Overheard at the Princeton University Art Museum, under the Robert Rauschenberg painting “Plank”: “It’s more conceptual than his usual stuff; there are no things hanging off.”

Indeed there are no things hanging off. If you are a fan of Rauschenberg, and go to the museum to see the two works of his on loan, you will not have to search very far. “Plank” is the first work to greet you as you enter. Its size is overpowering, and you may find your eyes going toward the work next to it, asking yourself if it’s the other Rauschenberg because, indeed, it does have things hanging off it.

With a celestial body made from a paint can lid covered with red paint that is dried, crinkled, and crazed, and spokes of rusty gears, it strikes a viewer as familiar. The two-tined meat fork with wooden handle, the hammer and file and tweezers, the straight-edged razor, and even the black plastic toy gun — it made me feel this was me. And then I noted the title: “Tu est Moi” (“You are Me”) by Niki de Saint Phalle.

It is often the banal and the familiar that connect us to art, making us feel like it is a part of our lives.

Going back to “Plank”: it’s the banal that draws a viewer in, the bicycle and construction signs and barriers. “Plank” was used as a backdrop for a Merce Cunningham dance performance. The other Rauschenberg here is a collage of photographs Rauschenberg made of that same dance company, framed in five strips of three, to look like large contact proofs, some even with the scalloped borders of black and white snapshots from the 1950s. He plays with the photo emulsion to make it look brushed on and even eroded in spots. The original photos were taken in 1964, and the collage was made in 2003. In some cases the dancers look ghosted and dream-like, conveying that dance performance is a shared dream.

Rauschenberg served as resident designer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1954 through 1964 and created “decor” (sets and costumes) for a number of the company’s early works. Many of the designs were “combines” in which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations — i.e., the hanging things.

Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts is teaming up with the Princeton University Art Museum for an evening of dance and art inspired by the artistic collaborations between choreographer Cunningham and Rauschenberg. An exhibition, performance, and panel discussion celebrating the partnership between these two legendary artists will be presented on Thursday, February 14, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Princeton University Art Museum.

The program begins in the museum’s Marquand Mather Gallery with an opportunity to view a selection of paintings, drawings, and prints from the 1960s and 1970s, including the works by Rauschenberg, on loan from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. The exhibition is the first of several that the museum will present through the new Rauschenberg Loan Bank Program, for which the museum was chosen as a pilot institution.

Following a tour of the exhibition, students from the program in dance will perform a “MinEvent for Princeton” –– a combination of excerpts of Cunningham choreography, staged by Princeton alumnus Silas Riener in another of the museum’s galleries. Riener is a former member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company and has been called “one of the superlative performers of our day” by the New York Times. The music for the performance is composed by Jeff Snyder, co-director of PLOrk (Princeton Laptop Orchestra), and Cenk Ergun, a graduate student in music composition.

The performance will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by visiting faculty member and frequent contributor to the New York Times Claudia La Rocco, with Nancy Dalva, Merce Cunningham Trust scholar-in-residence; John King, composer/performer and former co-director of the music committee for Merce Cunningham Dance Company; Abigail Sebaly, Cunningham Research Fellow at the Walker Art Center; and Riener.

Audiences can see a slightly different “MinEvent” of Cunningham choreography at the program in dance’s Spring Dance Festival, Friday through Sunday, February 22 through 24, at the Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater Center. The festival will include student performances of excerpts of works by internationally recognized choreographers Mark Morris, Zvi Gotheiner, and Karole Amitage, as well as the premiere of two new works by New York-based choreographers Raja Kelly and Laura Peterson.

Last fall, an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented the interwoven lives, works, and experiments of what are considered four of the most important American postwar artists: composer John Cage (1912-1992), choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), and visual artists Jasper Johns (born 1930), and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). Creating both individually and together, these artists drove the direction of postwar avant-garde art and American culture, according to the curators. Influenced by Marcel Duchamp, these artists used chance and the incorporation of everyday materials — “hanging things” — to probe the boundaries between art and life.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited many of the combines in 2005-’06, showing how Rauschenberg changed collage “from a medium that presses commonplace materials to serve illusion into something very different: a process that undermines both illusion and the idea that a work of art has a unitary meaning,” according to its website.

In 1999-2000, when exhibiting Rauschenberg’s 20-year project and self-contained retrospective “The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece” — made of 195 parts including colorful shirts, tablecloths and a bench made from oil barrels and neon tubes — Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art curators wrote, “These works initiated a continuing dialogue between painting and sculpture, between the handmade and the readymade, and between the gestural brush stroke and the mechanically reproduced image.” Its familiar objects made it a diary of contemporary culture.

Born in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, to Fundamentalist Christians — his father worked as a lineman for Gulf States Utilities and his mother was a telephone operator before she became a full-time mother — Rauschenberg studied at Kansas City Art Institute and Academie Julian in Paris. Beginning in 1948, he studied with former Bauhaus master Josef Albers at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. It was there that he solidified his friendships with Cage and Cunningham.

Cunningham was considered one of the greatest forces in American dance. His frequent collaborations went beyond Cage, Johns, and Rauschenberg to include musician David Tudor; visual artists Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol; and designers and architects.

Between the years 1954 and 1964, Rauschenberg served as Cunningham’s artistic advisor, designing props, sets, backdrops, and costumes for his performances. “In fact, some of Rauschenberg’s most important work was produced for Cunningham’s pieces,” said Kelly Baum, curator of modern and contemporary art, Princeton University Art Museum.

The Princeton museum’s two Rauschenberg works are part of a suite of loans from the Rauschenberg Loan Bank Program of the Rauschenberg Foundation. The Princeton art museum is a pilot museum for the program and will be getting a new set of loans every six months for the next three to four years.

Together with Susan Marshall, artistic director and choreographer at the Lewis Center, and other faculty, Baum said in the winter edition of the Princeton University Art Museum Magazine, “We developed this model: every time we rotate the modern and contemporary galleries we will borrow a new suite of works from the foundation, somewhere between two and four pieces. These works will be selected in consultation with a faculty member and will be designed to support a class or a program.”

In the first set of conversations with faculty last spring, Baum realized that there was already a program on the books for this spring: the upcoming dance program.

For the next set of loans, she will reach out to the core group of faculty she met with last year and ask about upcoming classes or programs that might be enlivened by loans from the foundation.

“Rauschenberg is known for his contributions to collage and assemblage, but he is also known for his experimental approach to abstraction, as witnessed by ‘Plank,’ where large fields of blank canvas — areas reminiscent of a monochrome — are punctuated by found images that have been cropped, decontextualized, and recombined,” continues Baum. “With all this in mind, I selected works that address issues around collage and assemblage but also around abstraction. I also selected works by two of Rauschenberg’s and Cunningham’s closest friends and collaborators: visual artist Jasper Johns and composer and visual artist John Cage. I tried to vary the installation, too, so that montages and assemblages hang near or next to abstract prints and paintings.”

The combination whets the appetite and draws a visitor toward the back of the museum, where Jim Dine’s “The Art of Paint, No. 2” also hits us with the familiar and banal, also in the form of hanging things. On five panels suggesting landscape hang a ruler, a paint brush, a trowel, a hammer, and a weeder — mixing up the tools of creating a garden with those of painting the landscape.

A quotation from Claes Oldenburg, taped to the wall, sums it up: “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and pits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”

Exhibition, performance, and panel discussion on the partnership between Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, Princeton University Art Museum. Thursday, February 14, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Followed by a tour of the exhibition, performed excerpts of Cunningham choreography, staged by former member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company Silas Riener. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.

“MinEvent” of Cunningham choreography, McCarter Theater (Berlind), 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday through Sunday, February 22 through 24. $10-$15. 609-258-2787, 609-258-9220, www.mccarter.org or www.princeton.edu/utickets.

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