Performed in the Black Mountain College dining hall one evening in August 1952, John Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1 heralded participatory art practice, from Happenings to relational aesthetics. Its mythic status is just that: there exists no historical record beyond fragments of memories. Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, the pianist David Tudor, poets M.C. Richards and Charles Olson, and possibly others (Cage himself couldn’t remember) performed uncoordinated simultaneous actions within time signatures. Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings,” blank panels that turned focus onto their environment, were suspended from the ceiling. (By some accounts, a Franz Kline painting was also.) Cage lectured on music and Zen Buddhism, babies cried, Tudor performed on a “prepared piano,” Edith Piaf records played at double speed, Cunningham danced and was chased by a barking dog, four boys dressed in white served coffee. Cage’s event embraced ambient sound and the reactions of the audience. Everyone was a participant. This was the way of Black Mountain College: experimental to the marrow, committed to radical pedagogies and democratic action.
The deeply researched exhibition “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, co-organized by Helen Molesworth (her final exhibition for the museum) and Ruth Erickson, gives a measure of clarity to a cultural force long felt if never quite in focus. The show’s objects span from humble studies made for class to canonical oil paintings, tapestries, ceramics and jewelry. Poetry, dance and music also abound. Collectively, these works reveal the school’s ethos, in which experience was the basis of knowledge, and objects were not fixed things, but mirrors of their environment, the result of action and experimentation.
Founded in Asheville, N.C., during the Great Depression by John Rice, a classics professor dismissed from traditional academia, the liberal arts college was formed on John Dewey’s progressive pedagogy. The pursuit of truth through direct experience and a belief in art as fundamental to the individual’s development were Rice’s guiding principles. A global faculty coalesced, many members having fled the rise of fascism in Europe, creating a cosmopolitan bastion in the rural South. The school closed in 1957, due to financial issues.
Beyond Cage, the quiet radicalism of Josef and Anni Albers is another touchstone for the exhibition. The first galleries reveal the breadth of the couple’s work at Black Mountain, where they taught from 1933 to 1949, imparting their Bauhaus methods of material experimentation. Josef’s oil-on-masonite panels push the bounds of pictorial space within geometric abstraction; one of them, Tenayuca (1943), evokes Aztec monuments through flat, interlocking rectangles. In Anni’s weaving Black-White-Gold I (1950), yarns meander across the grid of warp and weft, resembling a freehand drawing. A precise watercolor by Ray Johnson, from around 1951, contains delicate linear sequences of colors, mimicking threads and the geometric abstraction of Anni’s weavings.
Many works in “Leap Before You Look” were conceived as studies. Undated collages by W. Pete Jennerjahn were produced in Albers’s yearlong color course. Though the Color-aid paper has been damaged by adhesive, the series still vividly demonstrates Albers’s theory of “color action,” in which colors do not exist a priori but develop in relation to each other and the spectator. In his matière class, Albers pushed students like Ruth Asawa to combine materials from their surroundings—wheat, bark, ferns, cardboard, fabric—into collages and constructions. (Rauschenberg’s Combines also grew out of this catholic approach to materials.) Scarcity was a virtue. Anni Albers and Alexander Reed converted washers, paper clips, hairpins and wine corks into necklaces that ingeniously disguise these found materials as modern jewelry.
“Leap Before You Look” is equally an archival and a living exhibition. A dance floor near the center of the show hosts periodic live performances in homage to dancer/choreographers Katherine Litz and Merce Cunningham (documentary footage of performances is projected onto a gallery wall at other times). Theatre Piece No. 1 is reanimated in newly conceived actions performed in the exhibition galleries by artist Kelly Nipper and poet Danielle Legros Georges, among others. Music, an integral part of living and learning at Black Mountain, is present in “audioscapes” that fill galleries with Schoenberg, Cage, Ellington and more.
A section devoted to modernist painting doesn’t distinguish between abstraction and figuration: Abstract Expressionist canvases by Willem de Kooning and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline are hung near social realist works by Ben Shahn and Jacob Lawrence. Willem’s 1948 Asheville was a breakthrough of his early career. Here, it looks remarkably in dialogue with paintings by Elaine, and its lyricism and intimations of landscape suggest so much else happening at Black Mountain that summer, from Cage’s and Cunningham’s performances to Buckminster Fuller’s attempt to build a geodesic dome on campus (models are included in the exhibition).
A final gallery is dedicated to pottery and poetry. The incised, patterned surfaces of Karen Karnes’s earthenware, and the primitive, sculptural heft of Peter Voulkos’s kinetic Rocking Pot (1956), complement the Abstract Expressionist canvases nearby. Museum visitors can listen to readings by Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley on headphones, and look at instances in which the word becomes pictorial, such as Stan VanDerBeek’s Book of Ours (1955-57), a ghoulish, pictographic storyboard that hints at the experimental films to come. The voids of pottery vessels contain “breath,” said M.C. Richards, who arrived at the college as a member of the literature faculty and became a student of pottery. This breath also animated poetry, understood at Black Mountain not as page-bound words but as a kind of performative action involving voice and presence.
Given the fugitive nature of much that happened at Black Mountain, it is a curatorial triumph that the show’s narrative is told through its objects, recordings and performances, despite substantial didactic and archival material. That so many artists today are committed to social and participatory practices is due in no small part to the ideals of the school. “Leap Before You Look” is a timely rejoinder to current market conditions, reminding us that objects are not always the point.