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Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp edited by Carlos Basualdo and Erica F. Battle with an introduction by Basualdo and Battle and an essay by Calvin Tomkins; Yale University Press, 448 pages ($55). It was, arguably, the greatest cultural event ever to take place in Buffalo. It was called “The Buffalo Festival of the Arts Today,” and it provided an utterly mind-boggling convocation of international avant-gardists to perform and be seen all over the city – at the Albright-Knox Gallery, principally, but also the Studio Arena Theater (where Albee’s “Box/Mao/Box” was performed), Buffalo State College, etc. Among its most bracing public moments came courtesy of Merce Cunningham, a slow-motion nude dance across a Buffalo State College stage in tribute to Marcel Duchamp.

Here, from five years later, in this amazing book, is Cunningham’s recollection of things: “I remember seeing Marcel Duchamp at the end of the first performance on the stairs, coming up to the stage, eyes bright, head up, none of that looking down at the steps. He walked to the center and, standing between Carolyn and me, held our hands, bowed and smiled as though he were greeting guests. He was a born trouper.”

Not all books that accompany artistic exhibitions are as great as the exhibitions. Fewer still are greater, by far, than any exhibit could possibly be. This one, published in a luxuriously slipcased edition in conjunction with the current exhibit of the Philadelphia Museum of Art celebrating the influence of Marcel Duchamp on the American avant-garde that sprang from Black Mountain College takes its place, I think, with John Cage’s own collections of writings “Silence” and “A Year from Monday” among the greatest written explications of the American midcentury avant-garde anywhere.

Among those you’ll find within, besides Cunningham and Cage: former UB Varese professor of music Morton Feldman, composer Gavin Bryars, dance critic and polemicist Jill Johnston, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Susan Sontag, Leo Steinberg, critic/composer Michael Nyman, etc.

– Jeff Simon