Those words were written by the painter Josef Albers who, in the early 1930s, helped create a model for just such an adventure at Black Mountain College near Asheville, N.C. There, for 23 years, a small, shifting group of teachers and students maintained an economically precarious and richly productive experiment in learning-as-life. And when the experiment ended — cash and energy ran out — the memory of it as an ideal lived on, waxing mythic with time. It’s that memory, and myth, that’s distilled in “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957” at the Institute of Contemporary Art here, one of the season’s most atmospheric historical shows.
Black Mountain was born of rebellion. In 1933, a classics professor named John Andrew Rice was fired from a college in Florida for seditious teaching: He called a common chisel an art object and dismissed public debates as “a pernicious form of intellectual perversion.” When he left, a few of his like-minded colleagues left with him. They rented a building outside Asheville and started their own school.
In line with the era’s progressive educational thinking — John Dewey was God — the school was conceived as pro-community and anti-hierarchy: Everybody learned from everybody. Although the faculty was technically in charge, students were involved in institutional decision-making. It was also left to them to decide when they were ready to graduate. (Most never did.) There were no course requirements, departmental restrictions, grades or degrees. The school offered, at least initially, a fairly broad-based liberal arts program, with art itself, modernist in mood, at the center, available to all, not necessarily as a professional pursuit but as a means of unlocking creative thinking in students in every field.
Given this emphasis, the choice of art teachers was all-important. And Rice had the luck of securing Albers and his wife, Anni Albers, an artist who specialized in weaving, for the job. Closely associated with the Bauhaus in Germany, which had closed under Nazi pressure in 1933, they had recently arrived as refugees in the United States, and were relieved to be here. “Our world goes to pieces,” Anni Albers would write in her notebooks. “We have to rebuild our world.”
They brought finely honed skills as teachers and makers with them, and examples of work they produced at Black Mountain fills the first gallery. There are superb examples of Anni Albers’s monumental, abstract weavings, with their loamy colors and sunlight shimmer, but also gouache drawings that look like unraveling lengths of thread. The surprise is Josef Albers. Anyone who identifies him exclusively with his later color studies will find an unexpectedly varied artist here: a photographer of Aztec ruins (the Alberses adored Mexico, making more than a dozen trips), a furniture designer, a carver of bouncy curlicue-patterned woodcuts, and a collagist who could infuse the lift of devotional art into an arrangement of dried leaves.
Josef Albers assigned collage-making to his students as an exercise to attune the eye to the expressive character of found materials, and to train the hand in disciplined improvisation. If there was a Black Mountain aesthetic in the early years, it might be in this effort to find glamour in the ordinary and grace in the rough and plain. You can read such a sensibility in exquisite collages by Ruth Asawa and Trude Guermonprez; in the abstract photographs of Josef Breitenbach; in a detail-crazed tapestry of a painting by the future mail-artist Ray Johnson; and in a line of regal jewelry assembled by Anni Albers and Alexander Reed from bobby pins, paper clips and wine corks.
The Alberses were a huge part of the Black Mountain story, but still only a part. Word of the college spread to New York and San Francisco, and established artists, taking summers off from the city, arrived. Robert Motherwell did a little teaching. Franz Kline hung out. In 1948, Willem de Kooning painted one of his great early all-over abstractions here titled “Asheville.” And Elaine de Kooning embraced the whole scene, making art, acting in plays and pitching in on construction of R. Buckminster Fuller’s first (and unraisable) geodesic dome on campus.
Elaine de Kooning appears in some of the show’s photographs, and there are many. In an isolated and self-fascinated community, everyone seemed to be photographing, or drawing, or painting everyone else. Hazel Larsen Archer, a student turned teacher, was the school’s unofficial photo-documentarian, and she was really good. She took wonderful images of Robert Rauschenberg, himself an irrepressible photographer, dancing. She repeatedly shot Merce Cunningham in action, and his partner, John Cage, in looming, moist-browed close-up.
Music and dance were integral to the Black Mountain program and accounted for some of the most precocious cultural contributions. But with their particular spatial and temporal requirements, they also formed a world of their own. And that’s a bit how they’re presented, in a gallery equipped with a grand piano and dance stage for live performances. Separate, too, is material from the school’s final years when, led by the writer Charles Olson, it gained a reputation as a poetry center, with Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and, very briefly, Allen Ginsberg, in residence.
By the time Ginsberg got there in 1957, the school was in fatal decline. It was dead broke, almost empty of students, and the air was tainted with rancor. The place had always been a battleground for individual egos and partisan groups. The politics could get nasty. In 1940, Rice was pushed out, under a cloud of scandal. Nine years later, the Alberses left in righteous dismay, feeling the school had deserted its values, become commercialized. Olson remained a factious presence to the end.
Little hint of this dystopian side to the Black Mountain experiment comes through in the exhibition or its sumptuous catalog. For that you must turn to Martin Duberman’s “Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community.” First published in 1972, it serves as a kind of reality check to the myth.
It examines how tensions among the school’s personnel influenced important decisions. It considers the sociopolitical context of the Southern setting, with an ever-present buzz of racism that spilled over into the institution. The book emphasizes that, despite the starry names now attached to Black Mountain, most of its students and many teachers went on to ordinary and now-obscure futures. That fact jibes with the Alberses’ vision for the school as a place where people could come to learn how to make art and how to live, not how to make careers and gain fame.
Black Mountain art is the one thing that Mr. Duberman makes little mention of — what it looked like, why it was conceived, how it was created, what it meant, what was done with it. And art, of course, is exactly the focus of the Boston show, painstakingly researched by Helen Molesworth, the Institute of Contemporary Art’s former chief curator, and Ruth Erickson, an assistant curator there. (Ms. Molesworth is now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.) This show offers more than 200 works, painted, drawn, sculpted, printed, pasted, woven, molded, written, spoken, danced and sung; cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary, to some degree multicultural, a whole, unstructured world of wonderful stuff, some of it major — de Kooning’s “Asheville,” Cunningham performing “Changeling,” a 1958 film — and much of it ephemeral, and in a commercial sense, minor.
“Wholeness is not a Utopian dream,” Anni Albers wrote at Black Mountain. “It is something that we once possessed and now seem largely to have lost, or to say it less pessimistically, seem to have lost were it not for our inner sense of direction which still reminds us that something is wrong here because we know of something that is right.”
Whatever its faults — and art schools today can learn from this — Black Mountain grasped the dream of art as a lived condition rather than a hoarded possession.