Columbus exhibit honors Black Mountain College

Some of America's greatest 20th-century artists either taught at or attended North Carolina's progressive liberal arts school, which was open from 1933-1957.

click to enlarge Josef Albers’ “Leaf Study IX” - Photo: Tim Nighswander / Imaging 4 Art / Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society
Photo: Tim Nighswander / Imaging 4 Art / Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society
Josef Albers’ “Leaf Study IX”
In any list of great American universities, North Carolina’s Black Mountain College deserves a spot. It only lasted from 1933-1957, and wasn’t that well known nationally during its operation or for decades afterward.

But as realization has grown that some of America’s greatest 20th-century artists either taught at or attended the progressive liberal arts school, its fame has soared. And how could it not? Such key arts and humanities figures were associated with it as Josef and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Buckminster Fuller, Ray Johnson, Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Ruth Asawa and others. You wouldn’t have a meaningful modern American culture, or the ideas that continue to inspire our avant-garde thinkers, without that list.

The first major museum exhibition about Black Mountain College, Leap Before You Look, is at the Wexner Center for the Arts on Ohio State University’s campus in Columbus now through Jan. 1, 2017. It’s an essential show for anyone who wants to understand how and why our arts are open to new ideas from the world around us.

It’s also a wisely curated mix of an art exhibit and a history one. As the latter, it includes photographs — archival ones as well as dramatically enlarged reproductions — that describe and depict how Black Mountain’s campus life was a kind of open-minded, tolerant communal experience, an American kibbutz. This exhibit was organized by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. For information on Columbus hours, visit wexarts.org.

Black Mountain College was started during the Great Depression by John Andrew Rice, a fired faculty member from Florida’s Rollins College. He found a Christian summer camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Asheville, that could house his school. And he stressed an interdisciplinary approach to education. His brilliant stroke was to hire, as professors, Josef and Anni Albers, fleeing Germany after the Nazis shut down their Modernist school, the Bauhaus. (Black Mountain College later moved to a nearby site where students and faculty worked to design and construct the buildings.)

Josef headed the painting department until 1949 and encouraged students to think freely and experiment with recycled materials — out of practicality as much as innate avant-gardism, since the school’s budget was tight. And Anni established herself as a premier textile artist. (In 1949, Josef taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.)

This exhibit includes some of their wonderful work. Josef’s “Leaf Study IX,” which arranges autumnal brown leaves into a naturalistic pattern on yellow paper, has a keen sense of color and movement. His wife has what is, to me, the most beautiful work in this large show: her large cotton-and-linen textile piece, “With Verticals,” from 1946. It’s just exquisite; the narrowest of dark vertical rectangles are precisely placed on a red-and-white field of twisting lines. It can be read as purely abstract or as the façade of a mysterious building. Either way, it’s a visionary work.

You can see how an artist like Anni inspired others. It’s evident in the work of Ruth Asawa, an American-born woman of Japanese descent who came to Black Mountain in 1946 after her family’s internment during World War II. She later joined the faculty. In the show, she has a large copper-and-iron-wire sculpture, “Untitled,” suspended from the ceiling that has a lightness that creates the illusion of a weaving. Its contours weave in and out of the piece’s center like falling teardrops.

The great sculptor John Chamberlain arrived for a summer class in 1955, at the beginning of his career, and used welding tools to create what may have been his first piece using old auto parts., “Shortstop.”

As a summer-session faculty member in 1948, R. Buckminster Fuller solicited his students to help build and test his then-new geodesic dome. And in 1949, the next year, a photo by Hazel Larsen Archer shows him standing inside the open structure of an assembled dome. It’s like he’s inside a beach ball, beaming as a proud child would. It says so much about him and the thrill of learning at Black Mountain College.


CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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