– When a trail parts ways into two separate paths, which do you take? In the case of Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, you can travel both pathways, thanks to a twist of historical fate and smart museum exhibition planning.

Rauschenberg and Cunningham were pals and collaborators who both got by with a little help from their friends. Many Minnesotans have seen how their lives and work intertwined in the Walker Art Center exhibit “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” which closes Sunday after a six-month run, but the retrospective “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” now showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Sept. 30, offers a complementary vantage point.

Together, the shows provide an all-encompassing experience of two giants whose worlds frequently overlapped. You come away with a fascinating perspective on how each influenced the other’s work, and how when they parted ways, they were singularly equipped to travel solo.

MoMA’s show presents Rauschenberg’s entire artistic career, from his early days in the 1940s-50s at Black Mountain College, an experimental school in North Carolina where Cunningham taught, to his very last collage-y inkjet dye transfers just a couple of years before his death in 2008. More interesting than his solo work, however, are the multilayered collaborations with Cunningham and other artists of their generation, including Jasper Johns, John Cage, Cy Twombly and Susan Weil.

Dance ‘combines’

Throughout his career, the artist had a deep engagement with dance and performance. He was the lead designer and artistic adviser of Cunningham’s troupe for more than a decade, acting as stage manager on the company’s international tour in 1964. “Common Time” pairs well with “Among Friends,” filling in some of the gaps between these two sprawling, chronologically ordered wonderlands with different focal points.

The Cunningham exhibition is heavier on detail from the Merce point of view, of course. But it shows Rauschenberg’s complete immersion in the troupe’s work — creating sets, making costumes, designing lighting, even pulling together pieces on the fly as the troupe traveled in a van from city to city — in stark contrast to the more limited role of Jasper Johns, his successor as artistic adviser. Johns took more of a curatorial approach, inviting other artists to contribute designs.

“Common Time” highlights the overlapping materials that Rauschenberg used, such as the decor he fabricated in 1954 for Cunningham’s “Minutiae,” a collapsible structure made of plywood panels and then covered in paint, fabric scraps and newspaper clippings. (Peek at the newspaper cartoons for a dose of nostalgia.) The piece is one of Rauschenberg’s first “combines,” a term he coined to describe works that functioned as painting and as sculpture.

In the MoMA show, this style is apparent in nonfunctional combines. “Charlene” (1954) is a horizontal canvas divided into oddly sliced subsections with a variety of elements: a light bulb peeking up through a wooden frame; the yellow and green of a stoplight; a circle created from pizza-slice-shaped slabs of fabric. He uses similar techniques in 1960’s “Trophy II (for Teeny and Marcel Duchamp),” a multi-panel work shown in “Common Time” that is collaged with objects such as a drinking glass, spoon, necktie and metal chain.

These combines helped make Rauschenberg’s name as an artist, differentiating himself from color-field painters such as Mark Rothko and Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. Rather than focusing on bold brush strokes, he found his own way to go big, taking collaged and crumpled newspapers, soaking them in paint and dropping them onto large canvases.

Naturally, more of his combines are on view in the MoMA retrospective than at the Walker. A section on his “red” paintings and early combines speaks to the evolution of this form. It’s worth lingering in that room to gaze upon the rich materials and salvaged objects he used to craft the work. The color red is also brighter and sharp. The artist explained that he decided to work with red because it was the hardest color he could imagine. Certainly, he took to red in full force, as in 1954’s “Untitled (Red Painting),” a smattering of oil, newspaper, crocheted curtain and other materials doused in crimson and smooshed onto a canvas, with orange dripping from the top.

Collaboration on display

Elsewhere, his poetic sculptural works display a sort of lyricism, as in “Untitled” (1952), a wood-and-metal Coca-Cola bottle crate that the artist turned upright on its side, covering some of the slots with painted glass and film-backing paper. He reconstructed everyday consumer objects, road signs and other found materials.

Collaborative efforts with other artists, especially Cunningham, stand as some of the strongest parts of the MoMA show. (A silent color video of the dance company performing “Minutiae” with Rauschenberg’s design elements is also in the Walker exhibit.) Many of Rauschenberg’s lesser known solo works, such as a series of drawings illustrating Dante’s “Inferno,” are less interesting. It leads one to wonder whether he would have made as strong a mark without the support and critical feedback from others in his group — a point that seems implicit in the exhibitions’ titles, “Common Time” and “Among Friends.”

While both shows start to feel overwhelming after multiple galleries stuffed with material — it’s like watching a sitcom with too many characters coming in and out — one grounding narrative emerges to make sense of these two whirlwinds of creative energy: the uncommon friendship between Rauschenberg and Cunningham.