There were no required courses, and students were encouraged to work collaboratively and to develop cross-disciplinary and independent areas of study. Members of the community, moreover, were made responsible for its day-to-day upkeep, including building maintenance, farm work, and cooking, which surely helped them to identify the institution as their own.
Not only did the college offer standard visual arts and literature courses, but included the applied arts such as weaving, pottery, jewelry making, as well as architecture, music, film, theater, and dance.
Much has been written about this remarkable gathering of creators, including Martin Duberman’s important Black Mountain: An Exploration of Community and books by Vincent Katz, Eva Diaz, Christopher Benfey, Mary Emma Harris, and Anne Chesky Smith. And a museum devoted to the institution exists in nearby Asheville, North Carolina.
Now, in what claims to be the first “comprehensive museum exhibition in the US,” Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson have curated Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957. The show at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum brings together a large sampling of art, artifacts, and photographs, all beautifully grouped, as well as numerous performances and lectures centered around the actual productions and products that the school’s faculty and students produced, which is such a glorious sampling that one simply feels overwhelmed by the creativity of the place.
Although Molesworth and Erickson have attempted to give some equal due to all the arts, obviously painting and sculpture tend to dominate, while poetry, dance, music, and film are, understandably, given lesser space. Without a thorough understanding of the artists themselves, moreover, it is often difficult to perceive the multitudes of inter-connections that obviously occurred among faculty members and students. Presumably the quite expensive catalogue ($75) brings some of these relationships into focus, but the very quantity and the high percentage of now recognized artists the show contains helps to make the exibit more of an anthology than an illustrative representation of what this kind of educative experimentation actually generated.
Yet one can observe some of the abstract forms and colors weave their way from Albers through early works by Rauschenberg, Bolotovsky, Ossip Zadkine, Robert Motherwell, Elaine de Kooning and others. Photographers such as the young and talented Hazel Larson Archer used the bodies of dancer Merce Cunningham and others as subjects for her art; and the young poet Jonathan Williams beautifully captured photographic images of fellow writers such as Dan Rice, Robert Creeley, and musician Lou Harrison.
Perhaps more than anything else, one perceives in viewing this show the overwhelming power of the creativity Black Mountain had by intentional accident brought together; and, as you wander through its several rooms, you feel as though you have been invited to a wonderful party where everyone has absolutely amazing things to express.
Los Angeles, February 28, 2016