“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957”, curated by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston Massachusetts and featuring archival materials, plus work by close to 100 artists, is the first major exhibition to focus on this unique moment of educational and artistic experimentation in Asheville North Carolina. With no external oversight, on the grounds of a former summer camp, progressive educator John Rice began designing Black Mountain's buildings collaboratively with a small group of students and colleagues who had seceded from a school in Florida that dismissed him for questioning its pedagogical strategies.
“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957”, curated by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston Massachusetts and featuring archival materials, plus work by close to 100 artists, is the first major exhibition to focus on this unique moment of educational and artistic experimentation in Asheville North Carolina.
With no external oversight, on the grounds of a former summer camp, progressive educator John Rice began designing Black Mountain's buildings collaboratively with a small group of students and colleagues who had seceded from a school in Florida that dismissed him for questioning its pedagogical strategies.
Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC.
By the early 1940's this miniscule, self-sustaining liberal arts college in the rural South of the United States was a haven of avant-garde refugees from abroad. And by the time of its closure, many major figures in the literary, architectural, musical, dance and art history of the modernist era had participated in the experience.
“Born between the two world wars, Black Mountain College spawned many of the experimental and creative expressions that have now come to characterize contemporary art. European refugees and immigrants worked alongside American artists from rural and urban backgrounds to create a new vision for arts and education in the United States. Artists well known to us today such as Josef and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, R. Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, Peter Voulkos, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage worked alongside lesser-known artists such as Ruth Asawa, Karen Karnes, and Hazel Larsen Archer.”
—ICA's Ellen Matilda Poss Director, Jill Medvedow
Black Mountain College's interdisciplinary, non-hierachical ethos and radically exploratory esthetics had enormous, disproportionate-to-scale impact on the landscape of American contemporary art and the aftershocks of its brief existence reverberate to the present day.
Ruth Erickson, Assistant Curator at the ICA, curated “Leap Before You Look” alongside Helen Molesworth (now Chief Curator at Los Angeles MOCA,) and offers some thoughtful reflection on the notions of collaboration and experimentation that she encountered while assembling the exhibition.
Artdependence Magazine: Can you talk about this exhibition as a reference point and model for living, contemporary artists who struggle with the tension between a desire to work collaboratively and experimentally, and the pressure to produce work as an individual for an art marketplace?
Ruth Erickson: In truth, I think it was from a sense of dismay over where we're at with art making and the ways in which the market can dictate so much of what happens in art schools and in artists' studios that we did seek to go back to Black Mountain College's offering a kind of alternative model to what we have going on right now in terms of both higher education and art education. And the art market.
The basis of that model is equality and collaboration in a really radical, democratic way. Not a kind of equality that is sold to us as a market brand, but a kind of equality that is much harder than that because it's one that takes the dissenting individuals or dissenting styles or identity of a person for what it is rather than trying to transform it into something you want it to be.
Hazel Larsen Archer, Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn and Robert Rauschenberg, c. 1952, gelatin silver print, 6 1/4 x 9 ¼ inches. Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.
As far as what kind of lessons or paths the exhibition might open up, I think that there's a real examination of power relationships embedded in its core that could be viewed as either threatening or inspirational depending on which side of the relationship you're on.
It's within the structure of the school, where there's this ideal of self-governance in its very founding, so there wasn't a president or board of trustees making decisions. I think there's the sense of a desire for equality between students and teachers that was very influential to its formation that is really at the root of how collaboration might work—what it might mean in the process of art making.
Where it feels very far from where we're at today is, in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the art market as such was nothing like it is today. There were a small handful of galleries in New York, not hundreds and hundreds, there was the Armory fair, but beyond that there was not the kind of art fairs and the dominance that they have.
Photography class in Cabbage Patch. Photo by Barbara Morgan.Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC.
AD: Where do you see the ideals (and/or focus on productiveness rather than simply production) that flourished at Black Mountain College located in the art world of the present day?
RE: It's very hard to trace the impact of Black Mountain College directly in a kind of teleological way, but certainly you can kind of draw out these individual threads, and thinking of the influences rhizomatically, it's everywhere.
I think the productiveness [occurring at Black Mountain College] was really at the level of: what kind of decisions can an individual make that are ethical, that are driven by a sense that esthetics have power and are important? Here, making a drawing can be a radical thing because of the decisions that go along with making it.
Now, the diverse set of contemporary arts practices that we lump under the term 'social practice art' might see Black Mountain College as a very influential precedent. Especially in the way in which daily labor and art labor are shared and really equally important to the development of a whole person.
Though where it begins to break down for me is that at Black Mountain College, art was not a social service in the way that sometimes social practice can be. Rather it was much more of an individual pursuit—often through very pure means of perception and form and color—but that individuality was always, I think, in ethical balance with thinking about an other. An other who might be quite different from the self. And that's where it's this really beautiful model of intellectual and artistic formation.
Installation view, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2015. Photo: Liza Voll Photography.
AD: Tell me about what it was like to be doing curating that involved a lot of collaboration (within the museum, with external institutions, with local artists involved in performances, etc.) while also focusing on the theme of collaborative creative processes.
RE: We didn't have any idea how collaborative it would be when we set out to do the exhibition. I was brought in as research fellow in October of 2012, and at that point Helen was just sort of digging into the subject, planning a lot of research trips to estates and archives all over the US and to sons and daughters of people who had attended Black Mountain College. So the collaboration is something that really ballooned during the process of doing the project.
On the one hand, to carry out the research for the project—when we would go to visit The Museum of Modern Art, or LACMA—we had to go between so many departments because the output of Black Mountain College just cut across all the media. So we would have these wild days set up where we would go to LACMA, and would visit the decorative arts to see ceramics and then visit the textiles, then work on paper, then painting, then sculpture. It's very rare in a project that it leads you to go into all of those departments, so there's a level of collaboration just to actually see the material that resulted from the people who had attended Black Mountain College.
The coordination between those departments was really incredible, and then I would say reflecting back on the ICA, this project was very transformative for the ICA. Specifically, its relationships between departments. Even though we're a pretty small institution, we do have a separate Curatorial Department, an Education Department, a Performing and Media Arts Department, and there many efforts in this exhibition that brought those departments together, working really intensely and long term on a series of projects like the performance program, the dance floor and the grand piano and the Performance Piece No. 1 x 50 projects that are happening over the course of the show, was just a huge effort for the museum to really start breaking down internal silos and start thinking collaboratively in terms of spaces that the curatorial department tends to manage and oversee—the gallery. So really thinking about what the work of museums is and how this show challenges the way that the museum itself structures itself.
Silas Riener performs Merce Cunningham’s Changeling at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Photo by Liza Voll.
And then I think any telling of history is a collective retelling based on memory, and documents, and fantasy, especially telling a history that was an experience of so many people, many of them no longer with us. Any approach to making that kind of exhibition is going to be collaborative because what you're drawing on are the myriad encounters and interviews and documents that we saw and rumors that we heard. There's always a collaborative element to being an attentive historian that doesn't believe that they have any sort of purchase over history, which is certainly what Helen and I believe.
AD: Let's dig into the work before we stop. Can you talk about the impact of the school on American artmaking itself in a formal sense? And also, I'd love to hear about your favorite piece in the show.
RE: Well, for instance, we know that had John Rice not invited Josef Albers to come and be the first fine arts teacher, he wouldn't have had contact with this whole group of American artists at Black Mountain and then at Yale where he taught Eva Hesse and Richard Serra. That contact between Josef Albers and American artists was really profound for many of those artists' work.
In our exhibition, we saw Minutiae, Robert Rauschenberg's stage set for a Merce Cunningham dance by the same name, as a real moment of culminating. And as evidence of the long lessons that Josef and Anni Albers and Robert Rauschenberg's own individual experience could have had on an object and an art form. It's the first freestanding 'combine' of Rauschenberg's. So both in the creation of the combine as a category of sculpture and then in thinking of that piece as drawing out Josef Albers' color studies, Anni Albers' weaving studies, the fact that Robert Rauschenberg was on trash collection duty at Black Mountain College—seeing that piece as this manifestation of those really diverse lessons. And then what are the conditions that Black Mountain College afforded so that that piece could be made? And then that piece was made, and what then is the impact of that piece on a number of other artists, in sculpture, in mid-century American art?
Robert Rauschenberg, Minutiae, 1954/1976, oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, metal, and plastic, with mirror on string, on wood structure, 84 ½ x 81 x 30 ½ inches. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, Gift of Jay F. Eckland, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation, Agnes Gund, Russell Cowles and Josin Peters, the Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Dorothy Lichtenstein, MAHADH Fund of HRK Foundation, Goodale Family Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, David Teiger, Kathleen Fluegel, Barbara G. Pine, and the T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Another thing that we became really fascinated with in Albers' class is 'the crit' [critique] as a form in art school—a discussion in a group about a student's work. Providing a communal practice of feedback. The crit was born in Albers' classes at Black Mountain College. It's a huge pedagogical impact—what now is still used in art schools all across the United States. The crit is what all art students know so well as being a key moment of discussion and judgement and feedback. That's one isolated thing that we can draw out of Black Mountain College. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but it was very prominent in Albers teaching.
Getting into the historical mindset of the period, one of the pieces that I was so blown away by was Ray Johnson's  Untitled Painting, which is this kind of gridded color study for Albers' class. But it has this great morphological relationship to weaving. I studied that piece very closely with a magnifying glass and the kind of meticulous task of its making. Every single line you see changes color when it intersects with another line, and yet it keeps the grid of the warp and weft of the loom. So it takes the grid of the loom, but then it does what the loom cannot do, because it can't change color at every break in the horizontal or vertical. It uses the act of painting by hand to create this impossible other thing. I think that piece is just beautiful, and it's so interesting to think of Ray Johnson's later work—his mail art and correspondences—and to think of this piece as this kind of model of this almost networked sense of the self that's in touch with all of these other points on a map. I think is conceptually very formative. And moving.
© The Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L Feigen & Co.
Catch the exhibition during its premiere at the ICA/Boston (on view from October 10, 2015 through January 24, 2016); or at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (from February 21 through May 15, 2016); or finally at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio (September 17, 2016 until January 1, 2017).
Leading image: Anni Albers, Knot 2, 1947, gouache on paper, 17 x 21 1/8 inches. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society New York. Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging 4 Art
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