Sunday, February 28, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Faith in the Arts" (on "Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College: 1933-1957")

faith in the arts
by Douglas Messerli 

Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson (curators) Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College: 1933-1957 / Los Angeles, Hammer Museum, February 21-May 15, 2016, I saw the show, with Thérèse Bachand on February 26, 2016

If there was ever a grand imaginative moment in American education it was the creation of Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1933. Founded by four faculty members who had been dismissed from Rollins College—John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, Frederick Georgia, and Ralph Lounsbury—the school based its philosophy of learning on the ideas of American philosopher John Dewey, who argued for an emphasis on inquiry, discussion, and experimentation that featured the arts, instead of offering them as secondary elements in a liberal arts education. 
          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.

      The most remarkable thing about this grand experiment, however, was not just its radical positioning of the arts, but the faculty it quickly began to gather around its core founders. In its Lake Eden campus, from 1941 to its closure in 1957, the   school drew on a faculty that included Josef and Anni Albers, Eric Bentley, Ilya Bolotowsky, Josef Breitenbach, John Cage, Harry Callahan, Mary Callery, Fritz Cohen, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Edward Dahlberg, Max Dehn, Willem de Kooning, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Trude Guermonprez, Lou Harrison, Wesley Huss, Alfred Kazin, Franz Kline, Tony Landreau Jacob Lawrence, Richard Lippold, Alvin Lustig, Beaumont Newhall, Charles Olson, M. C. Richards, Albert William Levi, Alexander Schawinsky, Ben Shahn, Arthur Siegel, Aaron Siskind, Theodoros Stamos, Jack Tworkov, Robert Motherwell, Peter Voulkos, Emerson Woelffer, Stefan Wolpe and others, while inviting figures such as Albert Einstein, Clement Greenberg, Bernard Rudofsky, Richard Lippold and William Carlos Williams to lecture.

      Among its notable alumni were Hazel Larson Archer, Ruth Asawa, James Bishop, John Chamberlain, Fielding Dawson, Elaine de Kooning, Ed Dorn, Joseph Fiore, James Leo Herlihy, Ray Johnson, Karen Karnes, Basil Ling, Gwendolyn Knight, Jane Mayhall, Robert De Niro, Sr., Kenneth Noland, Josel Oppenheimer, Arthur Penn, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, Michael Rumaker, Kenneth Snelson, Deborah Sussman, Cy Twombly, Cora Kelley Ward, Susan Weil, John Wieners, and Jonathan Williams.

      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.

     My museum-going companion of the day, Thérèse Bachand sighed, “Oh how I wish I might have been able to attend such a school!” But perceiving that most of artists we were viewing—several of whom I had personally known—are no longer living, I wanted to answer, “but then you probably wouldn’t be here to see this show.” 
     What is most sad is that, despite a few other such Utopian-like institutions (CalArts was and imagines it is still such a place), there have been few other attempts in US history to make such a grand gesture as to “leap before looking,” to have such faith in the arts as to imagine that something miraculous might happen just by bringing those who created and those who might want to create together into an isolated spot where they might explore wherever their imaginations took them.

Los Angeles, February 28, 2016

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