New York

Robert Rauschenberg, Portfolio 1 (detail), 1952, seven black- and-white photographs mounted on rag board, each 5 5/8 x 3 1/4".

Robert Rauschenberg, Portfolio 1 (detail), 1952, seven black- and-white photographs mounted on rag board, each 5 5/8 x 3 1/4".

“Black Mountain College and Its Legacy”

Robert Rauschenberg, Portfolio 1 (detail), 1952, seven black- and-white photographs mounted on rag board, each 5 5/8 x 3 1/4".

Despite the close confines of a Chelsea gallery, this survey of 120 works by thirty-five painters, sculptors, poets, photographers, potters, and weavers vividly conveyed the achievements of the Black Mountain crowd—work seemingly stronger today, when most of the school’s storied participants are gone. Founded in North Carolina in 1933, Black Mountain College was a manifestation of the period’s romanticization of the avant-garde; the school shut down in 1957 for want of bucks. Fascism’s glory years had forced many of Germany’s leading artists and intellectuals into exile, among them the members of the faculty of the Bauhaus. Josef Albers, one of its notables, was hired to direct the Black Mountain program at its inception, while his wife, the celebrated Anni Albers, was asked to direct the weaving workshop.

The teaching program at the college was very casual indeed, with protocols differentiating master from student often honored in the breach. Based on the Bauhaus syllabus, the curriculum focused on the elemental properties of any given substance, temporal or spatial—be it those of paint, paper, motion, photograph, textile, or text. The latter was a subject of great impact, considering the valued place of poetry in the school—a discipline overseen by the formidable Charles Olson. His offset books of poetry and the Black Mountain Review are touching reminders of what chapbook publishing once looked like.

Through World War II and into the 1950s, young art students were intrigued by the news drifting out from that distant outcropping not far from Asheville. By decade’s end, the fame of the mosquito-ridden place had attracted figures as wildly disparate as Buckminster Fuller; Willem de Kooning; Jacob Lawrence and his wife, the painter Gwendolyn Knight (these last two at great personal danger, since they were black in a still–Jim Crow South); Franz Kline; John Chamberlain; Kenneth Noland; and Kenneth Snelson. Also drawn to the campus was the group surrounding the dancer Merce Cunningham, a coterie that included John Cage, the pianist David Tudor, the prodigious Robert Rauschenberg, a still rather searching Cy Twombly, and Dorothea Rockburne, here represented by Gradient and Field, 1971—the gradient being a dadolike horizontal line that “weaves” over and under sheets of paper—a work that speaks to the teaching of Max Dehn, Black Mountain’s master mathematician.

Arguably, it is the Cunningham circle that most continues to capture the public imagination, owing, in part, to the excitement generated by a hybrid art predicated on the permeable interface between differing types—notably painting and dance, leading to Rauschenberg’s genial costume and stage decor back then and for years to come, an innovation now viewed as exemplary of the Black Mountain achievement.

The show also called to mind the shifting erotic attachments that seasoned Black Mountain life. Louise Lippold, for example, would dance to Cage’s In a Landscape, 1948, while her husband, Richard, whose transparent sculpture revealed his intense advocacy of “Bucky” Fuller’s architecture (as did the work of Snelson), would complicate Lippold family life by falling in love with Ray Johnson—an avowal made in How to Draw a Bunny (2002), a documentary on Johnson’s life. Rauschenberg’s photograph of a smoldering Cy Twombly (from Portfolio 1, 1952) speaks torrid volumes (those were, after all, Rauschenberg’s Susan Weil years). His wife’s Secrets, 1949, a torn letter-as-drawing—suggestive words such as whispers and trembling are still legible amid the fragments—is, in its antic way, equally revelatory. Rauschenberg’s shot of himself feigning sleep upon a bare mattress set directly on the floor (also from Portfolio 1) reminds one of the typical Black Mountain indifference to domestic niceties, though, to be sure, the college’s legend does make the place sound halcyon. Perhaps Helen Frankenthaler best captured the college’s youth-hostel rawness. Visiting in 1950 as the companion of Clement Greenberg, then giving a pit-stop seminar in criticism—one must never forget the prestige of the Partisan Review critics during the period—she gave up after one week: “Bad food, barrack-like accommodations, and snakes!”

We must ever be grateful to the underknown photographer Hazel-Frieda Larsen for her extensive archive of Black Mountain images. Like Larsen, other artists whose work has perhaps fallen away from current chatter are here revealed anew—the incipient AbEx painter Pat Passlof, the open-weave sculptor Ruth Asawa, the genial potter Karen Karnes. Imagine: The legend Shoji Hamada was there, proof of those rare moments when the beauty of crafts (think Anni Albers) supersedes the pretensions to art made by painters or sculptors.

Robert Pincus-Witten