Here, a section of printed oilcloth emblazoned with a chair-caning design was pasted onto a stretch of canvas whose outer edge was lined with real rope. (The rope and the chair-caning design function as intruders from the world of "real things.") Picasso's still life thereby combines three distinct levels of representation: painted illusionism (printed oilcloth that simulates chair caning), two-dimensional pasted paper, and actual, three-dimensional rope. These distinctions demonstrate the way in which collage can complicate the boundaries of "the frame," conflating traditional distinctions between inside and outside, art and nonart, abstract and representational.

Collage vs. the Gesamtkunstwerk

We often hear it said that Merce Cunningham is the postwar Diaghilev. The comparison seems logical enough, for, like Diaghilev, Cunningham commissioned décor, costumes, and music from the leading visual artists...


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