For a generation of young artists flanking World War II, Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina was the California Institute of the Arts of America's avant-garde culture.
A school in the middle of nowhere, 200 miles west of the state capital of Raleigh, outside Asheville, with a semester enrollment that barely reached 100 during its 24-year existence, Black Mountain is one of those places that is known about more than known. "Legendary" is a word often used to described it.
FOR THE RECORD:
Art exhibit: In the Feb. 23 Calendar section, a review of a Hammer Museum exhibition on Black Mountain College referred to Monte Alban as an ancient Mayan temple site. Monte Alban is a Zapotec temple site.
The roster of faculty and students includes a long list of impressive names. Yet, for all the passing references to Black Mountain in monographs or surveys that include work by Anni and Josef Albers, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne and Peter Voulkos, just how the school operated and where its impact and appeal could be found has never been clear.
That's why "Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957" has been among the most anticipated exhibitions of the season. Newly opened at the UCLA Hammer Museum, it does not disappoint.
The fit is ideal: A large and absorbing exhibition analyzes a legendary school that had a profound influence on the emergence of the midcentury American avant garde, and it opens in the city now known for a proliferation of first-rate art schools (including UCLA's) that have had a profound influence on the shape of late 20th and early 21st century international art.
"Leap" offers an engrossing bit of back story to where we are today.
Museum of Contemporary Art curator Helen Molesworth, who began work on the show (with associate curator Ruth Erickson) when she was still at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, where it had its debut last year, brings a sharp and illuminating focus to the long-overlooked task. Fascinating facts bump misty myths to the side.
The school was born, grew and functioned amid multiple traumas. The hard-scrabble Great Depression, the anxious tumult of WWII and the desperate flight from the Holocaust, the dark Cold War specter of red-baiting. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI even took an unsavory interest in the school's progressive ideas, an extended surveillance revealed in files discovered only last summer.
Adversity, though, can be the parent of imaginative invention. Founder John Andrew Rice Jr. meant to do something never before attempted — and to my knowledge, not attempted since.
Black Mountain was determined to be a full liberal arts college, but the core of the new school's curriculum would not be history, classics, management or anything that today we would regard as "stem" — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or perhaps least of all, training for a job. Instead, the core would be art.
Rice meant all the arts, including music, theater and poetry. The intention was to expand the capacity for exterior perception and interior self-awareness.
But visual art was the centerpiece, perhaps because of Rice's interest in John Dewey, America's leading philosopher and educational reformer. Dewey had advised Philadelphia's Albert C. Barnes on developing his staggering Modern art collection as a school for visual instruction rather than a museum. When Black Mountain opened, Dewey was at work writing "Art as Experience," his indispensable book on aesthetics.
In the Hammer show, "Watchmaker," a bracing 1946 tempera painting by Jacob Lawrence, is something of a talisman for the school's invigorating philosophy. A watchmaker is at work in his shop. Dynamic shapes in vivid colors propel your eye around a calm, stable center. There, a black head is tilted to one side, its schematic design crossing an African sculpture with a Brancusi "Sleeping Muse."
Surrounding him are seven clocks, one for each day of the week. In a variety of styles and sizes, no two are set to the same hour of the day. The watchmaker rivets his attention on the task at hand, forming his own timepiece through focused coordination between his oversized hands and the monocle that amplifies the powers of his eye.
What we have is time, this extraordinarily composed image suggests. What we make of it is what matters.
The exhibition opens with work by the two artists most instrumental in shaping the school. Josef and Anni Albers came straight from Berlin, the Bauhaus school where they studied and taught having been shuttered by the Nazi regime.
The stack of tilted, floating rectangles in Josef Albers' painting "Black Frame" appears at first to be pure abstraction. In fact, the hovering color planes deconstruct a conventional picture — foreground, background, figure-ground relationship, interior, exterior, color harmonies, scale and frame.
Anni Albers' beautiful weavings are among the show's most absorbing works. Photographs taken at the ancient Mayan temple site of Monte Albán near Oaxaca during one of the couples' many trips to Mexico unravel some of the mind-bending complexities in Albers' exquisite woven textile patterns.
Ruth Asawa's magnificent suspended sculpture of interlocking ovoid forms in iron and copper wire adds another layer. Crocheted by hand, not woven on a loom, it incorporates a popular craft technique that the Bay Area artist likewise picked up in Mexico. The intricate wire traces an organic, linear drawing through three-dimensional space, giving birth to forms as it travels.
Ancient Mexico, modern America, avant-garde Europe — Molesworth's show underscores the distinctive cosmopolitanism that animated the school. Given the history of wars, economic ruin and political suspicion within which the school operated, commitment to shared community is a powerful thought turned into action.
In art and in the nation's social and political life, tribalism had long ruled the day — most plainly in the Regionalist movements of the 1930s and 1940s. But Black Mountain had no interest in questions like "What is American about American art?" The school tossed them overboard for notions of universally shared community.
No wonder Hoover called in the FBI's trench coats. The school violated his authoritarian worldview.
A cosmopolitan program is neither Utopian nor humanist and finally seems less geared toward how to make art than toward what it means to be an artist. Figure that out, and the rest would follow.
Given this, don't go to the show expecting to see only greatest hits by De Kooning or Harry Callahan, Franz Kline or Rauschenberg. Experiments, student work, teaching aids, photo-documents (such as Fuller's first geodesic dome) are integrated with fully resolved paintings, sculptures and other works.
Given 90 artists, there are also surprises.
Before now I knew little about photographer Hazel Larsen Archer, but the formal elegance of her studies in light and shadow provocatively playing across walls and doorways speaks of awareness sensed as much as seen. They're ethereal.
One photograph of Merce Cunningham dancing on a lawn transforms his body into an exotic symbol, as if the jaggedly bent knees, curving torso and splayed hands and feet described an alphabet character from a mysterious lost language. The flat, angular pose emerges as a wholly unexpected abstraction of famous photographs of Nijinsky dancing his radical "Afternoon of a Faun."
The show is studded with moments like that. Sections explore theater, music, poetry, architecture and dance as well as the through-line of visual arts. A working loom is included, along with a piano and a dance platform for planned performances.
And perhaps because the school's program was born during the Great Depression, everywhere there is a sense of not just making do with what you have but also making fabulous with it. See Anni Albers' necklace of wine-bottle corks and bobby pins for one of the cheekier examples, an adornment that looks like it could have been made yesterday rather than in 1940.
In 1957, as another worldwide economic downturn loomed, Black Mountain closed, unable to sustain itself fiscally. By then, American art had changed dramatically from what it had been in 1933, and the school was one among many reasons why. Its work was done.
Art school is such a commonplace today that we tend not to give its often fascinating history much thought. "Leap Before You Look" makes up for the lapse. Together with "Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University," the 1999 book by Howard Singerman — perhaps not coincidentally, MOCA publications editor from 1985 to 1988 — the fine exhibition catalog is also a major contribution.