Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reviews "Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957," at the Hammer Museum through May 15.
“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” ― John Dewey
For nearly a quarter century, it was the vortex of the Lively American Arts — music, poetry, painting, sculpture, weaving, theater, and, overwhelmingly, dance. And a new show at the Hammer takes you there. It was called Black Mountain College. BMC wasn’t in the heart of a great city like New York, but straddled some Blue Ridge hillsides in faraway Buncombe County, North Carolina.
BMC gave few diplomas, and was never even accredited, but it nurtured American avant-garde culture like no other institution in its time. Great artistic innovators of the past century — John Cage, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Ruth Asawa, both of the De Koonings, Buckminster Fuller, Catherine Litz, and Cy Twombly — established themselves at BMC. Other great ones — like Einstein and Aldous Huxley — offered their benedictions as they passed through.
Born in 1933, during one of the darkest moments of the Great Depression, Black Mountain withered away, paradoxically, in 1957, a peak year of America’s Eisenhower Era affluence. Strange that it survived the Depression, to be brought down by America prosperity.
But now we can all encounter what it was all about, thanks to the gregarious and plentiful show at the Hammer Museum. Warning: It’s sure to make you wish you had been there.
"Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957" is curated by Helen Molesworth for The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston before she moved to MOCA. It's a singular show that combines the history, accomplishments and even what you might call the anthropology of Black Mountain. Molesworth was also lead editor on the magnificent catalog, also called “Leap Before You Look,” which could have been BMC’s mission statement. It formed out of two separate exiles — that of progressive educator John Rice, who was booted out of Florida’s conservative Rollins College, and Josef and Anni Albers, whom Hitler drove out of Germany. For about half of the BMC’s history, Rice and the Albers formed an uneasy partnership in running the school and setting its goals.
The variety of BMC innovations on display is just staggering: There’s Buckminster Fuller’s first successful geodesic dome, for instance. There are vivid primary works by Robert Rauschenberg (who was still calling himself Milton then), Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Ben Shahn. There are mysterious music scores by John Cage and rare film clips of Merce Cunningham performing, creating both his style and the troupe that was to dance it. At times his troupe included the faun-like Rauschenberg, Bucky Fuller, and grizzly-sized poet Charles Olson. There is Anni Albers’ monster loom, and examples of the extraordinary textiles she and her weaving students produced.
Oddly, what sank most deeply into my memory was the extraordinary art jewelry Ms. Albers and her students accomplished — all out of homely ingredients like bottle corks, hairpins, colanders, and plumbers’ washers. She was fulfilling one of her husband’s mandates: to create art out of whatever comes to hand.
There were plenty of other philosophies at Black Mountain, one of them being the distinction between education and instruction. It appears there was plenty of both: there are abounding photographs of buff young men and women in shorts and shirts, wielding picks and shovels as they dig ditches and foundations for their expanded campus, among others of them playing fiddles, practicing drawing, learning to throw pots and studying on the campus’s grassy hillsides. And dancing, dancing — in addition to Cunningham’s inclusive troupe, BMC hosted up to three social dances a week.
But it couldn’t last.
There were severe, growing divisions even in the tiny BMC population. And on some serious issues, too, like whether black students should be allowed to live on campus. In 1945, the students overruled the faculty and made BMC the first integrated college in the South.
Also, BMC was becoming less necessary. Prosperous postwar America was accepting its avant-garde — Jackson Pollack was featured in LIFE magazine. Albers took a post at Yale; even the way-out John Cage got a job at Wesleyan. By 1956, BMC enrollment had shrunk to a handful. Acting rector Charles Olsen, who had once written “What does not change is the will to change,” found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to close the place down. He greeted each departing student with an offer of a drink for the road. And the goodbye message: “Now, Arise.”
By 1957, most of Black Mountain’s artist pioneers had fled North (largely to New York) and West (often to San Francisco). But 60 years later, the nearby North Carolina city of Asheville still sees the ripple effect of the college, which now has a museum of its own downtown. Right now, the museum is hosting a show of the works of abstract colorist Ray Spillenger, who studied at Black Mountain with Willem de Kooning and Josef Albers and then moved to New York to become what some called “America’s greatest unknown painter” and who was the last of the old-line abstractionists when he died in 2013. Admission is free. It’s on 56 Broadway in Asheville.
So what's happening now where Black Mountain College was?
Across the street is the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design, which maintains and extends many Black Mountain creative traditions. The whole surrounding Asheville River Arts District, with its architecture dating back to the 19th Century, is a lively conglomeration of artists, restaurants and bars.
Just as there was at Black Mountain, locals say there are bounties of creativity in Asheville’s theatre, spoken word, music and visual art. 25 minutes away, Madison County still has its strong traditional music heartbeat. But it’s developing its own artistic traditions.