The 2013 Black Mountain College conference, held at UNC-Asheville, covered much ground, as always, with reflections and insights regarding the methods, influence and legacy of the experimental college that is both revered and obscured in the history of 20th century education and art. I always come away with one or more real breakthroughs in my thoughts about these topics, and this year the BMC farm program really came to light in the presentation of David Silver. Tom Murphy spoke of the print shop and letterpress operations, and both of these sessions offered rich, practical examinations of the processes and their implications. As always, the foundation of factual knowledge and interpretation laid down by Mary Emma Harris in her 1987 book, The Arts of Black Mountain College, is acknowledged and utilized by all presenters. Ms Harris continues to lead BMC research efforts, and presented this year about BMC approaches to material studies. She showed how the low-budget humble materials used by Anni Albers and others provided a freedom and at the same time an enforced discipline on the students. ”You mustn’t forbid the possibilities of the materials,” and in the notes of Ruth Asawa from Josef Alber’s class, “the whole cosmos is entertaining”. These topics were applied to Asawa, BMC sculptural artist, by Jason Andrew, who showed how Ruth Asawa’s zero-based explorations of the culture of handicraft, and her highly artistic use of negative and positive space, helped lift craft into the perceived realm of art in the mid twentieth century. Christopher Benfey, the featured speaker whose ideas I discussed in the previous post, gave a keynote speech which emphasized a similar theme: “Starting at Zero!” Get your hands involved with available material. Then make an honest response to the materials, including the industrial process involved. The conference highlighted the synergy and profound influence derived from the joining of the design philosophy of Albers and the progressive education ideals of John Rice. Experiential education and the approach of design as a “form of justice between man and material” made BMC the birthing place of many new currents in American art.
The BMC farm was a rich source of experiential education, surely, and its operations offered many practical lessons in form and design. David Silver of the University of San Francisco described how students, with Ted Dreier’s supportive oversight, had a huge influence on the development of the farm. From Harris’s book: “In the first year  a vegetable garden was started by Norman Weston [BMC student and "treasurer"] and other interested community members. The college leased a 25 acre farm with a vineyard and apple orchard…” John Rice was not enthusiastic but didn’t mind as long as faculty obligations were not needed. In 1938 the farm went to the future Lake Eden, was expanded in 1941 and by 1944 “was producing most of the beef, pork, potatoes, eggs, dairy products and some vegetables used by the college” (Harris again). Last year and this, Silver offered rich detail into how the farm emblemized the integrated systems, the balance of discipline and freedom, and the “use what you find” attitude that characterized much of the college’s history. His research anecdotes, from local farmers such as Bass Allen, who taught the students how to farm, to the very Albers-like egg lists that recorded every oval, both entertain and enlighten. Mistakes, both horrible and hilarious, were made. But students gained invaluable experiences, including the closest thing BMC offered in the way of physical education. Molly Gregory, who taught woodworking and maintained the mechanical shop, took over the farm in the later years of the college and operated it at a profit. Silver’s admiring portrayal of her BMC work showed that, like Asawa, she helped create an atmosphere that bridged the gap between artisan and artist, that found a space for sublime work of the hands.
Of particular interest to me was my own arena of artisanry; the letterpress printing and other book arts that were pursued at BMC. Tom Murphy from Texas A&M Corpus Christi recounted printing efforts that were of practical help to the college but eventually played a role in the establishment of literary forces and the Black Mountain Poets as important threads in the history of BMC. Again with the support of Harris’s history, he described how Xanti Schawinsky, a noted graphic designer, helped obtain type and a press for a print shop in Lee Hall on the first Blue Ridge campus. The bulletins printed were “not flashy’ and in fact were conventional products that advertised the best face of the college to outsiders. Students like Ed Dorn and John McCandless received hands-on learning and were able to design and effect their own projects. The print shop had a long hiatus before and during the war, but in 1946 was resurrected as part of the wood shop and used in writing projects involving Jimmy Tite, Harry Weitzer, and Ann Mayer. A visit by Anais Nin in 1947 was the catalyst for new literary publications, including Poems by M.C. Richards in 1948. This set the scene for the Olson years, when BMC nurtured energies that traveled to the west coast, Paris, and North Carolina’s own Jargon Press, published by Jonathan Williams. (A fun footnote to the latter is that the BMCM+AC has acquired the imprint and publications of the Jargon Society!)
All of these insights need fuel themselves to become realized. The first session of the conference highlighted the newly emerging resources for such work. UNC-A’s Ramsey Library is digitizing and organizing web pages for several BMC collections. The Western Regional Archive continues to add collections,including the BMC Project papers, generated and collected by Mary Emma Harris. The state archive has selected BMC documents in their online archive. The Black Mountain Studies Journal offers ongoing scholarship in the field. Rich resources indeed!
Design is not decoration, design means an understandable order. It is understandibility. It is not beauty. If it is understandable, it is beautiful. Josef Albers
Book arts came up in one last surprising setting – Julie Thomson‘s highly stimulating talk on Ray Johnson’s commercial design work. She offered the quote above and astounded the audience with images of standard New Direction titles whose covers were designed by Johnson and one of his mentors, Alan Lustig. She pointed out that Ray J had done prize-winning poster work back in Detroit, was a perfectly competent graphic designer – and helped promote the idea of integrating typography with visual art and design.
Congrats to the BMCM+AC for another great conference!
I never got around to posting about the wonderful BMC conference in 2012, but I’m getting a head start on this one! Above is a small souvenir/artwork which I will be distributing at the 2013 event October 11-13, a project inspired by Anni Albers’ fabric art entitled “Red Meander,” and also by the book in which I encountered the image, written by Christopher Benfey. Benfey is keynote speaker at this year’s conference, which as always includes a rich array of scholarly and creative responses to the legacy and spirit of Black Mountain College,from the dissection of BMC/Bauhaus connections to the performance poetry of Ted Pope.
Benfey’s book is called Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay, and is a unique family memoir that ranges far and near in exploring the connections of art, craft, and history to be found in his family history and connections. Anni Albers was Benfey’s aunt, and figures largely into his take on the relationships among artisan craft, creativity, and authenticity in artistic processes. I was very impressed with his insight regarding a productive tension Benfey discerns in the threads of influence to be found at Black Mountain College – that between calm, disciplined and reflective approaches and the unfettered spontaneity made famous by the Happenings at BMC.
This year’s conference promises to cover that same range of possibilities, with presentations on archive resources, technical poetics, action painting, transcendent pottery, the BMC print shop, and multiple assessments of the importance of Anni Albers and her husband Josef Albers. Looking forward to it.
The 2012 BMC conference, held at UNC-A and organized by The Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, centered on Buckminster fuller and the ways his ideas, many generated at BMC, have influenced our world. I would love to write about the ideas presented eventually, but above are thumbnails of a big highlight of 2012 – the outdoor technology fair that offered hands-on experiences of some of Fuller’s concepts. Click to enlarge, and be sure to check out this wonderful annual event sometime!
The BMC conference in October 2010 at UNC-A offered a wide range of wonderful BMC nuggets, but having put off posting about it so long, I’m sticking with the Ray Johnson material which is always my main priority. A big highlight was John Held’s mail art show and talk about mail art and the early days of the NY Correspondance School.
Ray’s inscrutable, radical but disarming approach to art has clearly led to a rich but fairly specialized body of critical writing and thinking about his work, immeshed but not entangled in the large “fan” following evident online. The main points of the former relate to Black Mountain College influences, the main thrust of the latter is mail art and performance art. Ray did not appear to observe such distinctions, but one thing I gained in the last two years of learning from BMCM+AC venues for Ray J work is that Ray Johnson was a major artist in the tradition of DuChamp, Miro, and Klee. Slowly, a body of academic work is relating his truly astonishing accomplishments both in the mainstream tradition of painting and his unique and irresistible gift and mandate: “Steal beauty from the mundane.”
The conference presentations offered delicious details about Ray’s process. Sebastian Matthews provided the quote above as he compared Ray’s obsession with found images to the “image collage” of Frank O’Hara poem “A Step away From Them.” Sebastian also elucidated with great insight about Ray’s Moticos, the secret embeddings and abrupt juxtapositions that Ray created in response to his environment. For Sebastian, Ray is a zen master of art, always indirect though immediate, balancing inward and outward by being aware of the act of being aware. Like O’Hara, a New York School poet, Ray scoured the city for images that enabled him to subvert and reconnect meanings.
Louly Peacock described how Ray subverted Pop Art (and pre-dated Warhol with celebrity portraits), teasing the major figures as in labeling Pollock “Action Jackson,” a nomiker that stuck. Her survey of phallic imagery in Ray’s work made her yet again the most entertaining speaker at the conference. Julie Thomson helped frame Ray’s performance art in showing the relationship between Ray and George Brecht of Fluxus fame, who” began to imagine a more modest, slyly provocative kind of art that would focus attention on the perceptual and cognitive experience of the viewer.” Brecht created “instructions for a toward event,” and along with Alan Kaprow paved the way for the Happenings – not to speak of Ray’s Nothings. Johanna Gosse portrayed Ray as a renegade of the gallery art world, deliberately obfuscating the market process, living in the “osmotic fluid flow” of daily aesthetic experiences, where the experience is the end, the process is the product.
Kate Dempsey revealed more of her discoveries about Albers’ fascination with pre-Columbian culture and how the Mayan hieroglyphs – still mysteries at the time- helped develop Ray’s sensitivity to text as an image source. Ray retained a geometric precision even as he evolved out of painting, and his love of codes, puns and multiple meanings ties together his early and late work.
The best insights into Ray were to be found at the talk by John Held while sorrounded by his mail art show. He walks the walk with mail art to this day and had much to share. He confirmed something also mentioned in the panel discussions – Ray’s moticos were featured in the very first Village Voice in 1955. He also described the importance of the 1970 correspondence art exhibit at The Whitney. He made it convincingly clear that Ray’s correspondence art was “not about the postal system,” but about “how you communicate aesthetics over a long distance.” Held stated that “Ray was building a community,’ and used no judgment or selection with his mailing lists.
The mail art show he exhibited had 170 entries from over 40 countries. It was impressive, entertaining, and a great tribute to the ongoing spirit of the NY Correspondance School. Ray Johnson continues to generate not only interest and academic attention, but exciting participatory tributes and art directly tracable to his genius.
One fun event I should share about from last fall is the presentation of a new BMC Wall in downtown Asheville. A large mural and several interesting installations grace an alley just off Broadway.
Several of the writers mentioned above are featured with Ray Johnson articles in an upcoming issue of the
Sebastian Matthew’s Ray J show essay with lots of Ray J images!
Jeffery Beam’s rich and varied literary contributions have been recognized here before, but his recent reading at the UNC Botanical garden was a found treasure. He was surrounded by friends and presented not only botanical poems from his latest book, Gospel Earth , but sang, remininsced, and read favorite passages from the poets who have influenced him. Jeffery’s wonderful voice, his energy, and his exuberant love for natural beauty made his reading a meditation and a spiritual sharing.
Gospel Earth is described on the Regulator Bookstore site as a “a collection of monostitches, micropoems, American sentences, small stones, small poem sequences, & minimalist poetry.” It begins with a plentitude of short quotes, almost all gemstones of thought from many different sources. Just as he shared his influences in the reading, his book says up front: here I stand, the earth my image, love my fuel, all the beauty I have been given is part of me. Those are my words and show Jeffery’s effect on one: spiritual and mindful.
Gospel Earth moves from the quotes to extremely short responses to images, many one line or even two or three words. The literary devices are almost invisible behind the strong zen and monastic distillations of pure meaning. The natural images shine for themselves in Jeffery’s deft and delicate frames. The Botanical Garden says Gospel Earth is
”a big book of little poems, [it] has already received acclaim for its transcendent, lush beauty; its minimal sacrament; and its simplicity and physicality. Described by the poet as a work intended to “invigorate the startling propulsion of haiku’s accessible simplicity and minimalism, while creating a more active canvas.”
The book does contain larger pieces, including a prose meditation on birding dedicated to Jonathan Williams (more about him below). One of my favorite pieces is a poem with notes that constitute an essay called “The Green Man’s Man.” The poem finds Jeffery immersed in Nature but always open to the philosophical notes in her song: ” I open Nature’s book/finding:/The more I know/The less I know.” The notes were written specifically for a different Botanical Garden event, and delve into the mythological image of the Green man. Jeffery tells us
The Green Man is not separate from us, he is our source, emphasizing & celebrating the positive creative laws of Nature, the native intelligence that shepherds and protects this world, and the ecological rightness that guides us.
Jeffery continues to enact and support the spirit of Black Mountain College in many ways and I hope to learn more of his scholarship regarding Jonathan Williams. He has presented numerous times about him, and is working on a bibliography. He has also shared manuscripts and links that make it clear he is a leading authority on the man’s life and significance.
Parts of this book also existed in online and pamphlet versions:
”to make open the eyes” Josef Albers All work of Ray Johnson on this site is used by permission of The Ray Johnson Estate
Ray Johnson was probably the most enigmatic and least appreciated artist of his importance in the 20th century. He was a man of many many layers, not so much depth, on first impression, just layers, fairly random factors that underlie and overlay his work. The show just ended at The Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center had many layers itself, over multiple valuable events, and provided a greatly needed showcase and explication for this “seminal figure of Pop Art” whose collages “influenced a generation of contemporary artists.”
The show and especially its catalogue were already reviewed here, but several subsequent events have enriched the impact of the show. Dr. Francis F. L. Beatty (quoted and seen above), a curator who works with the Ray Johnson Estate, gave a lecture at the BMCM+AC on May 21, using parallel slides to show that Ray displays elements in his collages that link him to the major artistic trends of the day. His wit, humor and intense communications of all kinds were highly stimulating but hard to classify, but his collages and the palette he created out of found and encountered material can be seen as fully in the tradition of Klee’ as well as Albers, while partaking of the humor of Dada. “I don’t make pop art. I make chop art.” Ray’s statement refers to his use of old work in new, and Dr. Beatty skillfully elucidated the way in which Ray’s “chop art” (often meticulous geometric constructions) came right out of his Black Mountain experience. She makes a point that reverberated through this show: the liberation of American education happening at Black Mountain served as well to “liberate Ray Johnson.” He found himself, and he found the principle that best illuminates the breadth of his work for me: images standing in for words, words become imagery.
Yet Ray remains enigmatic. Dr. Beatty spent much time on the 55 Moticos – huge intricate collages – which Ray made and destroyed, calling them “some of the earliest and most significant examples of Pop Art.” She recounted many personal interactions with Ray, such as the time he approached her and finally wanted to do a gallery display – of “Nothings.” Beyond his inscrutability, his avoidance of the commercial process, Dr. Beatty makes a simple but important point – the small scale of Ray’s visual work limited his gallery prospects and indirectly his artistic stature.
The scale of Ray’s imagination and willingness to live his life for art was unbounded, of course. The final night of the show, orchestrated by curator Sebastian Matthews, was a truly wild and wonderful event that did much to reflect Ray’s spirit. Music, poetry, and spoken word all filled the space.
“We have to seize the things we need to create.” These words were spoken in Picasso’s voice by Keith Flynt, one of the closing night performers (seen below).
Earl Bragg, seen above, offered a nine-eleven poem that featured number names – worthy of Ray’s glyphs and puns. His political themes and passionate phrases made for an excellent reading.
Local dramatists staged a reading of a collaged piece incorporating Ray’s play inside a play about Ray discussing a play with pink James Dean.
The final word has to go to Sebastian Matthews, who did such a magnificent job not only of putting on the show but of staying in touch with Ray’s spirit the whole time. He evoked and nurtured the image of Ray as filled with humor, energy – and a total lack of any sense of propriety. About the “chop art” and “lost art” which was so prominent in the show, he says: “Ray loved to make things up, kill them off, and resurrect them.”
The Ray show is dead, long live the Ray show.