New York

“The Arts at Black Mountain College”

Black Mountain College has been a quasi-mythical footnote to the histories of some remarkable artists since its closing in 1957 after only 24 years of existence. Like an avant-garde version of a top-flight prep school, its name figures in the lives and careers of, among others, artists Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Josef Albers, and Robert Rauschenberg, dancer Merce Cunningham, musician John Cage, poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, and that unclassifiable esthetician Buckminster Fuller. Its complete roster of teachers and alumni reads like a Who’s Who of the cultural ’40s and ’50s in America. Today, 30 years after its demise, this Bauhaus-inspired experimental arts school still represents many people’s idea of the ideal art-school environment.

This was the last venue of “The Arts at Black Mountain College,” a traveling exhibition curated by Mary Emma Harris that originated at the Edith C. Blum Art Institute at Bard College. While it never provided a clear focus of the mixed-media esthetics and progressive politics of this unlikely school, it gave a tantalizing glimpse of the Black Mountain experience. Aside from a modest videotape about Black Mountain and a piped-in soundtrack of music by four composers associated with the college (Cage, Lou Harrison, Stefan Wolpe, and John Evarts), the material on display was of two kinds: archival documents and artworks. These were organized in general categories—“The Faculty,” “The Summer Sessions,” “The Curriculum”—and grouped accordingly in series on the walls and in vitrines. Occasionally, an artifact received a more distinctive installation: a chair occupied a platform, or various sculptures were placed on pedestals. This simple format must have seemed dictated by the show’s given material: a lot of faded school bulletins and brochures, photographic documentation, books, music scores, period literary reviews, and relatively small-scale paintings, sculptures, ceramics, weavings, and photographs. At the time, after all, there were no home video cameras and no art-world journalists on the scene to capture the more colorful aspects of the school’s activities. But the initial effect of walking through the tidily outlined, politely set-up displays was like listening to an old-fashioned high-school lesson, with all the implications of earnest didacticism that such a characterization connotes.

Somehow, the muted academic installation of such highly charged information seemed to diminish the exhilarating spirit for which Black Mountain was famous. By separating out all the parts into neat themes (and not particularly penetrating ones at that), something of the overall flavor of the experience was lost in the gallery translation. The exhibition was accompanied by Harris’ new book (with the same title as the show), which is organized according to chronological periods subdivided into more complex, substantive themes, such as “Art as Experience” and “Art as Experiment.” The book presents all of the theoretical, personal, and ideological arguments that contributed to Black Mountain’s becoming a serious attempt at utopia, and gives a better idea of what its idiosyncratic community was about.

The exhibition did, however, contain a few surprises in the artworks on display, which managed to delight despite their relatively flat-footed mode of presentation. Alongside the usual panoply of Josef Albers’ paintings and works on paper were numerous examples of Anni Albers’ weavings that currently look as vital as any of the Black Mountain “higher art,” now that the condescending attitude toward crafts as art has been somewhat vitiated. And her hardware jewelry (done in collaboration with Alex Reed, ca. 1941) was a wonder: necklaces, bracelets, and earrings made from corks, bobby pins, paper clips, light chains, angle braces, and screw eyes. More typical, though, was the almost vestigial representation of a half-forgotten but fascinating artist such as Xanti Schawinsky. This former Bauhaus student (he studied with Oskar Schlemmer) taught painting, architecture, graphic design, photography, and theater at Black Mountain. The theater works that he staged there—such as Spectrodrama: Play, Life, Illusion, a non-narrative spectacle using abstract formal elements—were precursors of what is known today as performance art. Although highlights of Schawinsky’s work are covered in the book (both in the text and in photographs), unfortunately he was represented in the exhibition only by a single painting and, indirectly, by Evarts’ score for Danse Macabre: A Sociological Study, which was directed by Schawinsky. Given the experimental history of Black Mountain, such revelations, which show off unexpected treasures to the degree that they force a serious consideration of overlooked artists and art ideas, should have been more the rule than the exception here.

John Howell