The Art of Friendship

The star-studded auction of the Merce Cunningham-John Cage collection reveals a little-known chapter in art history—the pair’s relationship with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

Over their 50-year friendship, Robert Rauschenberg and composer John Cage shared ideas, projects, friends—even bedbugs. Invited to the artist’s Fulton Street loft in about 1952, where the only place to sit was a bed, Cage plunked down and later complained that Rauschenberg’s apartment was infested with bedbugs. While it was fumigated, Rauschenberg moved in with Cage and covered an artwork he’d given the composer a year earlier in black enamel paint.”

Click Image to View Our Gallery of the Cunningham-Cage Collection

Last week, Christie’s auction house sold the spartan artwork, dubbed No. 1, for just shy of $1 million. It was one of the highlights from the John Cage and Merce Cunningham art collection, which was mostly comprised of gifts from their friends Rauschenberg and Johns. The Cunningham-Cage collection—which sold for $8.9 million, nearly double what was expected—documents a little-chronicled slice of art history, and of gay history.

A lot has been written about the relationship of Cage and Cunningham, even more about a mid-century affair between Rauschenberg and Johns, but not much about the quartet. Together, they formed a clique of gay artists that ultimately overthrew the macho posturing of the Abstract Expressionist set that dominated mid-century America. Rivalry between the two camps was fierce: Famously, Rauschenberg once erased a Willem de Kooning drawing. While Jackson Pollock and friends hung out at Cedar Tavern on New York's University Place, the four set up camp at rival Dillon’s Bar down the very same street. At nights, they’d drink, cast the I Ching, and hold bowling tournaments on coin-operated machines. One rainy morning in 1953, Rauschenberg woke up to see Fulton Street empty of traffic. He instructed Cage to peel down the street across 20 feet of paper, with the front tire of his Model A Ford coated in house paint. The resulting artwork, Automobile Tire Print, was party a snide takeoff on the works of Ab-exer Barnett Newman.

Todd Levin, a New York art adviser who knew Cage and visited the home he shared with Cunningham, said “This collection was like family to them, displayed like: ‘This is a photo of Aunt Ethel, this is Uncle Bob.'” There are stories behind many of the works Christie’s sold: Rauschenberg was always late, for example, and was once chewed out by the older, more precise Cage. As an apology, he made a transfer print filled with images of watches and inscribed it “for john c.” It sold at Christie’s for $938,500, about eight times its expected price. Johns’ gifts to the couple included several paintings and posters. One work, circa 1981, has what looks like a nonsense string of letters at the bottom. Unscrambled, they read: “Merce Cunningham Dancers on a Plane.”

Christie’s gave the collection a hard sell, mixing hype—“Cage was arguably the most influential artist of the late 20th century,” the catalogue read—with an emotional pitch. A private showing of the collection was held at Christie’s the night before the Merce Cunningham memorial. With the Cunningham Trust’s OK, Christie’s combined its own client list with invited guests to the funeral, then replicated that core mix of friends, family, and collectors at a dinner the night before the auction. There, visitors got a handheld audio guide identical to ones given out at museums.

Over the next few months, a few more, mostly decorative, items from the Cage-Cunningham collection will be sold at Christie’s to benefit the Merce Cunningham Trust. The remaining evidence of the quartet’s collaboration, including some materials from Rauschenberg and Johns' work with the dance company, will remain in its archives. The historical bedbugs, however, are only a memory.

Plus: Check out Art Beast for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.