Robert Rauschenberg
Merce, 1953, printed 1981


In this study of muscular grace and delicate gesture, Robert Rauschenberg captures the contemplative poise of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919–2009). The two first met in October 1951 during Rauschenberg’s solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. The following summer, Rauschenberg and Cunningham, along with Cunningham’s partner, composer John Cage (1912–1992), reunited at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, where both Cage and Cunningham taught. That August, the three collaborated on an unscripted event created by Cage that has become legendary in its importance to postwar performance art and is commonly understood as the first “Happening.” The untitled presentation (later named Theater Piece #1) incorporated improvised and unsynchronized movement, music, spoken word, visual art, and projections. Cage played piano; Cunningham danced; and Rauschenberg, whose White Paintings were hung from the auditorium ceiling, played phonograph records. This innovative collaboration deeply impacted Cunningham, who continued to investigate these compositional strategies as he formed his Merce Cunningham Dance Company in summer 1953.

This portrait of Cunningham crouched before the camera, deep in concentration as he gazes ahead and slightly to his left, likewise dates to 1953, when the dancer and choreographer—who had previously enjoyed critical acclaim as a soloist in Martha Graham’s (1894–1991) dance company—had begun to fully assert his own style. Rauschenberg, Cunningham, and Cage continued to collaborate in the early years of the company, with Cage providing musical direction and Rauschenberg designing costumes and set pieces and occasionally joining in the performances. Rauschenberg went on to work with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Judson Dance Theater, and the Trisha Brown Dance Company, among others, and also staged performances of his own. In 1964, he toured with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as lighting, set, and costume designer.

Ownership, Exhibition, and Publication Histories

Marks and Inscriptions

Recto: Lower left margin, inscribed in black ink by the artist’s studio assistant Bradley Jeffries: “MERCE, 1952 #2”; after inscription, signed in black ink by the artist: “RAUSCHENBERG”

Note: This photograph was inscribed in the 1980s. Inscribed date does not conform to recent research by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which dates the photograph to 1953.

Verso: None

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Artist name

Date created
1953, printed 1981
gelatin silver print
14 15/16 in. x 15 1/16 in. (37.94 cm x 38.26 cm)
Date Acquired
Collection SFMOMA
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Permanent URL
Artwork Status
Not on view at this time.

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