One of America’s leading artists, Jasper Johns, had his 90th birthday on May 15, 2020 and in celebration seventy former dancers and musicians of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company collaborated on Event2 For Jasper Johns, a new work for camera directed and edited by Daniel Madoff. The video’s success is also due to the amazing organizational skills and collaborative work created by Patricia Lent, former member of the Cunningham company and now a Trustee and Director of Licensing at the Merce Cunningham Trust. I had the great honor to know and work with Johns during and after my tenure with the Cunningham Company and wanted to share both my history with him and the wonderful gift presented to him by all the dancers and musicians who adore him.

I had planned this article to appear on or near Johns’ birthday with a link to view Event2 For Jasper Johns, but those plans changed. Following his private viewing, Johns gave his permission for this wonderful work to be shared with the public.  The public release of the work on September 29th happened in anticipation of the monumental retrospective, Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, to be presented simultaneously in an unprecedented collaboration in 2021 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Merce Cunningham Trust therefore asked me to postpone publishing my article until negotiations between the three organizations were completed. The video created by Cunningham Company alumni will be streamed via the two museums for one week beginning September 29, 2020 (link provided below). After that, I will be able to post a link to it at LA Dance Chronicle.

John Cage and Jasper Johns - Photo © James Klosty

John Cage and Jasper Johns – Photo © James Klosty

In the fall of 1967, I was on scholarship at the 498 Third Avenue Cunningham Studio when I and the other scholarship students were asked to help with a fund raising event for the company. Johns was then the Artistic Adviser for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and attended this reception along with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cunningham company members Carolyn Brown, Barbara Lloyd Dilly, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Peter Saul, Valda Setterfield, Gus Solomons, Jr., Company Manager Lewis Lloyd, and the company’s beloved dance historian, writer and archivist David Vaughan (1924-2017). There were other artists and company Board members, but the only one that I can now recall is American mycologist, artist, watercolorist and textile designer Lois Long (1918 – 2005),  a wonderful, talented, and lively woman who was an avid follower of Cunningham’s work. Needless to say, I was star struck and the tray of drinks and hors d’oeuvres that I was carrying most likely trembled the entire afternoon.

Terpsichore, the goddess of Dance, soon smiled down on me and in October of 1967 when Cunningham asked Meg Harper and me to join his company. During my tenure with the Cunningham company (1967-1970) Johns conceived and executed the set for Cunningham’s Walkaround Time (1968) after Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass; he designed and sculptured the costumes (while we were wearing them) for Rainforest (1968); designed and sprayed glow paint on our gray costumes for Canfield (1969); and designed the costumes for Second Hand (1970). He also invited Bruce Neuman to design the set for Tread (1970), which I was an original cast member.  After leaving the company, I became closer friends with Johns while I was married to Viola Farber. By that time, Johns and Farber had been close friends for almost two decades and Johns had painted a portrait of her titled Portrait – Viola Farber in 1961 that now hangs in a museum in Italy. Johns presented a lithograph of the painting to Viola and me as a wedding gift.

Jasper Johns spray-painting Jeff Slayton's "Canfield" costume 1969 - Photo © James Klosty

Jasper Johns spray-painting Jeff Slayton’s “Canfield” costume 1969 – Photo © James Klosty

Johns was the artistic advisor of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1967 to 1980.  Other Cunningham works not mentioned before that he designed and executed costumes for include Suite de danses (1961), Landrover (1972), TV Rerun (1972), Un jour ou deux (1973), and Exchange (1978).  During his tenure as artistic advisor, Johns invited many artists to design for the company, including Frank Stella, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Neil Jenney, and Mark Lancaster.

Event2 For Jasper Johns consists of a compilation of music and video files that were created by Merce Cunningham Dance Company alumni after a request was sent out by Patricia Lent just three weeks prior to Johns’ birthday. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, each dancer filmed their movement either in the safety of their own home, or in an isolated area. We were given the choice of performing a solo from one of Cunningham’s works or a back exercise, such as his exercises on six from his technique classes. We were instructed to use our cell phone cameras and for editing purposes, to record them vertically. If we chose not to send a video, alumni were given the option of writing a birthday wish or a favorite memory of working with Johns. I opted to submit a brief paragraph for my dear friend:

Viola Farber cutting Jasper Johns' hair - BAM 1970 - Photo © James Klosty

Viola Farber cutting Jasper Johns’ hair – BAM 1970 – Photo © James Klosty

“Wonderful memories of Jasper. His spraying glow paint on our Canfield costumes, cutting holes in my Rainforest costume, and his flying to Mexico City to repair the Scramble costumes that caught on fire in the dressing room. But my fondest memories are when he opened up his home one Christmas to Viola and me to recuperate, his kindness and generosity toward Viola during her recovery from cancer, and his warmth, generosity, and support following her death in 1998.”

Other Memories of Jasper Johns by former company members

Carolyn Brown “Borrowing a pointillist painting technique From George Seurat, Rauschenberg painted both backdrop and costumes for Summerspace in myriad dots from an enormous palette of different hues and tints.  Jasper said to me years later, “Bob’s original idea was flowers – can you imagine, flowers for god’s sake!”  The idea of the dots came from Jasper.”

Marianne Preger-Simon – “My singular memory of Jasper was a time in Bob’s studio when Jasper and Bob were decorating my white leotard and tights with various colors of paint. I was wearing the leotard and tights and standing very still while they sprayed me with paint. It was a very odd and funny experience – being a white statue, immovable, and being turned into a beautifully decorated, very movable dancer. They were very respectful and concentrated. I was amazed, amused and delighted by the novelty of the experience.”

Shareen Blair Brysac – “I was still in college at Barnard when Merce asked me to join the company the summer he created Aeon.  I remember Jasper was reading Wittgenstein’s Brown Book that summer and I was impressed.  Now, knowing more about Wittgenstein and his philosophy, I’d be really intimidated.  John was having us all throw parts of the I Ching for Atlas Eclipticalis, the score for Aeon, and he dedicated a part of the score to each of us.”

Jasper Johns cutting designs in Merce Cunningham's "Rainforest" costume 1968 - Photo © James Klosty

Jasper Johns cutting designs in Merce Cunningham’s “Rainforest” costume 1968 – Photo © James Klosty

Albert Reid – “I have a strong memory of Jap cutting holes, with scissors, in my RainForest costume while I was wearing it.  He was very careful in doing so.  I remember being in some sort of costume room, probably at the SUNY Buffalo theater where RainForest was premiered in 1967.  The Pennebaker film record of that first performance shows him doing the same on Merce’s costume, just before the dance began.”

Sandra Neels – “I have many fond memories of “Jap.” The first one is having him slash my RainForest costume very slowly and thoughtfully, and how honored I felt that he was doing this task instead of a random costumer. The second one was being at his home for a party, which happened to be a bank, where rumors had it that he slept in a vault. The third one was when he was inspecting his work for Walkaround Time onstage.  He was always quiet and focused.”

Douglas Dunn – “A rumor circulated way back when that Jasper was not a fan of theatrical events.  During the entr’acte of Walkaround Time I would sometimes take the fire axe off the backstage wall and carry it across the stage. Jim Klosty said it wasn’t a good move, not in keeping with Duchamp’s aesthetic. Decades later when the matter resurfaced, Jim said, no, he never said that, and thought the mischievousness was in keeping.”

Richard Hamilton, John Cage, Teeny Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp. Jasper Johns in the background - rehearsal of Cunningham's "Walkaround Time" - Buffalo, NY 1968 - Photo © James Klosty

Richard Hamilton, John Cage, Teeny Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp. Jasper Johns in the background – rehearsal of Cunningham’s “Walkaround Time” – Buffalo, NY 1968 – Photo © James Klosty

Susana Hayman-Chaffey – “My first memory of Jasper was when Merce invited me, just after he had asked me to join the company, to go and see a video of the company somewhere on 59th Street. That was where I met Jasper. It was just Merce, Jasper and me, and I remember being terrified of being there alone with two giants in their fields. But Jasper was so charming and made me feel at ease immediately.”

Charles Moulton – “Mark Lancaster invited me to 27 Howard Street where a group of Japanese silk screen printers had flown in to work on a series of Johns’ prints. During the two weeks that I was around, I did not hear Johns speak a single word. The leader of the Japanese team was a very small man with no teeth. He and Johns would look at a print for a very long time saying nothing, then nod their heads and either accept or reject the print based on their shared silence.”

Ellen Cornfield – “My strongest memories related to Jasper are partying at the bank on Houston Street, the thrill of having him cut and tie my RainForest costume, and the pride of seeing him in the audience every season at City Center. My two favorite costumes in all of Merce’s repertory were both signed by Jasper – my aforementioned RainForest costume, the most COMFORTABLE costume ever, and Exchange, the most FLATTERING one ever.”

Jim Self
Jap: Would you help me with the costumes?
Jim: Sure.
On the back deck at Stony Point, he asks me to dance around in a leotard with objects stuffed inside small pockets (sardine can, wallet, etc). Everything shifts – stuff falls out. We keep going, then lunch.
Jim: Thoughts?
Jap: We’ll see.

The final costumes are basic leotards with subtle grayish colors. Very easy to wear.
Jim: That was a fun afternoon. Why did you nix the objects?
Jap: Too interesting. We avoid any distraction from Merce’s work.

Meg Eginton – “Jasper Johns asked the women in the company to pick their own necklines for the costumes in Exchange. The privilege was imparted to us by our costume supervisor Monika Fulleman. I chose a boat neck because I knew it would help me remember to keep my shoulders down. When I received the costume, I loved that it created an empire line that ended at my high waist. I felt elegant and unique.”

Kevin Schroder – “I always loved seeing the Target poster, reproduced from Jasper’s Target painting, that hung in the Westbeth studio entrance; a target with 4 iterations of Merce’s mouth lined up above. I would chuckle to think how this – to me obvious – statement of Queer desire was never spoken of as such. How much comfort it gave me to see my gay forbears manage to negotiate a world that would never have allowed an explicit statement of Gay desire.”

Melissa Toogood  – “I met Jasper after my first official performance with MCDC at Dia Beacon. During rehearsal earlier that day, I injured my hip. I had a severe spasm and performed the entire show with one leg able to turn out and the other locked in parallel. After the show Merce called me over and asked, “how is your leg?” I replied, “fine.” He then said, “good, I want you to meet my friend Jasper”.”

Jonah Bokaer – “I cannot forget a moment shared with Jasper during the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 80th Anniversary. We visited backstage together and happened to lock eyes, speaking to our non-verbal connection. And his energy. The connection felt continues to encapsulate the rich relationship of respect across the artforms, of shared moments. I am particularly reminded of this when viewing Figure 8, a stunning lithograph by Jasper that was gifted to many of us upon the 50th Anniversary of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. He is my favorite Artist without question.”


Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror is organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The organizing curators are Scott Rothkopf, Senior Deputy Director and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Carlos Basualdo, The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

About Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries posted “Few artists have shaped the contemporary artistic landscape like Jasper Johns. With a body of work spanning seventy years, and a roster of iconic images that have imprinted themselves on the public’s consciousness, Johns at ninety is still creating extraordinary artworks. This vast, unprecedented retrospective—simultaneously staged at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—features a stunning array of the artist’s most celebrated paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints as well as many lesser-known and recent works. Each a self-contained exhibition, the two related halves mirror one another and provide rare insight into the working process of one of the greatest artists of our time.”

The Whitney Museum of American Art said of Johns: :The radical, inventive art of Jasper Johns (b. 1930) continues to influence today’s artists like few others. In an unprecedented collaboration, the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art will stage a simultaneous retrospective—the largest of Johns’s seven-decade career—that offers a fresh take on the living legend. From his iconic flags to lesser-known and recent works, the exhibition will feature paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints—nearly 500 artworks across the two museums, many of which are from Johns’s personal collection and will be shown publicly for the first time.

Inspired by the artist’s long-standing fascination with mirroring and doubles, each half of the exhibition will act as a reflection of the other, inviting viewers to look closely to discover the themes, methods, and coded visual language that echo across the two venues. A visit to either museum will provide a vivid chronological survey; a visit to both will offer an innovative and immersive exploration of the many phases, masterworks, and mysteries of Johns’s still-evolving career.”

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Still from "Event2 For Jasper Johns" - Courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust

Rather than attempting to describe exactly what the Event2 For Jasper Johns is I will reprint the statement prepared for the press by the Merce Cunningham Trust, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum.


In celebration of Jasper Johns’ 90th birthday, seventy former dancers and musicians of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company have collaborated on Event2 For Jasper Johnsa new work for camera directed and edited by Daniel Madoff.  The Event, conceived as an expression of respect and gratitude for Johns’ profound contribution to Merce Cunningham and his work, is a unique arrangement of video and music files created in diverse locations around the world expressly for this occasion.  The dancers perform excerpts drawn from six decades of Cunningham’s choreography.  David Behrman, John King and Christian Wolf play a new composition entitled For Jasper’s 90th.  Initiated just three weeks prior to Johns’ May 15th birthday, the project brings together a multigenerational group of performing artists, furthering the Merce Cunningham Trust’s efforts to continue and reimagine its activities during the global pandemic. The title of the film references the 1996 Event for Jasper Johns, choreographed by Cunningham and performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Westbeth on the occasion of the opening of Jasper Johns: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

The 67 Cunningham company alumni who performed in the event included (in alphabetical order): Cédric Andrieux, Karole Armitage, Karen Attix, Helen Barrow, Kimberly Bartosik, Jonah Bokaer, Lisa Boudreau, Thomas Caley, Ashley Chen, Michael Cole, Brandon Collwes, Ellen Cornfield, Dylan Crossman, Paige Cunningham, Julie Cunningham, Emma Diamond, Barbara Dilley, Meg Eginton, Karen Eliot, Holley Farmer, Maydelle Fason Liss, Victoria Finlayson, Jean Freebury, Lise Friedman, Jennifer Goggans, Alan Good, Neil Greenberg, Meg Harper, Nanette Hassall, Susana Hayman-Chaffey, John Hinrichs, Mandy Kirschner Salva, David Kulick, China Laudisio, Joseph Lennon, Patricia Lent, Barbara Lias, Daniel Madoff, Larissa McGoldrick, Rashaun Mitchell, Koji Mizuta, Charles Moulton, Marcie Munnerlyn, Emily Navar, Krista Nelson, Dennis O’Connor, Banu Ogan, Jared Phillips, Susan Quinn, Silas Riener, Daniel Roberts, Glen Rumsey, Randall Sanderson, Kristy Santimyer Melita, Kevin Schroder, Kevin Schroder, Jamie Scott, Jim Self, Gus Solomons jr, Daniel Squire, Jeannie Steele, Derry Swan, Carol Teitelbaum, Cheryl Therrien, Melissa Toogood, Megan Walker, Andrea Weber, and Robert Wood.

Other Contributors included Cunningham alumni Shareen Blair Brysac, Carolyn Brown, Douglas Dunn, Sandra Neels, Marianne Preger-Simon, Albert Reid, and Jeff Slayton.

The Musicians/Composers: David Behrman, John King, and Christian Wolff.

The video was Directed and Edited by Daniel Madoff and produced by Patricia Lent and Daniel Madoff.

Event2 For Jasper Johns was made possible through the generous support of the Merce Cunningham Trust and the choreography was by Merce Cunningham

This project was made possible through the generous support of the Merce Cunningham © Merce Cunningham Trust.  All rights reserved.

To view Event2 For Jasper Johns, click HERE. (This link will be active for one week only beginning September 29, 2020)

For more information on the retrospective exhibit Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, click HERE.

Written and compiled by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Still from Event2 For Jasper Johns – Courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust