Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Thinking Ahead, & Experimenting to Get There

It'’s everywhere. In the world of the arts, there'’s just no escaping Black Mountain College. That's especially true this month in Asheville. Both the Asheville Art Museum and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, one of the best small museums in America (yes, I know, I am on the board, but I'’m just quoting the Wall Street Journal there), host shows highlighting the important contributions of the small, obscure, persistently impoverished local college to the larger world. Long after it closed in 1957*, the work begun there rippled through American culture and, indeed, the cultures of the other advanced industrial nations, right on up to our own time.

The impact of the painters and visual artists has often been acknowledged; they helped change the face of American art. The importance of the poets and writers has likewise been celebrated, and likely will be for decades to come; they stood at the defining edge of the New American Poetry that emerged in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties. Not so well known, though, is the impact some of the artists at the college had on the texture of everyday life through their work in design, from furniture, to textiles, to ceramics, and to the graphic arts, and in architecture. It'’s the goal of "“Thinking Ahead"”, hosted at Asheville's Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, to explore these areas of influence for the first time in a comprehensive way.

What made Black Mountain College important in the world of design "began at the Bauhaus, with its merging of the fine and applied arts,"” says Kelly Gold, who curated the show with her husband Bobby, referring to the famous school of art and architecture founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919.
When the Bauhaus was ousted from Hitler's Germany in the 20s & 30s, a few prominent Bauhaus figures came to Black Mountain, while some headed to Chicago. The German architect Walter Gropius, widely considered to be the Father of Modernism, had been Director of the Bauhaus, and was held in great respect at Black Mountain; he was even invited to design a Studies Complex there. It wasn'’t built, since the beginning of World War II made fund raising impossible. But the tenets of the Bauhaus were at the core of the curriculum at Black Mountain. And one of the primary tenets of the Bauhaus was to bring good design to the masses. You can still see Bauhaus influence every time you drive down the street -– just look at traffic signs! Could you imagine a fussy, Victorian-inspired, probably illegible, stop sign?
The Golds' ’ interest in Black Mountain College came, Kelly recalls, "“from our love of Modernism."
We used to own Orbit, a modern shop in downtown Asheville; Bobby still deals in vintage modern design, but in larger markets like Chicago and New York. While we were doing research on fine art items by Black Mountain alumni and instructors, we started finding that quite a few of them also produced commercial designs. Josef Albers, for example, one of the most prominent figures at Black Mountain, and in the art world at large, is best known as a painter, printmaker, and teacher. At Black Mountain, though, when they needed desks for students, he also became a furniture designer. Necessity being the mother of invention, he developed a design for a desk and had them fabricated by a local carpenter. One of these rare desks, made from local chestnut, is included in this exhibition. Later, after the college closed, Albers also designed a series of LP album covers around 1960 -– early stereophonic stuff, with titles like "Persuasive Percussion". So, if you ever wanted to own something done by Josef Albers, but couldn't afford it, here's your chance!

As we worked toward the exhibit we realized we wanted to show the college in a totally different, fresh light. Instead of focusing on fine art pieces, the show focuses on things that are a bit more utilitarian or production-oriented. Instead of showing a one-off piece of pottery by Karen Karnes, for example, we're showing one of her iconic casseroles, designed to be used, and not just shelved for viewing -– a model of functionality, as well as beauty.

There are two categories of "designer" represented in this exhibition, those who are known as designers, and those who are known for other work, who did some design work along the way. Some of the most influential architects and graphic designers of the 20th century were involved at Black Mountain. The designer Alvin Lustig is a good example; his work, though executed decades ago, manages to look very current. I've seen graphic design on book covers published in the 21st century that resemble Lustig's work. I don't mean that these new works by young designers are derivative, necessarily, but rather that Lustig's work is timeless. It'’s obviously continuing to influence designers today.
While the exhibit includes work by some of the best known of the Black Mountain faculty, like the Albers, it also presents the work of a number of less well-known faculty and students who made important and interesting contributions to 20th century design. In the graphic arts, in addition to Josef Albers and Alvin Lustig, the show includes work by Ben Shahn, Robert Rauschenberg, Leo Lionni, Ati Gropius Johansen, Vera Williams, Cy Twombly, Jonathan Williams, Xanti Schawinsky, and Ray Johnson.

In furniture design, in addition to Josef Albers, the show features work (or representations of work, when original pieces are no longer extant or weren'’t available) by Marcel Breuer, Lawrence Kocher, Mary Gregory, and Robert Bliss.

In the field of textile design, the show includes work of Anni Albers, and Lore Kadden Lindenfeld.

In ceramic arts, work by Walter Gropius is included, in addition to the work of Karen Karnes that Kelly mentions.

In the field of lighting design, the show features the work of Nicholas Cernovitch.

Last but not least, in architecture, the show highlights work of Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Lawrence Kocher, Buckminster Fuller, Claude Stoller, and Herbert Oppenheimer. All of the works shown are accompanied by text explaining their designers'’ connection with the college and their careers beyond Black Mountain.

It's a fascinating collection. Viewing it, I couldn't help but feel that it could be expanded into an even richer experience in each of the directions it opens, given resources, space, and time. What a good beginning, though.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Center will be presenting a public lecture series that will include presentations by Frank Harmon, award-winning Principal of Frank Harmon Architect of Raleigh, NC, on modernist architecture, and Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, on the couple'’s work at Black Mountain, and on their design legacy. The latter is scheduled for September 21st. Harmon'’s lecture is scheduled for October 26th, and I'’ll post more information about it here between now and then.

Just two blocks up Broadway, the Asheville Art Museum is hosting "“Black Mountain College: Experiments in Materials and Form"”, the second of the exhibits in its three-part Black Mountain College: An Exhibition Series. The show explores the emphasis on experimentation at the College, and the ways in which the experimental spirit led artists to discover new directions for their work through explorations in new materials and forms.

Eva Diaz, one of a new generation of Black Mountain scholars, curated the show. Despite its emphasis on works in black, white, and grayscale, which lends a certain visual austerity to its presentation, it includes some striking and seldom-seen work by the artists she includes -– like Robert Rauschenberg'’s experimental photographs, and Josef Albers'’ woodcuts. Clemens Kalischer'’s photographs port us back to the historical moments they preserve in gelatin and silver, John Cage at the piano, for instance, and Albers teaching in his Black Mountain class. I'’d read about, but never seen, Rauschenberg'’s White Painting (simply, as they say, a stretched, gessoed canvas), which John Cage beautifully termed an "“airport for dust"”, and the richly textured Black Painting. Cage'’s scores of his own work move far beyond conventional musical notation, and have circles and diagonal lines converging in an angular dance across the staves. Two of his motico panels represent Ray Johnson here, exploring graphic abstraction in commonplace materials, such as corrugated cardboard.

Both shows remind us what an amazing, sustained, confluence of energies took place just up the road, in the pastoral acres beside the lake named for the mythical home of paradise, however beleaguered the college might have been.

Both shows run through the end of the year. Resistance is futile, so catch them both.

The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center is located at 56 Broadway, in downtown Asheville. It'’s open Wednesday through Saturday, 1:00 - 4:00 PM More Information at the website, or call the Center at 350-8484.

The Asheville Art Museum, at 2 South Pack Square, in downtown Asheville, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 AM -– 5:00 PM, and on Sundays from 1:00-5:00 PM. More Information at the Museum's website.

* Some accounts give 1956 as the closing date, and that date has certainly been the most commonly cited - even by materials produced at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. The eminent Mary Emma Harris prompted me and the Center board, though, to re-examine the facts and conclude that the college actually closed in 1957. But more about that in another post.


Portions his post appeared in different form in the September 2006 issue of Rapid River. Thanks to Kelly for taking a moment to pose the evening of her show's opening; I'll have to get Bobby later.

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