Black Mountain College and Its Legacy
Loretta Howard Gallery, New York City
September 15 to October 29, 2011
By MARK BLOCH
Kudos to the Loretta Howard Gallery in Chelsea for the stunning paintings, photos, films, sound recordings, wire constructions of various kinds and other attention to detail that made their recent show Black Mountain College and Its Legacy more like a museum show than a gallery exhibition. By highlighting one artist at a time with a beautiful photograph from that era and then, whenever possible, pairing one or two early works against a mid-career triumph by that same artist, the exhibition slowly unfolds into a powerful testimonial to the important output of Black Mountain as well as to its times and those who taught and studied there.
What if the 20th century’s best kept secret turned out to be an understated but astounding collection of—literally—many of its most talented and influential men and women, networked loosely together around innovative ideas and bold action in both science and the arts who made history solely by virtue of their coming together against all odds and playfully one-upping each other over the course of a couple of decades in one tiny isolated hamlet? That might be the way you could describe many American institutions of higher learning but it was uniquely manifested in the middle of the Old South from 1933 to 1956 in the North Carolina mountains for an untried operation called Black Mountain College, which could be called a prototype and precursor for many of the alternative colleges of today.
This show begged interesting comparisons, whether it was sorting out famous vs. not-so-famous names, early (1930s) vs. late (1950s) attenders, teachers vs. students, or the visual ordering of the impressive output of the various disciplines on display here: abstract paintings, abstract and portrait (always of the artists) photography, dance, music (or their hybrids) in addition to the published work of both prose and poetry writers. Even science and math played a role inviting us to attempt to extract their influence from the two open floors of stunning art viewable here.
Perhaps it was the intimidating density of what unfolded at Black Mountain College in such a short span that has always given its reputation a reserved, under-the-radar feel, especially when juxtaposed historically against the age of hype and hypertension that immediately followed it, even though BMC is no secret now and never was. In fact, a case could be made that over-stimulation, simulation and simulacra inherited their foundation from the serene and focused “collaboration with materials” and rigorous sensibilities that students such as the young Robert Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson, Cy Twombly, Dorthea Rockburne and many others calmly took away from their unique studies with the array of faculty members led by the émigré Josef Albers, who, with his wife Anni, learned English as he taught the basics of what he inherited from the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany.
A Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, dedicated to the institution's history, is alive and functioning in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, near the spot where the college rented a YMCA student conference center south of the town of Black Mountain for the first eight years of its existence. When the college relocated in 1941, pivoting across the scenic valley to nearby Lake Eden, students were required to participate in the construction of their own campus as part of their education, a practice which continued until its closing in 1956. A number of the original structures are still in use today as a Christian boys’ retreat called Camp Rockmont, who purchased and converted the buildings when financial problems slowly brought the experiment in learning to a slow fizzle. But in hindsight Black Mountain College’s beginnings and the quarter century that that followed within those structures were rock solid and of the utmost importance. Safely tucked away from the rest of the world, it was a liberal arts laboratory that grew out of the progressive education movement founded by John Dewey, thus preferring doing over learning and a focus on students to subject matter.
The unique educational environment became a high-intensity incubator for the American avant garde. The painter and installation artist Rockburne told Robert Mattison the co-curator (with the gallerist Ms. Howard) and the writer of a wonderful catalogue that accompanied this show, that she had never been in a more competitive atmosphere—not even in Manhattan in the notorious period that followed. That daily recipe of intellectual one-upsmanship coupled with an eclectic amalgam of unconventional thinking made some students feel that if something new wasn’t brought to every single class it wasn’t worth bothering to show up. But show up they did and the collaborative result, not the competition, was on view here primarily via abstract painters, the makers of publications, and sculptors, most of whom fit into the sub-category of makers of wire constructions in one way or another.
The abstract painters included students who became today’s superstars; Twombly, Rockburne, Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler (who only visited, never enrolled). Not household names today but of equal prowess in the era of AbEx were figures like and Robert DeNiro Sr., the father of the actor, Jorge Fick, Joe Fiore and the lovely Pat Passlov, seen at the opening. Two standouts for me among the abstractionists doubling as teachers were Ilya Bolotowsky with a striking 1949 oil reminiscent but not derivative of Mondrian and Emerson Woelffer, whose three canvases from the late 40s and early 50s looked fresh, powerful and confident. Other BMC faculty with predictably wonderful works here were Jack Tworkov, Ted Stamos, Robert Motherwell, Franz Klein, Elaine DeKooning, and of course Bill DeKooning for whom Black Mountain was of monumental importance, as revealed in his current MoMA show. All these teachers appeared at the college because they were giants then, invited by Albers to share their skills with the select population of atttendees.
Albers’s 1937 monochrome, Composure and his Homage to the Square from 1960 represent his many decades of working within strict color rules that he lived by as well as taught, but to me the most interesting Albers piece were a set of utilitarian nested tables from the mid-‘20s in orange, blue, yellow and green just as his wife Anni, a fabric artist and important force at the college, helped dominate the first room of the show with a large weaving that also spoke of utility, so important to the Bauhaus, as well as art.
Nearby, well-represented between the Albers’s and John Cage, was a wide array of works by Rauschenberg, including his own fabric piece: A Wedding Dress from 1950, in addition to one of his important black paintings, a series of photographs and others. His wife at that time, Sue Weil, was represented upstairs with a striking recent installation of acrylic on paper and a piece in torn paper from 1949 with word fragments—know, rock, trembling, whispers—whispering intriguingly. Weil and her son with Rauschenberg, Christopher, were both seen at the lively exhibition opening, a BMC reunion the likes of which have not been seen in New York for a while.
The work of Ray Johnson, another favorite son-student of the school, with four collages in the show, including one from the ‘70s that featured a 1948 postmarked envelope to a friend at the college, did not fit neatly into either the painter or abstractionist category. Though he worked as an abstractionist into the early 1950s and a few works form this period survive, they were not seen here. Likewise, teacher Jacob Lawrence’s powerful war pictures used images of soldiers, not abstraction, to make his statements. The African-American Lawrence had been invited as a faculty member to BMC but, for fear it would lead to trouble with the locals, he stayed safely tucked away on the idyllic campus with its history on the cutting edge of racial integration. Thanks to the German musicologist Edward Lowinsky, a faculty member, several black students were invited and never segregated or treated differently. In April 1947, the Freedom Riders, traversing the country, stopped there overnight. It is also worth noting that Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American with a piece here, had been in an internment camp only months before her enrollment at the college.
Asawa, who, like Johnson, adored Albers’ teachings, represented the many weavers of wire in this exhibition with a small but elegant symmetric brass and iron form hanging from the ceiling. The other “wired” artists were the inventive Bucky Fuller, his protégé-to-be Kenneth Snelson, and drawings by Richard Lippold, a master of the form who arrived to teach at Black Mountain in a long hearse with his family in tow. Snelson’s 1948 photo of a spider web echoed the linear and math influence on all of these artists. (Sculptors not working with wire included John Chamberlain and Leo Amino.)
The gifted Hazel Larsen Archer provided many of the remarkable and historic photographs of the artists, both working and as portraiture, that unified the show. Archer began as a student but joined the faculty after photography was added to the curriculum in the late ‘40s. But for me, the most powerful pieces in the show were teacher Aaron Siskind’s pioneering 1951 silver print images (and others from as “late” as ‘57 and ’61) of peeling posters of close up letterforms revealing words like “in” and “and” or legs literally ripped from their context and artfully fused into his pioneering compositions North Carolina 30 and Kentucky 5. Harry Callahan and Arthur Siegel also contributed to the important wall of black and white photo imagery with the latter’s 1949 darkroom work looking like (Man) Rayograms or Lazslow Moholy Nagy’s Photograms. Finally, Rauschenberg’s seven-photo portfolio from 1951, were beautifully shot, developed and displayed as part of his work, not the other photographers.
Much has been written of Rauschenberg’s collaborations with John Cage and Merce Cunningham in the decades that followed but this exhibition highlights experientially the arrival of Cage and Cunningham at the campus and their earliest dances together, both literally and figuratively. Beautiful films of Cunningham in motion, Septet (1953), Antic Meet (1958) and Story (1963) and audio recordings of Cage’s Williams Mix and other recordings and objects took us back before the reverse fork in the road when their works began to intertwine, bringing the rest of the show’s 2- and 3-dimensional works to life in the front gallery.
Similarly, photos of Buckminster Fuller building his first two geodesic domes with the help of students at the school (only the second of which was successful) provided jaw-dropping multi-media encounters with the information and its presentation in the rear first floor gallery. Need one say more about big beginnings that occurred at the school than that the recently deceased Arthur Penn directed Fuller, Cunningham and Elaine DeKooning in Eric Satie’s play Ruse of Medusa featuring music by Cage, décor by Willem DeKooning and props by Ray Johnson and Asawa, among others, during Fuller’s 1948 stay on the campus?
Though, like that tidbit of information, it was not the prime focus of this exhibition, thankfully a large shallow vitrine on the second floor was filled with about fifty different published works that were anything but shallow, giving a small taste of the literary output of the Black Mountain poetic “school”. The 6’8” Charles Olson, who towered over the group as one its leaders in the later years of the college, had work here as did Robert Creely, Dawson Fielding, Joel Oppenheimer, MC Richards and Jonathan Williams. Other highlights of this showcase included a first edition of the Caesar’s Gate Poems by Robert Duncan, one of ten that were printed with an original collage by Jess (Collins), Duncan’s partner, published in1955 when Jess was a visitor to BMC, and a single, aging, unpublished sheet, Roster of faculties of Black Mountain College, regular and guest, since its founding, 1933, presumably rescued from the archives of the college and as thorough as it is historic. Issues of the Black Mountain Review, which appeared from 1951 to 1954, edited first by Richards then by Creely, were, of course, visible, on loan from the collection of James Jaffe. Every piece here was screaming out to be handled and perused. I was particularly sorry I could not get at Broadside Number 1, for example, by Olson and illustrated by Nicola Cernovich, a BMC student and later a lighting designer who, like Ray Johnson, was later an important influence on Billy Name, the creator of the ambiance in Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Thus, this exhibition lay down the tendrils of influence, both well known and unknown, over the high culture of the 20th Century. Visible in this show but between the lines, like so much of the college’s influence, was the unheralded importance of Black Mountain as one of the first stops on Eastern religion’s trip to the United States. Many of the founding members, including Albers, were influenced by the basic course of Johannes Itten at the Bahaus in Weimar Germany, which required composition and color education for all students. The eccentric Itten taught there until 1923 when he left because Walter Gropius no longer approved of his preparatory meditation exercises and the influence of yoga, Persian Mazdaism and other Eastern influence that inspired him to shave his head and wear monk’s robes. Albers was exposed as a student himself to the man and his teachings and went on to craft a similar foundation class at BMC. A 1948 Hazel Larson photograph shows Albers teaching it with a yin-yang form leaning on the chalkboard behind him. We also know Albers’ Address on the Beginning of a New Year on September 12, 1939, quoted Lao Tsu and the Tao Te Ching, referring to the subtle ways of leadership. Noting that students became irritable when they had to do page after page of straight lines, Asawa once volunteered that Albers’ drawing class was instead “very much like calligraphy.”
There were more overt examples of Eastern influence in those early days. In the Summer session of 1949, Nataraj Vashi and his wife Pia-Veena taught Hindu dance and lectured on Hindu philosophy. And the closest thing to a formal course John Cage ever taught at the college, despite three sessions spent there, was a regular late night reading of the complete Huang Po’s Doctrine of Universal Mind which had just been published in English. Between a third and a half of the 70 students in the community at that summer session attended.
In the late thirties Cage heard a lecture by Nancy Wilson Ross on Dada and Zen then had the good fortune to attend Daisetz Suzuki's classes on Zen Buddhism at Columbia University a decade later. By the summer of 1952, Cage brought those influences to Black Mountain with his Theater Piece #1, now acknowledged as the first Happening and a source for early performance art, created over lunch and performed later the same day, in which Cage, dressed in a black suit, climbed a ladder and talked for two hours about “the relation of music to Zen Buddhism,” while a movie was shown, babies cried and dogs barked. Olson and Richards also read from ladders that day, while Rauschenberg played old Edith Piaf records from a hand-wound gramophone and Cunningham danced. Later, participants turned buckets of water onto the audience members who were seated in 4 inward facing triangles.
Josef Albers wrote in Progressive Education in 1935, “we want a student who sees art as neither a beauty shop nor imitation of nature, as more than embellishment and entertainment; but as a spiritual documentation of life.” At Black Mountain College and Its Legacy at Loretta Howard Gallery, we saw that idea in play as a profound but subtle influence on the culture of today.
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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