Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 14, 2016
Helen Molesworth, ed. Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 Exh. cat. Boston: Institute for Contemporary Art in association with Yale University Press, 2015. 400 pp.; 318 color ills.; 170 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300211917)
Exhibition schedule: Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston, October 10, 2015–January 24, 2016; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, February 21–May 15, 2016; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, September 17, 2016–January 1, 2017
Anni Albers spooling thread (n.d.). Photo by Claude Stoller. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Ashville, NC.

That Anni Albers’s modestly sized weaving Free-Hanging Room Divider (1949) is one of the larger objects in Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 is a testament to the spare conditions under which the artists at Black Mountain College worked. An island of progressivism in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Black Mountain was a small school that staged a grand experiment in collectivism and experiential education. Students and faculty lived together; art practice was at the center of a liberal arts curriculum; and all participated in a work program that kept the school afloat. Throughout its short existence, the college was a magnet for influential figures in the visual, literary, and performing arts. Its status as a legendary site of interdisciplinary exchange often obscures its limitations. Leap Before You Look at the Hammer Museum offers an earthbound view on this storied institution, as seen through over two hundred artworks created by students and faculty. Pieces by Josef Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Ray Johnson, Karen Karnes, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, and others reveal how, in the college community, boundaries were alternately tested and obeyed.

Faced with perpetual shortages of funding and supplies, many Black Mountain artists turned to found and repurposed materials. The preponderance of these foraged items in the exhibition makes for some of its most satisfying moments. Take, for example, the four necklaces collaboratively fashioned by Anni Albers and her student Alexander Reed in 1940 from household odds and ends. In creating these assemblages, they transformed found objects—bobby pins, washers, ribbon, corks, paper clips, lengths of chain, and an aluminum strainer—into components of striking geometric ornaments. With their restrained color palette and emphasis on the appeal of manufactured surfaces, the neckpieces have an industrial elegance that recalls the Museum of Modern Art’s Machine Art exhibition of 1939, a show that celebrated the aesthetics of mass-produced hardware by displaying screws, bolts, and ball bearings as if they were modern jewelry designs. This comparison, however, is inexact. The use of domestic articles in Albers and Reed’s assemblages sets them apart from a conversation that pervaded Machine Art about the relationships between man, machine, and industry. These works instead bring a feminine subject into play and invoke a spirit of self-determination that is akin to what we now call DIY.

And how many people know that Buckminster Fuller’s first geodesic dome was made from venetian blind slats? During the summer of 1948, while in residence at Black Mountain, Fuller marshaled a group of students and faculty in his first attempt at raising a full-sized dome using these prefabricated parts. In the exhibition, the story of the Supine Dome—so named for its inability to support itself—is presented through wall labels and reproductions of photographs taken by Hazel Larsen Archer. Archer’s black-and-white images of college life appear throughout the exhibition as framed prints and photomural blow-ups, the latter being largely unsuccessful in evoking the liveliness of the pictured events. In the case of the Fuller display, however, the reproductions showing the dome-raising effort work well. While it would have been fantastic to have a scale model of an aluminum slat dome in the gallery (such as the one visible in Larsen’s photographs), in this instance, images and text are adequate stand-ins for the missing artifact, and other models on view enable a three-dimensional engagement with Fuller’s ideas. As with the Albers-Reed jewelry display, the Fuller section argues for the significance of a strain of modern design that blends resourcefulness with abstraction, and whose penchant for redefinition intimates a refusal to take things as they are prescribed.

If there is one part of the show that exemplifies the whole, it is an array of small, tactile works in a section titled Haptic. In “Imaginary Landscape,” the introductory essay to the catalogue, exhibition curator Helen Molesworth defines haptic as “extraoptical,” or that which uses visual stimuli to arouse other senses. The objects in the Haptic area appear to have been chosen for their sensory appeal and because they exemplify the creative exchange between personalities and disciplines for which Black Mountain is known. There is a biomorphic watercolor named for Asawa by Johnson and by Asawa herself an intricate drawing of one of her looped wire sculptures. A chunky fabric patchwork by Elizabeth Jennerjahn is both a textile and an assemblage, while the photogram Robert Rauschenberg made as a birthday gift for Jack Tworkov’s daughter is an un-collage of sorts. Its compositional elements—sand, vegetation, and a plastic toy—are present only as traces, lightened silhouettes on a ground of saturated cyan. The Haptic grouping is hung salon style on a dark teal wall, creating a sumptuous textural mélange that heightens the idea of interrelatedness manifested by the selection of works.

On the Haptic wall there are other, more fraught connections to be made. Secrets (1949), a feathery collage by Susan Weil, evokes concealment and intrigue. Composed of scraps of torn-up text that overlap and lightly curl, it recalls the act of obfuscation and the lightness of murmured sounds. Provocative word pairings that remain intact, such as “whispers now,” “rock trembling,” and “moves him,” allude to intimacy and bodily sensation. In one regard, this work is a poem, relatable to a display of printed poetry across the gallery. But the circumstances surrounding its creation place it within yet another web. Weil made the piece in 1949 while at Black Mountain with her soon-to-be husband, Rauschenberg. Two years later, Rauschenberg returned to the school with Cy Twombly, with whom he was intimately involved. Thus, by association, Secrets attains a degree of gravity, as it pertains to secrets kept within a marriage and serves as a reminder that at Black Mountain College, as was the case in most of mid-century America, it was impossible to be openly gay.

In “Imaginary Landscape” and the exhibition wall texts, Molesworth develops the idea that the haptic quality, which pervades the artistic legacy of Black Mountain, no matter the medium or style, is itself a means to interrelation. A portion of the Haptic label reads: “Haptic objects intertwine visuality and tactility so thoroughly that they are inseparable. An engagement with tactility traverses the diverse production of Black Mountain, allowing us to imagine the fields of painting, woodworking, collage, architecture, weaving, and pottery nonheirarchically.” Such an interest in destratifying disciplines corresponds with a current drive among artists and art historians to level conventional hierarchies, including the tired distinction between art and craft. It also relates to the college’s egalitarian aims. The notion that direct, participatory, bodily engagement with the material world is something everyone can and should cultivate was a live proposition at a school where everyone did some sort of tactile labor—be it in the art studio, as part of a collective endeavor like the Fuller dome, or on the farm and construction projects of the college work program. Considered in this light, the haptic works in Leap Before You Look present viewers with an alluring synthesis of past and present values that merges ethics with pleasure.

But when faced with such a holistic vision, it is important to keep in mind that interdisciplinary means interchange across disciplinary boundaries, not their dissolution. Was the field really so open? Certainly for those who were not white, heterosexual, or male the answer would have been no. But aside from these common prejudices, the exhibition reveals an internal structuring that is particular to the school. The uneven development of woodworking and weaving is but one indication of the divide between amateur labor, practiced by all, and professional artistry, the domain of the relative few. The technical complexity of an Albers weaving, such as Free-Hanging Room Divider, contrasts with the elementary construction of the wood furniture and utensils on view. Object labels attribute some of the wood pieces to named artisans, while others are credited to their designers. These were likely built by anonymous labor in the school work program, a detail the exhibition leaves unexamined. Mary Gregory, a renowned furniture maker and educator who ran the woodshop during the Second World War, is not acknowledged in the show, although her work is likely present.

Leap Before You Look is an exhibition whose uplifting effect is grounded in physical encounter. The sensory engagement the artworks collectively invite makes them feel ever-vital, never dusty. The object groupings show tangible evidence of how much fluidity and openness there was in the Black Mountain community, while allowing some of its problems and inconsistencies to surface. A comparative view of Albers’s and Gregory’s legacies might have made for a compelling addition, one that would have highlighted the gendered nature of their respective fields and the range of ways in which artists at Black Mountain incorporated tactility into their works. But a single exhibition cannot do everything, and the dangling threads left by this one only point to the richness and pertinence of its material.

Holly Gore
PhD student, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara