Leap Before You Look

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Did you know that Buckminster Fuller tried to build his first geodesic dome out of old Venetian blinds? Me neither. This is just one of a mountain of factoids that come to light in the ambitious exhibition Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 at the Hammer through May 15.

Organized by curator Helen Molesworth for Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, the show tells the story of what is now a legendary moment in the development of modern art in the United States. And an improbable story it is. In bucolic Asheville, North Carolina, Black Mountain College was established as an arts school in 1933, perfect timing to attract an extraordinary faculty of Jewish artists and intellectuals trying to get out of Germany. Most notably Josef and Anni Albers who had helped establish the Bauhaus, a school renowned for teaching modern art, architecture and design that had been shuttered by the Nazis. Touchingly, Josef Albers was hired as a teacher despite telling founder John Rice that he spoke no English.

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Josef Albers, "Tenayuca," 1943
Oil on Masonite, 22 1/2 x 43 1/2 inches
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
© Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York
Photo: Ben Blackwell

As World War II raged across Europe, Black Mountain became a refuge and countless artists, musicians and poets benefited, as both teachers and students, from the experimental atmosphere and collective idealism using philosopher John Dewey's principle of "learning by doing." And it was an unusually diverse group for its time with Jews, women, blacks and homosexuals following their unconventional artistic inclinations in a conventional Southern context.

Molesworth, now chief curator at MOCA, spent years researching the project and she has emphasized the experiential aspect of the Black Mountain legacy by showing vitrines of humbly-made jewelry, scrawled poems on paper and masses of black and white photographs of students and teachers working together in art and life, even toiling in the construction of the school's new building.

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Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting, (Four Panels), 1951
Oil on Canvas, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Nonetheless, there are some marvelous works of art on view such as White Painting (Four Panel), 1951/2015 by one of its most famous students, Robert Rauschenberg. It was influenced by his studies with Josef Albers, whose own geometric abstract paintings and classes on the use of color impacted the larger trajectory of modern painting.

Albers has long been considered the driving force at Black Mountain. But Molesworth has given overdue attention to the role of his wife Anni Albers, who applied the abstract impulse to her large scale weavings to be hung on the wall or used as room dividers.

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(L) John Cage, "Water Music," 1952/1969
Offset reproduction of India ink on paper
Courtesy of C.F. Peters Corporation
(C) Ruth Asawa, "Untitled (S. 272)," ca. 1955
Copper and iron wire
Private collection
(R) Robert Rauschenberg, "Untitled," ca. 1951
Oil, asphaltum and gravel on canvas
Private collection

Music and dance were integral to the education process at Black Mountain College launching students John Cage and Merce Cunningham. The equality of various art practices at the school is underscored by the juxtaposition in one gallery of a grand piano, a dance floor and a full scale loom. There will be periodic demonstrations of choreography and weaving.

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Hazel Larsen Archer, "Merce Cunningham Dancing," c. 1952-53
Gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x 5 7/8 inches
Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center

Another gallery emphasizes the role of ceramics with a powerful clay sculpture by Peter Voulkos. In fact, Black Mountain College would have an impact on LA in the teaching of Voulkos and Emerson Woelffer here. Though the school closed for lack of financial support in 1957, it may not be too much to say its legacy continued in L.A. in the art schools that emphasized similar support for artists as they explored unconventional ideas and processes at Chouinard, now Cal Arts, at Otis as well as the UCLA art department.


This instructive and interesting exhibition, with a hefty illustrated catalog, seems especially timely in that so many contemporary artists today operate with little regard for unitary disciplines, moving at will from painting to ceramic to video to performance to sound. Such freedom may be an indirect result of the open-minded approach emphasized for a brief but crucial period at Black Mountain College.