An Education Over Coffee: Black Mountain College and Its Legacy
Black Mountain College and Its Legacy at Loretta Howard Gallery
September 15 to October 29, 2011
525-531 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 695-0164
Black Mountain College and Its Legacy, co-curated by Robert Mattison and Loretta Howard, reflects the impressive roster of artists that made the institution outside of Asheville, North Carolina legendary. As expected, the exhibition features work by many of the College’s bold-faced names—Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Hazel Larsen, Ray Johnson, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Jack Tworkov—most of whom served as teachers at the school. However, the show excels for including lesser-known artists like Leo Amino, Jorge Fick, Joe Fiore, and Richard Lippold. The exhibition often juxtaposes works at Black Mountain with something representative and later. Adjacent photographs of the artists facilitate the narrative.
For nearly two decades Black Mountain College (1933-1956) puttered and spurted along offering an improvised curriculum and a revolving door to artists, poets, composers, scientists, and anyone else who wanted to participate in its program known for placing individual creative discovery at the top of an alternative agenda. The founders hoped to intertwine living and learning, believing, as quoted by Martin Duberman in his 1972 study on the College, that “as much real education took place over the coffee cups as in the classrooms.” The college was notorious for it’s spontaneous discussions in its dining hall overlooking Lake Eden.
Anni Albers wrote in an early issue of the Black Mountain College Bulletin, “Most important to one’s own growth is to see oneself leave the safe ground of accepted conventions and to find oneself alone and self-dependent. It is an adventure which can permeate one’s whole being.” This statement captures the essence of Black Mountain College making it fitting that an exquisite tapestry by the artist is one of the first works visitors encounter.
Josef Albers features prominently in the exhibition. Despite my personal aversion to his stringent methodologies there can be no doubting his influence upon the young itinerants who stumbled into his classroom. Both his 1937 monochrome, Composure and his Homage to the Square (1960) hanging opposite are fine examples of his strict color code, but boring in their overtly calculated way.
Most impressive of the exhibition’s early against mid-career comparisons is Kenneth Noland’s small painting V.V. (1949), and Soft Touch (1963). One can feel the presence of Albers’ teachings in the colorful quadrilateral symmetry of the earlier work. Noland’s short geometric gesture stretches out in the later work to become one of his celebrated V-shaped Chevrons. In another comparison, an early photograph by Kenneth Snelson of dewdrops suspended on a spider web from 1948, offers a remarkable insight into the artist’s use of line and tension that can be found in sculptural works in the years that followed.
Certain pairings are more referential: Pat Passlof’s early example borrows gesture from de Kooning, with whom she traveled to Black Mountain to study in 1948, while the later piece builds up color from Milton Resnick, who she married in 1961. Passlof tells the story that after Albers tore up Elaine de Kooning’s homework in front of class, Passlof promptly gathered her things and left his classroom never to return. Elaine is represented by a fabulous enamel on paper titled Black Mountain Number 6 (1948).
The exhibition could have benefited from stricter curatorial selection, most notably in the case of Franz Kline from whom there are six works from various periods, but no masterpieces. Robert Motherwell also fares poorly, although there is an interesting photograph and preliminary sketch from 1951 proof that Motherwell was working on the Millburn Mural commission at the time. The exhibition hits a home run, however, with its timely selection of works by de Kooning that includes a preliminary drawing for the painting Asheville.
Dorothea Rockbourne was one of the few students at Black Mountain with prior training, as she had attended her native Montreal’s Ecole des beaux-arts. She arrived in search of a more diverse education and latched on to the only mathematics professor there, Max Dehn, whose basic lessons in geometry and topology had a lasting influence on her career. Her Gradient and Field (1977) –reconstructed for this exhibition-is a sophisticated installation of vellum sheets placed at prescribed levels above and below a vectored horizontal line in such a way as to amplify the divergent fields.
There are some sore omissions and unnecessary inclusions in this exhibition. It’s hard to justify the absence of Jerry Van de Wiele, for instance, especially when Helen Frankenthaler, who was at Black Mountain for just a week visiting Clement Greenberg and hardly a part of the community, is represented. Enticed by a letter from his friend the painter Jorge Fick (represented in the show by a selection of late works), Van de Wiele enrolled as a student in September 1954. When classes were suspended during the winter of 1955 he returned to The Art Institute in Chicago where he convinced two friends, Richard Bogart and John Chamberlain (the latter represented by later sculptures) to follow him back in the spring.
There are, however, amazing moments in this show that allow you to look across rooms and down hallways to draw associations, such as when Jack Tworkov’s hefty gestural painting Day Break (1953) is seen through the undulating stainless steel beams and cords of Snelson’s large Easter Monday (1977). Tworkov is also represented by two ink studies for House of the Sun, an important series of paintings the artist began at Black Mountain during the summer of 1952.
Upstairs hang three abstract paintings by Emerson Woelffer, invited to Black Mountain in 1949 at the request of Buckminster Fuller (represented by a large sculpture and two posthumous prints). A group of five collages by Ray Johnson hang next. Johnson was on campus from mid to late 1940s and studied with the likes of Albers, Bolotowski, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Richard Lippold, Motherwell, and Charles Olson. His collages, all done later, incorporate and at the same time upend the learning of these historic teachers.
While the College did offer classes in language, anthropology, and science, the arts remained the focus of the curriculum. An impressive selection of rare books by the Black Mountain Poets is assembled in a large vitrine on the second floor on loan from the collection of James Jaffe. The show provides first edition printings of Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Fielding Dawson, Charles Olson, M.C. Richards, and Jonathan Williams to name a few. Among the various publications sits the prospectus for the 1951 Summer Institute, which includes a terrific image of one of Black Mountain’s most remarkable dancers, Katherine Litz.
Photography was officially added to the curriculum in the fall of 1949. Hazel Larsen Archer was something of the resident photographer. Her images of a spiky-haired John Cage, a contemplative Willem de Kooning, and Merce Cunningham dancing in an open field (reprints of a few are included in the exhibition) are some of the most historic images of the school. She is credited, among other things, with giving Rauschenberg enough instruction with the camera to let him do with the instrument as he pleased. Archer, along with students in her class, decided to produce the magazine 5 Photographers, showcased here. Aaron Siskind, a photographer particularly admired among the Abstract Expressionists, arrived in 1951 as faculty. Works from his North Carolina Series (1951) are on view, accompanied by works by Arthur Siegel and Harry Callahan.
A highlight of the exhibition comes with the projection of footage of three early dances by Merce Cunningham:: Septet (1953), Antic Meet (1958) and Story (1963). It is captivating watching Cunningham dance his own choreography and while the footage has been available to Merce Cunningham Dance Company, enabling the company to recreate these historic pieces in detail, this is the first time the footage has been publicly shown. Septet was created during the summer of 1953, the year of the company’s official debut, and is one of the very few dances Cunningham set to music.
Story (1963) features sets and costumes by Rauschenberg, assembled using anything the artist could find outside the door of the theater. This work speaks to the great collaborations that took place at the College, including Cage’s Theater Piece #1 (1952). Created over lunch and performed later the same day, the piece features Cage, Charles Olson, and M.C. Richard reading from ladders while Rauschenberg plays records and Cunningham dances.
Black Mountain College and Its Legacy is an impressive show and a remarkable undertaking considering the many facets of this historic school. Continuing a streak of themed shows at Loretta Howard that include last year’s Artists at Max’s Kansas City, 1965-1974, the exhibition strives to make connections within the period, although sometimes lacking the tight editing necessary to make such associations more visible. The mystic Ruth Asawa is represented with a single work: an untitled looped wire sculpture from early 1950s hanging overhead. It would have been insightful to see one of Asawa’s later drawings as well in this context. The exhibition, spread out over two floors, makes for a great treasure hunt, but it’s difficult to experience the true impact of the show in its totality. The catalogue is a bit of a disappointment with some annoying historical errors. Pat Passlof’s name is misspelled. for example, and she followed de Kooning to Black Mountain with the intent of studying with him not Mark Tobey, as recounted here. Chamberlain was never on faculty and was not present during the summer of 1955. Bios are included only for the most prominent artists, and poets are left out completely. Even Charles Olson, whose reputation at Black Mountain outstripped his 6’8” frame, isn’t featured. These problems need not detract from the abundance of historic materials, however, that make this a show not to be missed.
RELATED EVENTS / PROGRAMS:
A Black Mountain Poetry Reading
featuring Francine du Plessix Gray, John Yau, Vincent Katz, Maureen Howard and others. Wednesday October 19, 6-8PM
An afternoon with independent curator Jason Andrew, as he discusses his recent exhibition and publication: JACK TWORKOV: Accident of Choice, The Artist at Black Mountain College 1952. Mr. Andrew will discuss Tworkov, his arrival at Black Moutain College and his relationship with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Fielding Dawson, Jorge Fick, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, during one of the most historic summers in the history of the Black Mountain College. Saturday, October 22, 4:00PM
JASON ANDREW is the manager, curator and archivist for the Estate of Jack Tworkov whose recent projects include the publication Jack Tworkov: Accident of Choice, The Artist at Black Mountain College 1952. A prominent figure in the Bushwick art scene, his independent collaborative projects with artists and dancers and others are presented through the Norte Maar company. He is also the co-owner of Storefront, a gallery in Bushwick featuring young talent and revisiting the work of established artists. He can be followed on twitter: jandrewARTS