JR, the Next Artist Waiting in the Wings

Molly Gottschalk
Feb 6, 2014 6:51PM

Parisian guerrilla photographer JR, a top arbiter of the art world given he’s declared the entire world his gallery, has staked his claim on the David Koch Theater in New York City’s Lincoln Center—home to the New York City Ballet since it opened in ’64—in perhaps the greatest tribute to its dancers since. As part of the company’s 2014 Art Series, JR revamped the building’s facade with wheat-pasted pointe shoes (more commonly, he’ll wrap buildings in colossal portraits, like the faces of Cuban locals he pasted to decrepit Havana walls). And should the slippers lure you inside, a 6,500 square-foot vinyl photograph of 80 life-sized dancers awaits, sprawled across the lobby floor. JR has brought new magic to the ballet, and with the abstract configuration of the dancers, a new perspective of the troupe. From a bird’s-eye view, the dancers’ bodies form an eye—it is at once the perfect Instagram op and more so, an ideal moment to pause to consider the art of dance. This week, as New Yorkers flaunt their ticket stubs and hashtag photos #NYCBalletArtSeries, we look to some of the artists who’ve helped set the stage.

In 2014, light-years from the debut of the Ballet Russes at the Champs-Élysées Theater in Paris, where Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev would bring the art of painters like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Salvador Dalí to his productions, we’d be hard pressed not to think of former artists who’ve lent their alchemy to ballet; artists who, like JR, were known to wear many hats (though the anonymous JR never nixes his fedora or glasses.) Since the first performance of the Ballet Russes in 1909, ballet has served as a meeting point for the arts and an opportunity to work collaboratively, across disciplines—having lost no momentum in the hundred years since Picasso’s Cubist mise-en-scène characterized Parade, or Matisse designed costumes for Rouge et Noire. “I learned that you could think of it as a picture with colors that move,” Matisse said of his collaborations. In 1942, in a similar vein, Russian-born artist Marc Chagall traveled to Mexico to produce handmade costumes and backdrops for Aleko—a production that, along with a standing ovation from Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, received no less than 19 curtain calls.

The legacy of the Ballet Russes has few rivals, but strong ones. In 1953, choreographer and leader of the 20th-century avant-garde Merce Cunningham’s eponymous dance company began collaborations with visual artists and designers that would champion ballet as a multi-discipline art form throughout his 70-year career. Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he collaborated on over 20 works, called Cunningham’s company his “biggest canvas,” and Jasper Johns, who served as artistic advisor for the company for nearly 15 years, brought artists like Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol on board, the latter whose air-filled pillows, titled Silver Clouds, floated on stage in a production called Rainforest. Most notably for Johns, his 1968 ballet, Walkaround Time, was an homage to Marcel Duchamp featuring translucent, inflatable rectangles screen printed with images from the French artist’s 1923 work The Large Glass. Skip closer to the present, and in 2004 Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto suspended biomorphic forms above Cunningham’s dancers in Views on Stage, and perhaps most significantly, in 2011 Daniel Arsham became the youngest, and last artist to collaborate with Cunningham when he suspended pixel-like “clouds” from the ceiling of the Park Avenue Armory in the final performances of Cunningham’s two-year legacy tour.

Not to be forgotten are David Salle’s and Jeff Koons’s collaborations with “punk ballerina” Karole Armitage; Isamu Noguchi ’s 20+ year collaboration with “mother of modern dance” Martha Graham, (in addition to his work with pioneering dancer and choreographer Ruth Page and being named one of Cunningham’s earliest collaborators); and Arsham’s ongoing collaboration with dancer-choreographer Jonah Bokaer—among countless others—which should all be kept in mind as the public flocks to see JR at the Lincoln Center. No doubt, his installation would make his forebears proud. Skipping the stage, in true JR fashion, he’s activated the theater, floor to ceiling.

Images of JR’s Art Series courtesy of JR-ART.NET; JR with The Eye of New York City Ballet by Paul Kolnik courtesy of New York City Ballet; Portrait of Henri Matisse with dancer courtesy of Dan Geller & Dayna Goldfine. Learn more about BALLET RUSSES.

See more images of Noguchi’s dance collaborations at the Noguchi Museum.

Molly Gottschalk