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For a brief slice of history along the shore of North Carolina’s Lake Eden, there existed a utopian educational experiment called Black Mountain College. The Hammer’s new exhibition, Leap Before You Look, begins with a gallery dedicated to the school’s founding couple in art: Anni and Joseph Albers. The interplay between Joseph’s highly formal abstract paintings and Anni’s magnificent textiles are a fitting opening to the show’s deft exploration of the long-defunct College.
Cross-pollination was encouraged at Black Mountain; the juxtapositions within the exhibition of art with architecture, pedagogy, poetry, and music sing. A room devoted to the graphical scores of John Cage and the translations by his collaborator, pianist David Tudor, bleeds over into recordings of experimental poetry and dynamic photographs by Hazel Larson Archer of Merce Cunningham mid-dance. Elsewhere, textiles and ceramics are given equal weight to their pictorial brethren, in keeping with Black Mountain’s Bauhaus roots. Ruth Aswawa’s Untitled (S.272) (1955) a breathtaking, voluptuous wire sculpture holds its own next to Minutae (1954), Robert Rauschenberg’s brightly tropical first combine (made as a set piece for a school theater production).
The fact that the college was not an art school at all, but a liberal arts institution founded to include art at its core is worth noting. In a time when education, particularly in the arts, is so embattled, surely there are lessons to learn from this scrappy, innovative pedagogical experiment. The formidable legacy of the wide constellation of minds attracted to and nurtured by Black Mountain speaks to the immense creative and transformative potential in the fuzzy zones where disciplines overlap, and the power to be found in collaborative communities.
Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 runs February 21–May 15, 2016 at The Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90024).