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'You Must Change Your Life'

With the news of Merce Cunningham’s death has come a blizzard of wonderful photographic portraits of the dancer in action. He was a great camera subject, often caught in mid-flight, lyrical yet hyperbolic, arrestingly individualistic. To this extraordinary photographic record--and to Jennifer Homans’s obituary salute here a few days ago--I would like to add a small trove of images of Cunningham from around 1946, which unlike so much of what we have been seeing are not products of the photographer’s eye. These include a painting and some sketchbook drawings and a print, all done by an old friend of the dancer, the painter John Heliker. I was friends with Heliker for many years, and although he would occasionally mention the time he had spent with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, especially their weeks together in Italy and France in the summer of 1949, it was only some years after Heliker’s death in 2000 that I became aware that he had drawn and painted his friend Merce. The glimpses of Cunningham that we discover here have a delicacy and a dreaminess about them; these are very much portraits of the artist as a young man. And particularly in Heliker’s painting of Cunningham, with its echoes of Picasso’s saltimbanques, we see the most striking illustration imaginable of Alastair Macaulay’s observation, in his obituary in The New York Times, that in the early years Cunningham’s “long neck and sloping shoulders reminded people of a Picasso acrobat.”

(Click here to view the never-before-released Heliker portraits of Cunningham.)

While John Heliker was alive, I had known of his involvement with the world of modern dance and music in New York in the 1940s, but only up to a point. I had been vaguely aware that his lover during much of the 1940s had been an avant-garde composer, Merton Brown, who was beginning to establish a name for himself. And I’d known that Heliker had been close to the composer Lou Harrison, although only later did I discover that Heliker had been involved in the publication of Harrison’s little book about Carl Ruggles. Like most artists, Heliker was more interested in the present than the past. When I was getting to know him in the 1970s, a few years after he had had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, he knew he was reaching his prime, painting casually yet powerfully ordered landscapes and interiors, and he had little desire to look back. But the back story is pretty terrific, and I’m glad to be able to fill in some of the details now. (I should explain that I’ve had the opportunity to do so because I’m involved with the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation, which was set up by Heliker and his life partner, the painter Robert LaHotan, who died in 2002, and maintains their archives and runs an artist residency program in Maine.)

In the summer of 1949, Heliker was living in Rome, and went with Cage and Cunningham to a music festival in Palermo. Later, they spent time together in Paris, where they went to visit Alice B. Toklas and the great collection of Picassos in the apartment she had shared on the Rue Christine with Gertrude Stein, who had died three years earlier. There was always a catch in Heliker’s voice when he spoke about seeing those paintings in that place, as if for a moment he had stepped back to the beginning of the century, when Picasso was a young man and the Rose Period was climaxing and Cubism had not yet been born. There was also that summer, if I remember correctly, a dance performance in the Montparnasse studio of the painter Jean Helion, with Toklas sitting in the front row. I am holding in my hands right now a letter from Cunningham to Heliker, written from Amsterdam on April 4, 1949, in which he is making plans for them to meet up in Italy. Cunningham regrets that Heliker isn’t “here to see the landscape, you would love it so.” He and Cage “are madly, and at this point, vainly, trying to arrange a concert or concerts here, but I am afraid it is hopeless. The Dutch are slow & ponderous like the boats on the canals. … Amsterdam is canals & whores in shop windows across a canal from a cathedral and aristocratic buildings and new buildings with Mondrians for windows. Everything is altogether too neat & tidy.” But the “ocean crossing was a delight--John says I will have to be billed as America’s fattest dancer.”

That joke about all Cunningham had eaten during the crossing brings us back to Heliker’s sketchbook pages of a few years earlier, in which we see Cunningham in the dance studio, with the tapered torso, the long neck, and the open, unconventional, utterly American face. If we have the sketchbook dated correctly, he was 27 at the time. Heliker’s beautiful drypoint print of Cunningham, probably from the following year, in which the dancer is surrounded by a series of emblematic images, like fragments of the choreographer’s dreams, is related to a mask of a bird’s head that Heliker designed for Cunningham to wear in one of his early dances. Heliker, so far as I know, never drew or painted a dancer again after these encounters with Cunningham back in the 1940s. But he always loved Rilke’s poetry, and he must have seen in Cunningham’s physique the image of the “Archaic Torso,” with its extraordinarily expressive chest. The theme of the artistic youth would be woven all through Heliker’s work. In his later years he did a remarkable series of paintings of younger and older men, gathered together around a piano or in the studio of a painter or a printmaker. Here there is a distinctly erotic atmosphere, but muffled, sublimated, transformed into an age-old search for the secret of artistic power. These paintings, so I believe, are suffused with memories of the days in the 1940s when Heliker and his music-and-dance friends--Lou Harrison, Merton Brown, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage--had been living the great injunction with which Rilke’s poem concludes: “You must change your life.” And so they did, none more dramatically than Cunningham, who changed the face of American dance.

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

By Jed Perl