Sometime in 1981 Jasper Johns gave Merce Cunningham an abstract painting with the artist’s familiar crosshatch pattern. Near the center is a delicate, dotted vertical line, like the spine of a dancer, and stenciled along the bottom are jumbled letters spelling out the title: “Dancers on a Plane, Merce Cunningham.”
“I made it for Merce because he was the thought in my mind,” Mr. Johns said in a telephone interview last week.
“I don’t recall whether or not it was for a special occasion,” added Mr. Johns, who was Cunningham’s friend and an adviser to his dance company from 1967 to 1980. “Someone in Merce’s studio told me I brought it over, propped it against a wall and said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s still wet.’ But I don’t remember that.”
What Mr. Johns didn’t know at the time was that “Dancers on a Plane” would be a gift that keeps on giving. On Nov. 10 and 11 Christie’s will auction that painting and other presents to Cunningham, the dancer and choreographer who died in July, and his partner in work and life, the composer John Cage, who died in 1992. Proceeds from the sale, expected to total $3.5 million to $5 million, will benefit the Merce Cunningham Trust, which administers the rights to his work and strives to perpetuate his legacy.
Laura Kuhn, a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust and executive director of the John Cage Trust, said, “Everything in the house had meaning.” She was referring to the home Cunningham and Cage shared on West 18th Street and Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. “It’s a very diverse and very personal collection.”
Besides Mr. Johns, Cunningham’s circle included other great American artists of the 20th century, like Robert Rauschenberg, who in the 1950s was also an adviser to Cunningham’s company, and Philip Guston.
Guston gave Cunningham an abstract black-and-white ink drawing from 1953, which is also in the auction and is estimated at $150,000 to $200,000. “It has the full range of the markings he was using in his paintings, so it’s a very active, beautiful surface,” said Laura Paulson, international director of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s.
Some of the gifts were specifically for Cage. A Rauschenberg work on paper from 1961, for instance, features watches and clock faces and is inscribed on the front, “for John C.”
“Bob gave it to John in 1964 or 1965 after John had given Bob a lecture on the importance of time,” said David White, the curator of Rauschenberg’s studio. “Bob was notoriously late, and John had bawled him out.”
That drawing, which Christie’s estimates will sell for $100,000 to $150,000, was one of several works that Rauschenberg gave Cage and Cunningham over the years. Another, “No. 1,” is an example of Rauschenberg’s black paintings, which Christie’s expects to fetch $800,000 to $1.2 million. It has a particularly rich history in Cunningham’s circle.
Sue Weil, Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, originally painted on the canvas, but, Mr. White said, nobody seems to know what her composition looked like. All that remains is her signature on the back. Rauschenberg then painted on top of it. “No one knows what that painting looked like, either,” Mr. White said, though it was exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951. Some years later he gave it to Cage.
Then, according to Mr. White’s records, when Rauschenberg’s Fulton Street loft was being fumigated for bedbugs, he stayed at Cage’s loft. He was working on a series of black paintings at the time and thanked Cage for his hospitality by making a new black painting on top of the existing work.
In 1985 the painting needed restoration, so Rauschenberg painted it black again. He returned it to Cage, along with a letter that read: “This is part of the history of this single canvas — I hope the dialogue continues for many more years. I will if John dares. Love Bob Rauschenberg.”
The star of the Christie’s sale is Mr. Johns’s “Dancers on a Plane.” It is one of three paintings and a drawing he made with the same title. Like much of Mr. Johns’s titles, this one has multiple meanings: it could refer to a picture plane or the notion that dancers and painters are known for their movements on a flat surface. Mr. Johns, who visited Cunningham just a few days before he died, acknowledged the ambiguity, intending “all kinds of puns,” he said. And the stenciled letters spelling out the title, interspersed with Cunningham’s name, was a trick Mr. Johns frequently used, he explained, as “a way of putting the information out there, but having it not something you read but something you think about.”
Despite their historical importance, the works have relatively low estimated values. Paintings by Mr. Johns have brought $80 million, but “Dancers on a Plane” is estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million. Ms. Paulson of Christie’s said the works were deliberately priced “to encourage collectors to participate.”
She added, “These are real gems that will appeal to connoisseurs.”
Neither Cunningham nor Cage must have thought their art was particularly valuable, just a familiar part of their visual landscape. Ms. Kuhn, the trustee, said that around 1988 their accountant asked them about insurance. “And when he discovered they had none, he asked, ‘What would happen if there was a fire and it was all destroyed?’ ” Ms. Kuhn recalled. “And Merce replied, ‘Our friends would paint us new ones.’”