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Issue 131

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College
by Vesna Krstich

What better place for a learner’s paradise than the secluded woods surrounding the banks of Lake Eden, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina? For 24 years, Black Mountain College was the epicentre of artistic and teaching experimentation in the United States, shaping the post-war avant-garde and serving as a model for other liberal arts colleges. Curating this exhibition was a leap into unfamiliar territory for Helen Molesworth, who confessed to not knowing much about the college’s history when she embarked on the exhibition. Appropriately, she treated the task of curating an exhibition about pedagogy as an assignment, enacting John Dewey’s belief in the value of “learning by doing” – a central tenet of Black Mountain College.

Leap Before You Look brings together paintings, sculptures, weavings, furniture, ceramics, drawings, poetry, music and an impressive range of archival materials in the form of blueprints, photographs and printed ephemera. Embracing the fact that there was no dominant “style” at the college, the exhibition spaces are thematically arranged and the works on display resist strict art historical classification. In addition to works by noted faculty John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Josef and Anni Albers, the show also includes student exercises. A slide projection showcasing the matière studies executed by Josef Albers’ students (which Albers religiously documented for study purposes) are particular noteworthy, as are the didactic panels illustrating his colour interaction exercises, created by W. Pete Jennerjahn. These teaching aids may have never been intended to function as art, and yet today, such documents have a more ambiguous status as the lines between pedagogy and art diminish.

Molesworth’s survey arrives at a time when the social and political function of education is hotly contested. “Pedagogy-as-art” and “exhibition-as-school” platforms have proliferated throughout the contemporary art world and with them, a resurgence of historical exhibitions featuring innovative teaching methods and curricula. Bauhaus: Art as Life (2012), at the Barbican in London was one of the largest exhibitions of the legendary school in 40 years; Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945– 1980 (2011–12) highlighted, among other things, the impact of the California Institute of the Arts on the local art scene; Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980 (2012) included works from the famous Projects Class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

The history of Black Mountain College is bookended between two pivotal moments of upheaval: the early avant-garde of the 1930s and the counter culture of the 1960s, a period marked by the Great Depression, World War II and racial segregation. Founder John Andrew Rice believed that an arts-centred education could forge a new kind of citizen and Molesworth invites viewers to consider how funding cuts to humanities programs and public education compromise this principle today. What makes the school an important case study for current discussions of pedagogy is its collaborative and self-sustaining structure, as well as an expanding conception of learning that could take place on the farm or in the living room – something that has become the modus operandi of much art since the 1990s.

Peppered throughout the exhibition space is a selection of archival photographs that have been enlarged to mural size. They document communal daily life around the college: students sunbathing, huddling around Josef Albers or digging a ditch. They have a staged, if not propagandistic quality, some even evoking the trope of collective labour so reminiscent of socialist realist painting. The photographs’ focus on daily activities and their display bears a striking resemblance to the iconic 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. Circulated around the globe, the exhibition sought to document the universal experience of life – a shared humanity that Roland Barthes would criticize as a “myth” in 1957, a pronouncement that also coincides with the closing of Black Mountain College. Do these photomurals seek to recapture the sentimental humanism of the postwar era or point to its inevitable decline? Was the experience of teaching and learning at Black Mountain always so life-affirming? After all, frictions exist in any system. These threads of ambiguity are masterfully woven into the show, waiting to be pulled.

At the centre of Black Mountain’s myth lies John Cage’s Theatre Piece No., commonly referred to as “the first happening.” The improvisational event included David Tudor on a piano, a dance performance by Merce Cunningham, poetry readings by M.C. Richards, Charles Olson and Robert Rauschenberg, who played songs on a record player. No documentation of it survives – only conflicting reports from those who were present. Cage’s piece encapsulates the problem of curating a show about education: how to give form to those more “invisible” teachable moments, which remained undocumented for posterity. A small schematic floor plan of the piece produced by Mary Caroline Richards in 1989, functions as a stand-in for the missing documentation. It is exhibited alongside Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting (Four Panels) (1951), which was allegedly hung on the wall during Cage’s concert. This contradicts Richards’ recollection that it was Franz Kline’s Painting (1952) that was featured in the piece. Rather than demystifying the event by providing an accurate history, the juxtaposition between Richards’ floor plan and Rauschenberg’s canvases preserves the myth: it provides an open field upon which to project our fantasies about what might have taken place that summer evening in 1952.

The spectre of Theatre Piece No. is summoned in the adjacent room. Upon entering the space, the viewer confronts a large video projection showing three separate dance performances: Merce Cunningham’s Septet (1953/1963) and Changeling (1957/1958), and The Glyph (1951/1977) by Katherine Litz. The large black mat in front of the screen serves as a stage, establishing a coextensive relationship between real and virtual space. Nearby is Rauschenberg’s colourful set design Minutiae (1954/1976), an open wooden structure made of painted fabric panels and comic strip newsprint that he fashioned for Cunningham. The gallery also includes a suspended anthropomorphic wire-crocheted sculpture by Ruth Asawa, a hand-drawn notation by Cage, as well as photographs and weavings. A grand piano sits in the left corner, and a large wooden loom on the right. Both instruments wait for a set of nimble fingers to play the score that will set the performance in motion. One of the most exquisite installations in the entire show, it is the crescendo in the story of Black Mountain College. In collaging together these different pieces, the room celebrates the spirit of interdisciplinary experimentation at the school.

The exhibition ends with a glimpse into the literary arts and the publishing efforts of the college. One of the last surviving documents is a typeset diagram created by the college’s new director, Charles Olson, in anticipation of its closure in 1957. He envisioned a new cooperative, organizational model for the school in which satellite institutions (a magazine, a publishing house, a theatre and an art institute) sprout in different directions around America from the central core at Black Mountain. While the activities at the Bauhaus were concentrated towards the final aim of architecture, the new priority for its American offshoot would be more rhizomatic and not rooted in a particular locational identity or art form. Black Mountain College is long gone but its spirit lives on in the global network of artist residencies and decentralized schools, and the multi-disciplinary degree programs of today.

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