BOSTON — Founded in 1933 by the classicist John Andrew Rice, Black Mountain College was a shoestring operation deep in the heart of the rural American South that opened as the Great Depression began and another World War loomed just over the horizon. The timing hardly seemed auspicious, yet it couldn’t have been more perfect. The coming war — and the political turmoil and human suffering that accompanied it — stamped out the last vestiges of vitality in the European art capitals of old and began the shift toward America’s cultural ascendency. Little did anyone know at the time, but this small liberal arts college was to become an iconic experiment that influenced and shaped cultural life in this country well into the next century.
At the center of this grand and somewhat on-the-fly experiment were Josef and Anni Albers, who had met as students at the Bauhaus and were the first fine art faculty members hired at Black Mountain. Writing, teaching, and making art themselves, the Albers possessed an energy that infused a new type of curriculum, defined by John Dewey’s exhortation to “learn by doing.” Josef Albers’s legendary Friday classes (there were no other classes scheduled that day) on drawing, material, and color were group problem-solving sessions attended by most of the school’s students, and indeed by many other faculty members as well. To a large degree, it was this all-inclusive, hands-on approach that defined the college — that and sheer privation. The school, during its entire existence, was always lacking for funds. Both students and faculty were scavengers, cultivating the farm that was part of the institution and constantly searching for materials to work with or use to repair the ramshackle structures. This approach to found or recycled materials wasn’t so much a departure as a necessity, especially during the bleak years of the Depression.
Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston took roughly four years to organize and includes work by such Black Mountain students and faculty as Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Anni and Josef Albers, and Franz Kline — not to mention John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Ray Johnson, all of whom either taught at or attended the school.
Organized by former and current (respectively) ICA curators Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson, the exhibition starts with a survey of the Albers’ work. Anni’s richly crafted textile pieces elegantly commingle with her wild and energetic drawings. “Knot 2” consists of three colored lines (red, yellow, and blue) that squirm together and over and on top of each other to form a jumble of color and shape. The work, a gouache on paper, was made in 1947 and feels like it was finished yesterday. Josef’s shape-shifting, geometric color studies add a quieter, more deliberate vibrancy that feels both controlled and experimental. Also on view are his photographs and some furniture he designed (a school desk). The black-and-white photos, many taken in Mexico, feel bleak and ancient and provide a distinct counterpoint to his livelier approach to both color and form.
The show moves from there to encompass almost 200 works by over 100 artists; included, too, are photographs and archival materials. In what must have been a monumental organizational endeavor, given the richness of the college’s history and the enormity of the subject matter, the exhibition unfolds with a well-crafted ease structured around each discipline taught at the school, even pausing to allow the viewer to see work by lesser (or unknown) artists who are very much part of this story, like a portrait of Cy Twombly done on butcher paper by Fielding Dawson. And given the current tendency of museums to opt for loud, high-calorie shows that often offer little in the way of nourishment, this quieter, more academic exploration of Black Mountain College feels both refreshingly new and substantial. It investigates, on a fundamental level, how artists learn from other artists. It’s about influence and immersion. How Franz Kline was captivated by the dance performances he saw and incorporated that movement into the energetic slashing in his painting, or how Elaine de Kooning (visiting the college with her husband) ended up acting in The Ruse of Medusa staged at the school and working on Buckminister Fuller’s dome. What’s interesting is how the backstories come to the fore and how the process of learning intertwines, in some fashion, with the finished or continuing body of work.
That’s not to say what’s on display here is secondary or mundane; it’s just that the individual work is somewhat beside the point. What matters is the collection itself and the story it tells — beginning with the startling array of things made by the Albers, before moving into painting, music, dance, performance art, ceramics, and poetry. Singling out any one object, discipline, or person would be missing the point, because the experience of the place is the whole point. Black Mountain wasn’t a singular thing, but rather a kaleidoscopic, multidisciplined, deep dive into the passions of those around you. What’s consequential is not necessarily what was made there, but how.
Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (100 Northern Avenue) through January 24.