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View of “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957,” 2015–16. Photo: John Kennard.

“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957”

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

View of “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957,” 2015–16. Photo: John Kennard.

BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE points perpetually beyond itself. Ironically, as a school, it had no ongoing tradition that it was meant to transmit to succeeding generations, nor did it defer to the authority of historical forebears. It sought to create conditions that would enable students to focus on processes of decision making as the revelation of thinking. At Black Mountain one learned that composition—whether of a sculpture, a sonata, a poem, or even a building—was a series of choices made in response to materials, environment, and what was happening in any given moment. With any piece, form was the manifestation of sundry choices, made consciously and unconsciously, and the maker was responsible for them all. Underneath these aesthetic sensibilities was a sense of stakes. For those touched by the circumstances and ideas at Black Mountain, art had no more abiding lesson than that life itself was similarly a series of such choices that one had to make and be responsible for, again and again.

In “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957,” surprisingly the first comprehensive museum exhibition in the United States with Black Mountain as its subject, a difficult balance had to be struck between claiming specific aesthetic value for the objects on view and insisting on the objects as evidence of the historical significance of the institution that gave rise to them. The ICA is not apt to focus on historical subjects, so we might take its decision to mount this show as an implicit argument that Black Mountain—in its aesthetics, however broadly diverse these might be, as well as its ideology—is more than relevant to our contemporary moment; it is still somehow crucial to art’s present tense. To position the art produced during that time, at that place, by those artists, poets, musicians, and dancers, as primarily evidence of a confluence of circumstances, talent, and ideals brought together as an experiment in progressivist education unique in American history is to risk making the exhibition merely artifactual and archival—just the sort of stance Black Mountain seemed to oppose. On the other hand, in light of the school’s emphasis on process, what students and faculty produced while there often hewed closer to being studies rather than fully realized works of art.

Organized by Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson, “Look Before You Leap” presented some two hundred works by one hundred artists. The show captured the impossibility of capturing the essence of those years in that place, given the multifariousness of the activities and artistic practices that flowered there. With neither a doctrine nor a thoroughgoing prescription for learning, Black Mountain was more like an intellectual and aesthetic kiln. There are as many styles covered by the label “Black Mountain” as there were artists who spent time there. The names connected to the school are dizzying in their subsequent stature as well as their plenitude: Cy Twombly, Aaron Siskind, Jacqueline Gourevitch, David Tudor, Charles Olson, Elizabeth Jennerjahn, Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, Stan VanDerBeek, Hazel Larsen Archer, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Xanti Schawinsky, Merce Cunningham, M. C. Richards, Ben Shahn, Buckminster Fuller—the list goes on and on. Even so, at least as many names were left out of “Leap Before You Look” as were included. Some of these artists came just briefly during one of the famous summer sessions, lured down from New York to see what the commotion was about; some came and went; others dug in for a while. Very few ever actually graduated, and the school was never fully accredited. The distinction between faculty and students faded away almost altogether. Everyone connected to Black Mountain was forever marked by that encounter. In myriad ways, the school proffered a paradigm for artmaking as a form of existential learning that continues to have a largely unsung impact on postwar aesthetics and avant-garde art.

Black Mountain wasn’t specifically an art school; it was an educational collective with the model of the artist or poet as maker at the center of its self-concept and thus was bound to draw young artists steeped in the expansive formal possibilities of midcentury modernism. The people who came to this school were not just intent on centering their lives around art; they sought to dismantle the divide between art and ordinary life. Creation was to be a lived experience. It is hard to say whether Black Mountain inculcated its ideals in the individuals who made their way there—sometimes separately, sometimes in groups—or whether people who already had such tendencies gravitated to that cluster of activity on a small campus outside Asheville, North Carolina. Nevertheless,the school’s pedagogical ideals validated not just ways of thinking but ways of attempting to become fully realized human beings.

The school’s complicated founder, John Andrew Rice, a renegade academic and Rhodes scholar known as much for his charismatic teaching as for his divisive personality,established the college’s mission along the lines of John Dewey’s pedagogical arguments for interactive education. In a 1936 interview, Rice explained the Black Mountain emphasis on the arts as the core of liberal education, insisting, “Nearly every man is a bit of an artist, at least potentially a person of imagination, which can be developed,” and in light of that assumption Black Mountain committed to a “central and consistent effort . . . to teach method, not content; to emphasize process, not results; to invite the student to the realization that the way of handling facts and himself amid the facts is more important than facts themselves.” Activity, no matter how determined, was both form and thought.

Josef and Anni Albers were decisive presences from their arrival in 1933 until their departure in 1949. Their instruction combined a rigorous attention to craft with an active, searching exploration of form, no matter the medium, and together they insisted on a disciplined aesthetic perception of the ordinary world that grounded experiments undertaken by such students as Ray Johnson, Ruth Asawa, and Robert Rauschenberg. Early, transitional works by these artists were represented in the show in ways that illuminated just how they arrived at their aesthetic concerns.

Given this focus on process and activity, Black Mountain’s accomplishments have less to do with what “great” art was created there, during the school’s brief existence, and more with what ideas were set in motion. Some of the studies and experiments did yield powerful, lasting results, however, and “Leap Before You Look” made clear that amid the searching for form and method, masterworks were generated along the banks of Lake Eden—for instance, de Kooning’s Asheville, 1948, and Rauschenberg’s (Untitled) (Night Blooming Series),1951, both of which appeared in the show. Also included was a tableau comprising a prepared piano, footage of Merce Cunningham dancing, and Rauschenberg’s four-panel White Painting, 1951, meant to conjure John Cage’s legendary Theater Piece No. 1, 1952, a largely improvised conflation of dance, music, art, and poetry, often credited as the first Happening. The tableau provided a way to imagine the event itself, even as it served to point to what can never be replicated: the original, originary activity itself. The show’s restaging of those performances—the specifics of which are more rumored than known—seemed a bit beside its point. Nevertheless, with impressive inclusivity, the show amply indicated that students and faculty were continually and continuously productive, seeking daily to push past boundaries of received ideas in order to widen perspectives on what counts as form in things as well as ideas. The curators managed to address quite deftly the usual framing of Black Mountain as a primarily masculinist legacy by making prominent the work of so many women (Mim Sihvonen, Katherine Litz, Susan Weil, and numerous others) and by focusing on the role of crafts (weaving and pottery, for instance) as part of the curriculum.

In its focus on making rather than the made thing, Black Mountain held as its ideal an aesthetic futurity and moral potentiality that students and faculty would help each other realize through collaboration and provocation. It was a place of perpetual experimentation aimed at determining the limitations and possibilities of form in order to discover new ways of thinking, not simply for the sake of innovation but also to enlarge the possibilities of the imagination and widen the sense of what forms were available for a life.

The school was run by artists, educators, and thinkers, not by administrators who could ensure that the infrastructure would remain stable and sustainable. Black Mountain ended not with a bang but a whimper. In its later years, the grounds were sold off little by little, buildings were shuttered one by one, and students and faculty didn’t so much quit as drift off, until nothing was left but legend and gossip. The school’s energies traveled outward, and its people wound up in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and beyond, spreading the influence of all that had developed through the exchange and conversation of those heady days. While there is no dogma of Black Mountain, its DNA remains evident beneath the surface of a great deal of art, music, poetry, dance, and architecture being produced today. “Leap Before You Look” provided both a necessary reassessment of the history of Black Mountain College and the recognition that we still have much to learn.

“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957” is currently on view (through May 15) at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; travels to the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, Sept. 17, 2016–Jan. 1, 2017.

Richard Deming, senior lecturer in English and Director of creative writing at Yale University, is the author of Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading (Stanford University Press, 2008).