Josef and Anni and Ruth and Ray
34 East 69th Street New York
September 20—October 28, 2017
By MARK BLOCH, NOV. 2017
“Josef and Anni and Ruth and Ray” was David Zwirner's inaugural exhibition at the gallery's new 69th Street location featuring work by Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, and Ray Johnson, four creative explorers whose simultaneous presence at the radically experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the late 1940s shaped their own individual futures and influenced the course of 20th century American art in ways that are still being revealed.
This show explored the importance of early aesthetic and personal connections between artists by allowing a glimpse into works exchanged warmly amongst this particular group, accompanied by compositions with common looks and themes that emerged from their mutual immersion in the educational atmosphere that thrived at Black Mountain during the post war years. The transplanted German Josef Albers and his wife, the weaver, Anni, had studied and then taught at the famous Bauhaus for nearly a decade then imported and adapted, in a new American setting, the idealistic but utlitarian Bauhaus pedagogy that espoused, above all else, an open interchange of ideas.
An invitation to teach at Black Mountain was extended to the Albers’ after the Bauhaus closed under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. The couple countered that they did not speak English but the reply from Phillip Johnson, who invited them on behalf of the founders, was “Come anyway.”
“I remember that we received a letter from Black Mountain College which was a newly founded college very much on the experimental side having art as a center point. Josef and I sat on our bed with our legs hanging over the edge,” Anni recalled in an interview, “and read this letter together. And when it came to the word 'experimental' we both said, ‘That’s our place.’”
They arrived on an ocean liner, the Europa, on Thanksgiving November 24, 1933. Years later, another student of Josef Albers at Black Mountain College explained, “He told us over and over that there is no meaning to teaching art unless it is a teaching for how to live your life.” The student then added, “This was not a little side note. It was fundamental to his teaching.”
The art-life contiuum the couple believed in was unfolding in full force. It would later create a lifelong bond between the German born Albers and his Jewish wife, Anni, and two loyal Black Mountain students from the period between 1945 and 1948: Ray Johnson, eventual master collagist and founder of the New York Correspondence School that created a “mail art” network, and Ruth Asawa, the San Francisco Bay-based lifelong prolific creator of unique wire sculptures and vehement proponent of art education, herself.
The progressive theories of education in place at Black Mountain can be found in German philosophy dating back to the 18th century. The influence of these ideas in the Bauhaus was strikingly similar to those of the American educator John Dewey, believed to have visited BMC. The four objectives of this new American endeavor were 1) the central role of the art experience, 2) management shared by teachers and students, 3) emancipation of control from external donors, and 4) the fundamental value of social and cultural involvement outside of the classroom.
The result was close interaction between all in attendance at the small institution. Teachers and students ate together in the dining hall. Students helped build the buildings they would later be taught in. Far from the European Beaux Art approach, Albers developed his important introductory Basic Design class based on the system first developed by Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus in which color, form, and materials almost mystically informed the artist's language before anything else. Whether they were Harvard graduates or just out of high school, Albers expected all his students to do the same exercizes, such as the matiére studies exploring the constructive capabilites of materials. Students were encourged to collect leaves and pieces of wood, to make art out of junk and to treat an object like a “cow pie” seriously as an art material. Ruth Asawa's blue and black potato prints patterns and red, blue and yellow apple print matrices as well as leaf studies by both Asawa and Mr. Albers dominated the northernmost room of the newly acquired Zwirner space, blurring the lines between art education and professional art practice.
“We do not always create ‘works of art’ but rather experiments. It is not our ambition to fill museums. We are gathering experience,”Albers said.
This show was comprised of two rooms, one comprised by Johnson's early art and the other dominated mostly by Asawa's 1951-52 potato and apple works. However in each territory, powerful works by the other was nestled into corners creating a balanced symmetry. Three of Johnson’s early irregularly-shaped collages that he christened “moticos,” loaned by the Asawa Estate, had been mailed to his former classmate in the Bay area from the east coast in the early 1950s by him, the consummate correspondent. The three radically colorful, playful works, punctuated by hand-crafted circles and rectangles as well as glyphs and significant amounts of his signature pre-Pop imagery, were joined on a wall by Johnson's more sober, straightforwardly geometric 14 Squares and the 1958 work Untitled (Moticos with Red Ground), as well as by Calm Center, one of the few surviving paintings from this early period of Johnson's life before collage (and mail) became his focus.
But there, winking from the corner was a 50s Asawa sculture, the complimentary Untitled (S.461 Hanging Single-lobed, Five Layers of Spheres), with one form literally inside another in three dimensions and throwing a complex shadow across the walls and floor as one Arp-like shape blocked the light from within the next in a see-through series of weightless, cascading and concentric meshed orbs. In the other room, the northern Asawa wing, as it were, the show’s other Asawa wire work, her very first looped-wire sculpture, Untitled (S.264, Hanging Two-Lobed, Continuous Form), peaked out similarly from a corner, casting a beautiful but less imposing shadow. Many other examples of her sculptures had also been featured at another Zwirner gallery last month in Chelsea, delighting audiences at the same time as the opening of this show while the exhibit, “Josef Albers in Mexico,” can now be seen at the Guggenheim Museum, with both potentially providing a deeper look into the work of this fascinating quartet.
Across the “Asawa-centric” space were more early Johnson collages—one, a 1957 work with the title Christmas Trees presumably because the eleven red shapes arcing towards the left reminded Johnson of the holiday symbol. But this mirrored a second less-Christmas-y rectangular composition within its borders in shades of tan and grey and white, creating a metallic look that heavily featured a sanding technique Johnson frequenly employed later in his career. I am told by the Ray Johnson Estate that this framed duet was just one pairing from a prolonged series of diptychs hung two by two which Johnson created in this period and from which little survives. Both halves of this two-fold creation, mounted on white in one of the artist's preferred walnut frames, contained elements painstakingly cut out in zig zags suggestive of the pinking shears Johnson also used and referred to in the coming decades. These meandering shapes contrasted with the straight edged Untitled (Magenta Cut Paper Moticos) that hung beside it, from the late 50s, a study of busy red, burgandy and black squares stacked up in a grid, its composition reminiscent of 14 Squares and the colors of Untitled (Moticos with Red Ground) both down the hall.
Please know my two-tiered description of the exhibit is inadequate because an essential part of the feel here was the intermittent but striking placement of powerful works by each of the Albers, the older artists gracing the show with their aligning presence throughout. Highlights from the show include two vibrant leaf studies by Josef Albers made by adhering leaves from Black Mountain's environs and a pictorial weaving by Anni Albers from 1950 archival materials. Furthermore, in the passage between the two main rooms where one entered the exhibition, was an extended vitrine with fascinating ephemera realated to the four artists and their interactions over the years.
After attending the acclaimed the art program at Cass Technical High School in his native Detroit and taking Saturday classes at the Detroit Institute of Art, Ray Johnson, in between his last two years of high school, attended a summer session at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, Michigan, a remote program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he was befriended by Elaine Schmitt, whose older sister Elizabeth had that summer began a long association with Black Mountain in 1944. The elder Schmitt’s letters home persuaded Ray and Elaine to consider BMC. Similarly, Ruth Asawa, born in Norwalk, California to Japanese immigrants, enrolled in Milwaukee State Teachers College in 1943, where, at the end of her freshman year, she also met Elaine Schmitt. Elaine, Asawa and Johnson all applied to the college and all three were accepted.
Asawa, who spent the war years in a U.S. internment camp with her family, was unable to receive her degree in Milwaukee due to continued hostility against Japanese Americans, while Johnson, by the end of his high school career at Cass Tech, had won scholarships to both BMC and the Art Students League in New York, and chose Asheville, North Carolina.
Three months before his 18th birthday, Johnson arrived for the Summer Institute of 1945, ahead of Asawa in 1946—with both quickly becoming fans of the Albers' guidance. As Asawa recalls, Josef Albers would open his Basic Design course by saying, “Open your eyes and see. My aim is to make you see more than you want to. I am here to destroy all your prejudices. If you already have a style, don't bring it with you. It will only be in the way.”
In the Fall of 46 when Josef and Anni were granted sabbaticals in NY, the Russian Elya Bolotowski took over who was more popular with some students but not with Asawa or Johnson who missed the stimulation and challenge of Albers, who pushed his students to focus on, as he did in his own work, the articulation of form through color by asking them to limit themselves to a small number of basic shapes and motifs rather than worry about technique. Albers ignored students he didn’t like or that weren’t trying hard enough and doted on kids he liked. Before attending Black Mountain on the GI Bill starting in 1948, Robert Rauschenberg had heard Albers was “the greatest disciplinarian in the US.”
In the fall of 1948, after writing to his parents, “I have changed plans after talking to Albers about going to California...He thinks I should stay here for the summer and go west in the fall,” Johnson traveled to San Francisco with Albert Lanier, an architecture student at BMC, where Johnson painted houses until the sculptor Richard Lippold sent for him in New York City. Lanier and Asawa married shortly thereafter. Throughout the 1950s, Johnson and Asawa corresponded, with Johnson sending collages to Asawa and Lanier that he hoped they could sell. Asawa wrote to Johnson in July of 1956, “Do you want me to send back the moticos?” A giant red crayon heart sent from Johnson to Ruth in the 1980s seen in this show indicates their correspondence and fondness for each other continued well into their later years.
Perhaps it was the long vitrine filled with photographs, letters and other memorabila that best told the story of the close relationship between these four hard-driving artists. In three moody photos of Ruth, including two by Hazel Archer Larsen, the BMC student who later became a photography teacher, Ruth's hand covers her face in some way, shielding herself from our view. Meanwhile, three photos of Ray showed him only working, studying or writing. Larsen also took striking portraits of Anni (1948) in a serious 3/4 view and Josef (n.d.) with every hair in place. Another photographer shows Josef peeking out from behind a framed leaf study. Finally, in a photo taken decades later of Anni and Josef relaxing together on either side of a couch, Anni looks at her husband lovingly while an artwork by Asawa can be seen on the wall behind them in their home in New Haven. The photo accompanied a 1964 letter to Asawa playfully composed on the couple's personal stationary with ink and typewriter.
Several friendly letters with artistic flourishes that the four wrote each other at various stages of their friendship added a verbal component, bringing the works on the wall into focus. In a rare composition by Johnson from 1946, watercolor shapes and colors overlap and coalesce to form a tiny abstracted portrait of Asawa, later given to her.
Two letters from Johnson to his parents during the Black Mountain years survive, as do two letters from Ruth Asawa to the teachers whom she still respectfully addresses as “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Albers” as late as 1965 while Johnson affectionately addresses the pair as “Anni and Juppy.”
Johnson, the copious sender, appears not have saved any of the missives from either Asawa or the Albers'. Instead, in early 1958, Johnson wrote about a correspondent of his, “I mailed to May Wilson a Ruth Asawa wire sculpture...” The recipient artist Wilson then recounted, “I found a large carton from Ray Johnson in my mailbox. This one contained a wire mesh object... I sat on the wire thing to flatten it, nailed it down and painted it black...”
Asawa apparently influenced Johnson when she explained Taoism. Johnson wrote in an undated letter from BMC to his close friend Lorna Blaine, “Remember what Asawa read in class one night—the Taoism philosophy of nothingness being everything-ness. I feel that way. All I possess means nothing to me. I want to destroy all and create, create, design, order. It is all very confusing in my mind and so very vague.” Previously as well as later in New York, Johnson cut up, recycled or destroyed his earliest work, consisting of brightly colored geometric shapes and grids, sometimes bearing a strong resemblance to Albers’ work, whose reserved precision contrasted with the younger artist's nontraditional manner.
The archival materials, including photographs from Black Mountain College and letters exchanged amongst the artists were drawn from the collections of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, the Estate of Ray Johnson, The Ruth Asawa Papers at Stanford University and the Asawa family, as were the hanging artworks. It was inspiring to see these objects united for the first time, like old friends coming together to fulfill a common destiny. WM
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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