Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957,” an exhibition currently showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, focuses on how Black Mountain College (BMC) became a seminal meeting place for many of the artists, musicians, poets, and thinkers who would become the principal practitioners in their fields of the postwar period. “Leap Before You Look,” the first exhibition in the US to examine BMC as a hotbed for the American avant garde, opened on October 10, 2015 and will show through January 24, 2016. Senior Production Coordinator Christine Savage recently checked it out and shares the following insights:

The story of Black Mountain College (BMC) serves as an excellent reminder of how brilliant, prolific, and innovative people can be. The school was an idyll, an embodiment of a progressive, collaborative, utopian future. The college was also an absolute anomaly, and serves possibly as an even better reminder of how rarely we come together to achieve such promise.

If only it hadn’t gone broke and closed after only 24 years.

“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957” is a remarkable exhibit that does a wonderful job of illustrating BMC’s proud stature among the great artistic moments in the last century. The collection features music and dance performances, as well as over 200 pieces of artwork created at the college. A history of the school and the art created there can be found in the MIT Press book, Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art edited by Vincent Katz, which documents the brief—but influential—existence of the school, and offers a fascinating glimpse of campus life.   

BMC was a tiny school with a disproportionate influence on art and culture in the 20th century. (A partial—yet still absurdly impressive—list of artists who taught and studied there includes Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Ruth Asawa, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, Vera B. Williams, Franz Kline, Buckminster Fuller, Francine du Plessix Gray, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Dorothea Rockburne, and Walter Gropius.)

Founded in 1933 at a former summer camp with 22 students in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, BMC was an adventure in progressive education. Less an art school than a perpetually broke experimental liberal arts college, the program’s philosophy centered around the belief that artistic experience was instrumental to all aspects of learning and grew students into better—and more curious—democratic citizens. Fortunately for art lovers the world around, BMC’s college life and curriculum revolved around the artistic process at a critical moment when American Progressivism combined with European Modernism.

Photographs at the start of the exhibit show the communal, egalitarian style of living and working at the school. The faculty owned and operated the college, and governed it together with students. In the early 1930s, sweat equity was more useful than tuition—they grew their own food, cooked their own meals, and built their own classrooms.

The founders of BMC kicked off their utopian educational experiment by hiring Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers, who brought with them a healthy dose of enthusiasm for communal idealism and experimentation. These values remain evident in the profoundly interdisciplinary art created at the college during its brief existence, spanning painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, poetry, dance, music, and theater.

The exhibit begins with the colorful geometric paintings and prints of Josef, and the striking, modernist weavings and jewelry of Anni. In nearby rooms, photographs and models showing Buckminster Fuller’s experimental architecture—and the oftentimes unsuccessful attempts at constructing it—sit in conversation with the geometric and organic drawings and sculptures of Ruth Asawa, as well as the vibrant, expressionistic paintings of Elaine and Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

Later in the exhibit, the artistic creations of Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg showcase the collaborative, bodily nature of the work at BMC. Displays and performances using their choreography, music, and set decorations—schedules of which are available on the ICA website—allow museum visitors to share in an experience that, well, grew from shared experience.

As one might expect from the school’s summer camp beginnings, it was a perfect storm of intense closeness, idealism, freedom, and collaboration. Throughout the ICA’s galleries, the works of art from BMC seem to speak to each other, and to be in their presence is to get a glimpse of how their creators exemplified the school’s motto of “learning through doing.”

It’s an education in the importance of experimentation and exposure to difference, and a chance for (oft-maligned) utopian idealism—however short-lived—to get a little vindication.