Writing Archive

'Leap Before You Look' at the ICA

The New Criterion, December 23, 2015 (read there)

It's surprising that it took almost six decades after the demise of Black Mountain College for someone to mount a museum exhibition about it. The roster of who graced its North Carolina campuses reads like a miniature history of mid-twentieth-century American creativity. Congratulations, then, to the Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston for doing so, with the reservation that it has handled some topics with a tendentiousness out of tune with the spirit of what went on at the College.

Black Mountain College was an academic mixture of Bauhaus and John Dewey. Its founder, John Rice, was a Rhodes Scholar, ardent proponent of the latest ideas in progressive education at the time, and a serial irritant to administrators who had previously fired him from New Jersey Women's College and Florida's Rollins College. He proved just as incapable of delivering academic leadership as obeying it, and lasted only five years as director of his own school. But in a brilliant opening démarche he hired Josef and Anni Albers directly from Germany to teach. The Albers brought with them catholicity of taste and the promise of the Bauhaus to unify the fine and applied arts around core aesthetic principles. Those attitudes dovetailed with Dewey's belief, expressed through Rice, in the primacy of the image in education, and his disdain for discrete subjects of instruction except treated as various aspects of the student's social life.

Classes coalesced around the proclivities of individual teachers. The core of the Albers's pedagogical method was twofold: color studies and material studies. The former emphasized careful collages of paper, setting color against color to reveal the combinatory effects. The instructional example plates, executed by W. Pete Jennerjahn with a hand-lettered legend, are on display in the ICA exhibition. The latter emphasized imagination. Students were asked to make compositions of found objects, seeing them in terms of shape and texture apart from their identity as leaves or thread or whatnot. The show also features prints from Josef's slides of ingenious student costumes for the college's 1940 Valentine's Day Ball, meticulously crafted from sponges, nets, and whatever cloth was available. Color and material were the Apollo and Dionysus of Josef's artistic wisdom. Variations of this dual approach permeate the university-level teaching of art to this day.

Anni Albers likewise possessed a dual ability to wield theory and technique. A consummately able weaver, her writings about the medium display her command of the germane issues surrounding art and craft. Credit goes directly or indirectly to Anni for some of the stronger pieces in the exhibition, particularly Black/White Hanging, by Lore Kadden Lindenfeld (1948) and its disciplined rhythm of thread, and the delightfully undulating hanging sculpture of woven wire by Ruth Asawa. Though Josef was opposed to ashtray art, Anni's establishment of craft in an art context at Black Mountain made possible the creation of a pottery studio that attracted Shoji Hamada, Soetsu Yanagi, and Bernard Leach at the same time, and giants-to-be of ceramics like Karen Karnes, David Weinrib, M. C. Richards, Robert Turner, and Peter Volkous within a few years of each other. Richards's stoneware Platter (1953), with its X of four leaves interrupting a casually washed glaze, has a sublime artistic heft that justifies her reputation as a mystic.

Events of enormous import to American painting took place at Black Mountain College as well, not that you can tell from the treatment by Helen Molesworth, curator and primary monograph author. Kenneth Noland is the only North Carolina native in this exhibition to attend Black Mountain as a student and rise to utmost art historical prominence. Not only did he work with Josef Albers, he also studied under Clement Greenberg when the latter taught at the school in 1950, making Noland a crucial link between European and American abstraction. Noland is represented by a single easel picture from 1947 and Molesworth does not say a word about it, even on the wall label. Citing context-deprived excerpts of his writings and her own unfounded speculation, she portrays Greenberg's time at Black Mountain as an aberrant episode of critical insight. He was unable to sustain this openness, as she puts it, and she elides all consideration of his influence there.

Beyond painting, Molesworth seems determined to ensure the legacy not of Black Mountain College, but of the institutional postmodernism that is her milieu. She pumps rhetorical hot air into Albers's understanding of the subjective nature of perception until it resembles a proto-postmodernist relativism, and concludes absurdly that Albers was not a staunch modernist, at least not in the vein of Clement Greenberg. She overemphasizes the college's relative shallowness of hierarchies in a manner that Lisa Ruddick recently called the postmodern affinity for what is flat or depthless. In a chapter on the Haptic, she redefines the word as intertwin[ing] visuality and tactility so thoroughly that they are inextricable from each other. This is the kind of observation that you can see proof of everywhere if you want to, and she does, naming it the defining aesthetic of Black Mountain. It should go without saying that tactility does not supplant the visual experience of visual art, nor was it discovered in North Carolina in the 1930s.

Nevertheless this exhibition provides an opportunity to witness the fruits of one fecund summer in 1948 when Elaine and Willem de Kooning and Pat Passloff were painting alongside one another. All three were working out how to set up field of interlocking shapes into a composition without resorting to a figure-ground arrangement. Passloff's Yardstick (1949) is particularly triumphant in that regard, with dark lines whipping around grays and ochres to form a solved visual puzzle.

The Albers' departure in 1949, after sixteen years of tenure, seems to have thrown the institution into an administrative tailspin from which it never recovered. Nevertheless this period leading up to the last classes in 1957 saw a busy rotation of students and visiting artists, as well as the creation of the aforementioned pottery studio and monumental developments in American poetry around the leadership of Charles Olson. Theater Piece #1 (1952) mobilized an awesome confluence of avant-garde talent when John Cage invited Olson, Richards, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, and Nicholas Cernovich to participate. Rauschenberg's Minutiae (1954) began its life as a set decoration for a Cunningham performance, and helped initiate the series of work that came to be known as his Combines.

This leaves many other artists in this exhibition and much worthwhile ancillary programming by the museum undiscussed. To stand in for them I point to Study for Pyramid (1948), a two-foot-high bronze by Mary Callery in which three gracile, elongated, abstracted figures put on an imaginative gymnastics act. It sums up the coupling of playful experimentation and good form that characterized Black Mountain College, and this exhibition's invitation to rediscover understudied American modernist talents who merit further investigation.

Word count: 1139

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