I was not fully satisfied by the constraints of the exhibit, but I enjoyed seeing the work and sensing the ardor of those who made up the Black Mountain College community.
By Allen Bramhall
The Institute of Contemporary Art’s exhibition about Black Mountain College (through January 25, 2016) offers a look at a lively and one might say inevitably fleeting maelstrom of intellectual and artistic crossbreeding. In its short life, the school gathered a remarkable collection of artists and thinkers, often in the same person. Perhaps a conventional show cannot supply a museum setting that fully evokes the vitality of that place and time. Even so, one glimpses the school’s creative revolution in action. This revolution seems all the more marvelous in that the school’s student population never reached more than one hundred students.
Admittedly, for me the words Black Mountain first bring to mind the poets associated with the college. In large part, the Black Mountain poetry movement embraces poets who were teachers or students at the college. Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, John Wieners (all three from Massachusetts), Robert Duncan, and Ed Dorn either attended or taught at the school. Still, the Black Mountain category became so expansive that poet Denise Levertov, who never attended the college, has been linked to it because of her affinity with those writers who did. Unfortunately, the presence of of Black Mountain poets in the exhibition exists mostly by way of captions.
John Rice founded the school after being fired from Rollins College. It appears he was a combative idealist. With a few other refugees from Rollins, he immediately started his own school, on his own principles. His inspiration for the college came from the theories of progressive educator John Dewey, who advocated learning by doing rather than learning by rote. Black Mountain students enjoyed very free rein in determining the course of their education. The Bauhaus experiment in Germany also influenced Rice’s ideas for the school. Bauhaus fostered an integration of arts and crafts, including architecture, ceramics, and painting. Deemed degenerate and un-German by the Nazi Party, Bauhaus closed the same year that Black Mountain opened. Several artists who were involved with Bauhaus, including artist Josef Albers and architect Walter Gropius, joined the Black Mountain faculty. Process stands as the keynote to the school. Process not just in terms of creating the work, the paintings, poetry, dances, pottery, and all that, but the process of maintaining a welcoming climate for such creation.
The exhibit displays many archival pictures of pupils in baggy dungarees with cuffs rolled up, doing farm work or other menial community tasks. The school operated, at least theoretically, on egalitarian principles, with students as well as teachers and administrative personnel having a voice in its maintenance. I mentioned my personal focus on the poets of Black Mountain College, but glimpses of the melding of various creative disciplines can be found throughout the exhibit. Surprisingly, for me, for instance, Anni Albers’s weaving seems completely in line with the Black Mountain painters, including Josef Albers’s formal sense of color. The precisely stated integration of colors in her work somehow manages to deconstruct the painting process while engaging with it.
Artist Susan Weil has a small piece in which she collages torn pieces of paper with words on them. Its messy effect serves as an ironically neat counterpoint to a nearby piece by collagist Ray Johnson, Letter to Ruth. This work is a conventional letter, yet it is written in lines set at right angles to each other. In addition, drops of ink and punched holes deploy across the page. In both cases, words take on a highly visual and abstract significance—language is fractured in compelling ways. Both of these pieces were part of a wall display that made me think of an elementary school classroom. Works are posted randomly, it seems, and only identified by a descriptive key at the side of the display. Few if any of the artists were famous or established at the time these works were created. At the time they were not confident, settled artists—they were still groping their way.
Two pieces in the exhibit by Josef Albers, who taught painting at the school, caught my eye. They consist of tree leaves affixed to paper. The fixative freezes the inherent features of these leaves, maybe forever. Albers also taught a materials class at Black Mountain. A ‘Make Do’ ethos perforce arose because of the school’s continual lack of funds. The poetry section of the exhibit sits, with the pottery, at the far end of the hall. The location suggested a boundary or delineation that belies the interdisciplinary nature of the school. The exhibit largely concerns itself with the visual work, undermining the fact that Black Mountain College boasted a strong communal aspect. Considerable seepage was encouraged among the disciplines. The exhibit doesn’t evoke that vigorous cross-fertilzation. The pottery, in fact, looked more like it was on display as zoological specimens—no prominence was given to individual pieces. Books by Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan sit open with headphones available for listening to the poets read their work. Very poor sound. The seven issues of legendary Black Mountain Review (edited by Creeley) sit under glass like a series of forgettable footnotes. Readings by local poets reacting to works by Black Mountain artists are scheduled throughout the exhibition’s run. A really wonderful diagram by Charles Olson evokes both Olson himself and the school for me. Intended to describe or illustrate Black Mountain College’s governing structure, it consists of a typewritten page, with circles, lines, boxes, and arrows added in pen, as well as a few corrections. Paragraphs or captions spread across the page, an Open Field, as Olson would call it. Visual, and almost kinetic, the diagram suggests the vivacity as well as the immediacy of the Black Mountain experience.
We find listed among the school’s advisers John Dewey, Carl Jung, and Olson’s hero, the geographer Carl Sauer. Silas Riener, formerly of the Merce Cunningham Dance Troupe, performed an excerpt from a Cunningham dance piece with a John Cage score. It was not the perfect setting; for one thing, it was hard to see. But it was an intimate experience nonetheless. The piece suggests the sort of reconsideration of boundaries that occurred at the school. John Cage, of course, challenged a lot of artistic boundaries. He created at Black Mountain College what has been called the first happening—Theater Piece #1. Using aleatoric procedures, the piece offered M. C. Richards and Olson reading their work from atop ladders, Cunningham dancing (followed by a dog), Robert Rauschenberg hanging paintings, and other such actions and non-actions in space and time, all the while Cage himself gave a lecture. The exhibition’s schedule includes a recreation (or re-imagining) of this event.
A timeline with photos greets one at the entrance to the exhibit. It notes the arrival of various personages to the school, and assorted events there. It also includes random facts, such as that in 1943, because of the draft, the school had only one male student. By the end, Olson, the institution’s rector, had to sell off the assets of the moribund school. In a photo, Black Mountain’s last students, sitting with Olson, look like the members of the Romanov family awaiting their end. This leaves one wondering about the practicality and viability of such an institute in America. I attended a similarly-conceived school, Franconia College in New Hampshire. It lasted roughly half as long as did Black Mountain. Other experimental schools have either closed their doors or normalized their curriculum. Maybe such eccentric, independent schools no longer fit in a world interested in standardized learning and testing. Maybe, though, we need not cherish the schools themselves so much as their possibility.
The cross-fertilization at Black Mountain was remarkable. Think of such people as these clattering around together: Buckminster Fuller, Arthur Penn, William de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Gwendolyn Knight, Jonathan Williams, Cy Twombly, Walter Gropius, and the list goes on. Not that all attended the institution at the same time, but Black Mountain College nurtured a galvanic community. The school’s existence always included struggle, mostly of the financial kind, yet it generated much artistic and intellectual energy in its brief life. I was not fully satisfied by the constraints of this exhibit, but I enjoyed seeing the work and sensing the ardor of those who made up the Black Mountain community. Let us continue to keep the school’s distinctive example in mind.
Allen Bramhall exists on the Internet with several blogs, and poems and reviews here and there. He has published a two-volume poem called “Days Poem” that was printed on paper by Meritage Press. He stands tall with the literati of Billerica, MA.