Robert Rauschenberg's costumes for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company never had it so good. Instead of covering sweaty bodies as they leap and pirouette, the leotards and tights he hand-painted 50 years ago are now lodged between sheets of acid-free paper in a vast, climate-controlled storage room at Walker Art Center.

"Yes, they're art now," laughed Darsie Alexander, the Walker's chief curator, referring to the late Rauschenberg's designs for the Cunningham Company. Alexander organized the works into a show that opened this week.

The exhibit, which runs through April 8, features costumes, props, stage curtains and other art by Rauschenberg, along with videos of performances and interviews about Cunningham and his company. The Walker acquired the dance material in March from the Cunningham Foundation, which was established after the dancer's death in 2009. This is the first of several small "dance works" exhibits the Walker has planned leading up to a major Cunningham show in 2015.

The curatorial fussing is a far cry from the way Alexander found the costumes in the basement of a New York warehouse.

"I don't want to use the word decrepit, but it was definitely a well-used environment," Alexander said. "There were things in duffle bags, and that amazing sailcloth that Rauschenberg made was folded up in a suitcase. There were sad moments as we were excavating when I was afraid that some important things might have been lost."

To be clear, the stuff wasn't exactly entombed in an archeological dig.

The Cunningham troupe shares a building near Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. Dancers rehearse on the top floor while administrators work on the main floor. A basement prop shop houses most of the artifacts and costumes. The company plans to disband in December at the end of a two-year farewell tour, but the offices and foundation will continue as a resource for dance scholars.

"The shop has racks filled with every imaginable article, from props to painted drops and several generations of costumes, because new costumes needed to be made to fit each new dancer's body," Alexander said. "Everything was all jumbled together, though sometimes initials in the neck of a jersey would say M.C. or C.B. for Merce or Carolyn Brown [a principal dancer]."

The Walker acquired about 1,000 items that various artists made for the 150 dances that Cunningham choreographed during his nearly 70-year career. The stuff is of special interest because Cunningham collaborated with artists who, like Rauschenberg, went on to fame, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella.

The current show samples a protean decade, 1954-64, when Rauschenberg was the fledgling company's resident set, costume and lighting designer. After 1964, Cunningham and Rauschenberg rarely collaborated, although they remained friends. That year Rauschenberg became the first American to win the grand prize at the Venice Biennale, and a world tour by the Cunningham troupe cemented its international status as a leading modern company.

Proto-pop imagination

A Texas native, Rauschenberg (1925-2008) studied art in Kansas City, Paris and New York before developing an eclectic proto-pop style that combined street detritus (used tire, stuffed goat), personal effects (his quilt, a full-body X-ray) and images culled from newspapers and popular publications. He garnered acclaim in the early 1950s for a series of all white, all black and all red paintings. By the time he met Cunningham at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he had already had solo shows in Manhattan, but he was so entranced by Cunningham's radical ideas that he joined his entourage.

The key to their collaboration was the unprecedented liberty Cunningham gave artists with whom he worked. Rauschenberg sometimes even joined the dancers onstage and worked on the sets and props during performances.

At a time when modern dance was often an earnest, high-minded affair, the Cunningham troupe introduced a playful, athletic humor that Rauschenberg enhanced with colorful polka-dot leotards and wife-beater undershirts incongruously garnished with sentimental "tattoos" of bleeding hearts, snake-entwined skulls and smarmy angels.

A former sailor, he designed striped tunics with sailor collars for one dance, and introduced sail and flight motifs in others. His costumes include a leg harness festooned with clanking tin cans, a gauzy, rectangular hat sprouting a rhinestone crest, and a heavily ruched skirt made of surplus parachute silk.

"He was obsessed with movement, with parachutes and rockets and airplanes, so you can see the symbology of wings and flight," Alexander said. Related imagery appears in his paintings and work on paper in the show.

"When you see those costumes flopped on a table, they're quite inanimate," Alexander said. "So in the exhibition, things will be floating from the walls and hanging from the ceiling because we're trying to create a sense of the height, depth and movement that you encounter onstage."