Arts Review

Mountain of Sparks

Installation view, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2015. Photo: Liza Voll Photography.
Installation view, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2015. Photo: Liza Voll Photography.

Black Mountain College (1933–1957)—less an institution than a shifting population of seekers and strivers—is better known for its avant-garde visual art, music, dance, and theater works than for its academic offerings. Over the fall and early winter, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston mounted “Leap Before You Look,” a huge exhibition devoted to artworks created at the college and in its wake. The show generated a mammoth accompanying catalogue, edited by curator Helen Molesworth with Ruth Erickson,[1] and a subsidiary component of performance works.

Few people actually graduated from BMC; many dropped in and dropped out again. It never had a fixed undergraduate curriculum, and its campus in the hills near Asheville, North Carolina, was a collection of buildings, many of them homemade projects. Founded in the depths of the Depression as a kind of refuge by a group of dissidents from the educational conventions of the time, BMC was imagined as a coopera­tive utopia. The adventure suffered a chronic and eventually fatal shortage of funds.

Black Mountain College was founded by John Andrew Rice, a former professor of classics at Rollins College, and a group of ex-Rollins teachers who espoused the progressive education ideas of John Dewey. When the new college opened in the fall of 1933, the arts faculty was anchored by Josef and Anni Albers and other émigrés from the dismantled Bauhaus and Hitler’s Germany. There were 22 students enrolled in the first quarter, and the course work leaned heavily toward science, languages, math, and classics. But the arts were always a strong, hands-on component. Rice thought that “whatever cannot be expressed in words cannot be learned through words,” and that art is essentially an unfinished process. The college followed the Bauhaus philosophy of integrating the practical with the intellectual. So there were weaving classes, the specialty of Anni Albers, and later, pottery, jewelry, furniture making, bookbinding, printing, photography, and a farm. Important architects were on the school’s board of advisors, and in 1939 Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer designed what was to be the main building. It proved to be too expensive, and a scaled-down version was designed and built by the community. Over time the modernist perspective gave way to Dada and offbeat experiments; the year-round faculty was overshadowed by the soon-to-be-famous artists and musicians who passed through for several highly successful summer sessions.

The college’s isolated location didn’t prevent it from being thought of as a somewhat lunatic enclave, but the community members put up with the makeshift buildings and the freewheeling discourse. Over the years, the country went through the War, economic recovery, and the McCarthy era without much direct effect on the college. Enrollments got a boost from the GI Bill’s subsidized veterans, and government agents lurked for a while, to discover whether the liberated lifestyle and the freeform teaching concealed subversives.

“Leap Before You Look” illustrated the linkage between two great art movements of the twentieth century, modernism and abstract expressionism. Oddly, two big shows in New York were running during the same time: “Berlin Metropolis 1918–1933” at the Neue Galerie and “The Whitney’s Collection” at the new Whitney Museum. Bracketing and sometimes overlapping with what was going on at Black Mountain, these two exhibitions viewed the changing concerns of non-mainstream artists, from expressionism and urban disaffection to the new formalism (Neue Sachlichkeit), and then to abstract expressionism, neo-Dada, Pop Art, and the avant-garde of the 1950s.

Besides the opportunity to visit the ICA’s galleries of paintings, sculptures and weavings by BMC luminaries, I was prompted to explore the extensive library of related materials, some of which I’ve used in my own teaching, and some of which I’d never got around to reading. Black Mountain fascinated me not only because of its dance connec­tions, but because it brought together many of my other subjects of interest: utopian art communities, movement and its therapeutic possibilities, experimental theater and its workshop processes. The ICA show made me curious about the cultlike colony that surrounded the last BMC rector, poet Charles Olson, who lived in the Cape Ann town next to mine and whose acolytes there still celebrate him. I wanted to follow up the work of characters who are only shadows in the BMC iconography, like theater teacher Xanti Schawinsky, who’d been a student at the Bauhaus, and Elizabeth Jennerjahn, who taught modern dance and gave a “Light Sound Movement” workshop beginning in 1949 with her husband, the painter Pete Jennerjahn.

The dance and performance offerings for “Leap Before You Look” seemed shadowy. Considering how big a part music played at Black Mountain, the ICA show hardly noticed it. For the first summer institute, in 1944, composers descended from the European avant-garde gathered to celebrate Arnold Schoenberg. From the first, music was an ongoing element of the college curriculum. One photograph shows a single-file marching band making its way through a field; there were seldom more than a dozen music students, but those on hand, with the addition of faculty members, formed vocal and instrumental ensembles. The early faculty was dominated by the post-Schoenberg aesthetic, though students were also exposed to contemporary Ameri­can works, jazz and popular music. By the early 1950s, John Cage was arguing against Schoenbergian modernism. His lectures and his own daring compositions invoked chance and indeterminacy to attain a zen-like state of openness.

With little fanfare, the ICA presented a single music concert at its own theater in November. The Ensemble Intercontemporain played three pieces by Pierre Boulez and four excerpts from early Cage works. Boulez didn’t work at Black Mountain, or even visit, but the two composers corresponded, and a text drawn from their letters was read at the concert. Other musical selections roughly associated with BMC played in the galleries on tape as background music.

Many theatrical events at Black Mountain, including some of the most remarkable, were impromptu and disappeared immediately. Reports exist of plays and exercises that emerged from regular course work. M. C. Richards had translated Jean Cocteau’s Marriage on the Eiffel Tower, and she directed a performance after Thanksgiving dinner had been served to the entire community on the platform set that represented the Tower. Richards put on a Yeats play on a stormy night outdoors, with the actors emerging from swamps and second-story staircases. Dance teacher Jennerjahn staged Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías after seeing Doris Humphrey’s 1947 danced version of the García Lorca tribute to a bullfighter. Passing mention of these and many other intriguing activities appear in the extensive literature of Black Moun­tain.

HLA, Merce (2)
Hazel Larsen Archer, Merce Cunningham Dancing, c. 1952-53, gelatin silver print, 8 ¾ x 5 7/8 inches. Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.

Merce Cunningham is the star of the ICA commemoration although he was only on the campus for three summers (1948, ’52 and ’53. He also did a week of teaching in the summer of 1950.) Cunningham with his partner John Cage are the most famous names among the performance faculty, but performance was always part of the BMC scheme. The first faculty included another Bauhaus émigré, Xanti Schawinsky. He’d been a student of Oskar Schlemmer, and from the surviving photographs he followed Schlemmer’s idea of the Kunstfigur, the art figure, whereby the performers were transformed by structured costumes into symbolic shapes. Schawinsky considered his classes at Black Mountain as laboratory situations. Photographs of his work exist, but you can only surmise what it looked like in action.

There was no theater on the Black Mountain campus, so the impulse to perform had to be shaped for alternative situations. The dining hall and other spaces got transformed by lighting, projections, screens, and shuffling of the audience spaces. Drama classes were initially taught by founding faculty member Robert Wunsch, whose students explored the literature from Shakespeare to Chekhov, Shaw and the moderns. They wrote their own plays and did readings for the local radio station. The notion of decorative costume supported a festive community life at the college, with dress-up parties and impromptu celebrations. Charming photographs document Robert Rauschenberg putting the finishing touches to a unicorn costume for Ingeborg Lauterstein that might have been made of paper cutouts.

In the visual arts, design elements could rescue artwork from realistic portraiture and landscapes, but dance and performance artists had to defeat the overwhelmingly real presence of the human body in seeking a path to abstraction. Schawinsky and Schlemmer’s constructed figures could overcome the palpable human presence, as Alwin Nikolais was also demonstrating in New York at the Henry Street Playhouse in the 1940s and ’50s. At Black Mountain, the Jennerjahns’ workshops tried to transform the figure with light projections and body-painting.

During the summer institute of 1951, Ben Shahn, who was on the faculty, made a breakthrough in his own work when Nick Cernovich asked Shahn to make him a body design for a dance. (We don’t know what Cernovich’s dance looked like.) Shahn painted Cernovich’s back with a skeletal torso. He later sketched and presented the design to Charles Olson, who had returned from a trip to Mexico smitten with Mayan glyphs. Several “glyph exchanges” with faculty members resulted from the experience. Lou Harrison, who was also there that summer, was beginning his explorations of percussion music for East Asian instruments. He wrote a score for dancer Katherine Litz that incorporated cymbals, gongs, bells and piano. In six short episodes, Litz entered from behind a screen painted with Ben Shahn’s glyph design and exited there between sections. When she reappeared, she had adjusted the costume, a tight jersey tube that she rolled up and down her body to suggest a succession of odd and subtly hilarious characters. The Glyph became Litz’s most famous dance.

In anticipation of the ICA’s Black Mountain project, dancer Richard Colton suggested that Litz should be included in the show in addition to Cunningham as one of the dancer-groundbreakers at BMC. With the endorsement of the ICA team, Colton enlisted modern dancer Polly Motley and began reconstructing the dance from an archival film that Litz made around 1977. He was assisted by Litz’s contemporaries Aileen Passloff and archivist-scholar David Vaughan. For Motley’s perfor­mances, the Ben Shahn design was re-created by students at Massachusetts College of Art. Yukiko Takagi played the Harrison score.

Litz’s performing, in the Glyph and other dances, tended to be very inwardly focused. Her moves seemed to come from very small impulses that she was releasing in spite of herself. Motley showed the audience she was aware that moving while confined inside the tube made her look funny. The audience at the ICA on the day I attended got the jokes but not the slightly embarrassed feeling conveyed by Litz herself.

On the gallery wall behind the temporary stage, the ICA was projecting the first three sections of the 1977 Glyph. A very self-involved Litz stepped in and out of the frame, seemingly unaware that her pigeon-toed meanderings and poking-out elbows might have been incongruous. Litz appeared again in a computer-screen-size video elsewhere in the same gallery. Made in 1952 by Cernovich, Thoughts Out of Season revealed parts of another internally focused Litz, revolving and reaching in a small, wooded outdoor space. The film, shot from many angles and edited to disrupt continuity, intensifies Litz’s private world. Cernovich, who became a prolific lighting designer for dance and theater work, was everywhere at BMC, doing theater workshops, danc­ing, and illustrating print editions of Olson’s poems.

In 1948 during one of the college’s summer sessions, John Cage was playing concerts of the piano music of Erik Satie and lecturing on Satie’s importance while proclaiming the irrelevance of Beethoven. He produced Satie’s The Ruse of the Medusa in a translation by M. C. Richards. The cast included Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Elaine de Kooning, under the direction of Arthur Penn, a student who went on to become a noted theater and television director. Cunningham played the Mechanical Monkey, and a week later he gave a dance concert, with Louise Lippold and Sara Hamill, that included the solos Root of an Unfocus, Totem Ancestor and the Monkey Dances. Fuller needed some coaching to master his part in Medusa. Later that summer, he supervised campus assistants in an inadvertent performance, the attempted erection of his first geodesic dome. It collapsed, but he returned the next year and with different materials the demonstration succeeded.

It was in the summer session of 1952 that Cage put together what was to be called Theater Piece No. 1 and is sometimes referred to as the first Happening. Cage said he got the idea for it one afternoon, and it was staged the same evening. This casual reference may have reinforced the persistent misconception that Cage’s odd compositions were improvised, but Theater Piece did have a score of sorts. Cage sketched a rough floor plan for the event, and each performer was given a time sheet with the intervals during which he or she was to perform. With the audience chairs arranged in the center, Cage assigned positions for a ladder, a piano, a lectern, a phonograph, a painting by Franz Kline, and a path for Cunningham to travel. From the ladder, Cage held forth. Olson and M. C. Richards read their poetry. David Tudor played the piano. There may have been a dog. Few accounts of the event agree on what went on, but many of the spectators recorded their impressions.

The ICA acknowledged Theater Piece by commissioning five Boston artists to create their own interpretations of the existing documentation. By the time I was writing this account, the concluded perfor- mances had been taken down from the ICA’s website, and no overall press release documented them. There were no informational programs for the performance I attended, advertised as Theater Piece #1 Revisited. Poet Damon Krukowski, the director, sat on a ladder and read an uncredited text sotto voce. Someone played the piano. A few members of the audience squatted down to plink at a toy piano on the floor or examine a phone that may have contained some enlightening message. The audience was invited to take the part of the dancer, but I don’t remember that any notable dancing took place. The event was curiously lifeless. I’d imagined a confusion of activity and sounds, with the audience seated in the middle as Cage had stipulated. But the ICA had placed stools for us outside the playing area, so we were looking at the piece instead of living inside it. Rather than being lively or raucous, the performance was tentative and the audience seemed bemused.

The dance events were much more substantial and thought provoking. In addition to the Katherine Litz dance, there was a highly touted reconstruction of Merce Cunningham’s Changeling. Cunningham may have started making this dance during a six-week residency at the college in the summer of 1953, but it wasn’t performed there. Cunningham was at BMC rehearsing the dancers who became his first company for their official debut, which took place in New York at the end of that year. Changeling had a score by Christian Wolff, as did two other solos from this period, [Untitled] Solo and Lavish Escapade. Changeling didn’t premiere until 1957. The ICA reconstruction was made by Silas Riener, who danced in the final years of the Cunningham company, with the help of an archival film and in consultation with another former company dancer, Jean Freebury. It was given some 20 times at the ICA from October through January.

Wearing a red unitard and a strangely shaped red sweater full of holes and a tight-fitting cap over his head, Riener looked like some alien creature. To what seemed a random clangor of notes played by Stephen Drury, he moved through about eight minutes of extraordinary activities that Cunningham had made by using chance operations. His body seemed fragmented, the head, arms, shoulders, legs, even the fingers moved separately in different directions and at different speeds. There were actions as small as fluttering fingers and vibrating feet. He’d be standing still, then suddenly sink in a ball to the floor and slowly stretch out on his side. He jumped straight up in the air while twirling his hands in front of his abdomen. He circled the space with tiny backward steps. No way to describe the sequence of all this because there was no deliberate form or repetition—-except for one phrase when Riener was standing near the piano, facing away from the audience: he slowly extended one flat arm and hand to the side of the leg, then the other, while turning his head slowly in the opposite direction. The second time he did this signaled the end of the dance. Cunningham didn’t admit that he actually tweaked chance instructions to shape a dance, but his return to this phrase looked like intentional choreography.

Cunningham filmed the Changeling at about the time of its premiere, and the film was projected over the dance platform in the gallery between the live shows. Riener’s performance was sleek and perfectly fulfilled; it could almost have fit in with today’s contemporary dance. He worked with high intensity and a razor-sharp focus. Cunningham performed it in the film from a calm center, his focus no less clear but coming from some inner, unspecified emotional core. People at the time thought Changeling was passionate, even scary. Cunningham often said how hard it was to learn this dance, generated as it was by the inscrutable dictates of chance. The three Wolff dances, he wrote in his book Changes, “were concerned with the possibility of containment and explosion being instantaneous.” He spoke of the dance as if it had a separate identity, “an unmistakable dramatic intensity in its bones,” and explained that his job was to let this quality come through.

Giving so much of the creative process over to chance, it seems to me, allowed Cunningham to solve the abstraction problem without concealing his body in costume elements or lighting projections. He could be outside of his dance but also express its emotional content. In this way, his aesthetic tied him to Cage, and to Robert Rauschenberg, who was making collages and combines at the time, and who served the Cunningham company as lighting and costume designer for ten years.

During the fall, Silas Riener also did heroic work on Cunningham with students in the Harvard Dance Program and Boston Conservatory. A group from Harvard studied Cunningham technique and movement, and they were assigned to improvise on certain ideas. The resulting phrases were then structured by chance procedures as a dance work, presented at the ICA in the early days of “Leap Before You Look,” and then again at Harvard on a program of “Gym Dances.” For the more professionally oriented students in Boston Conservatory’s Dance Department, Riener taught sections of early dances (Dime a Dance, Suite for Five, Septet, Minutiae, Nocturnes and Springweather and People) with the aid of Conservatory faculty member Daniel McCusker. Two groups from the Conservatory performed these excerpts, in an order I thought had been selected by chance and without the dancers’ prior knowledge.

All these performances confirmed what’s often proclaimed in the dance world: that you can’t duplicate a modern dance that comes from its creator’s personal style, because even when the steps have been well documented, each succeeding generation has its own style and way of understanding old works. I’m not convinced that we know enough about how to identify what makes a dancer’s style personal, or that reconstructors know how to teach those subtle essentials. It’s possible that improvising on surviving materials is a truer way to know Cunning­ham now, or any choreographer, but carefully crafted revivals give us some idea of what the original dances may have looked like. The ICA’s attempts to acknowledge those vanished events revealed the difficulty of retrieving them.

After it closes at the ICA on 24 January, the Black Mountain show will go to the Hammer Museum at UCLA from 21 February to 15 May, and later to the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, 17 September to 1 January 2017.

[1] LEAP BEFORE YOU LOOK: BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE 1933–1957, ed. by Helen Molesworth with Ruth Erickson. Yale University Press in association with the Institute of Contemporary Art. $75.00.