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!
Black Mountain College and BMC+AC, the Asheville museum and art center devoted to its memory and influence, continue to generate artistic and literary responses that reverberate with the powerful cultural forces that coursed through the college until 1957. An upcoming show at the Asheville center will feature Ray Johnson, whose personal correspondence with me is described on my Black Mountain page. I am looking forward to attending and writing about the show, whose curator, Sebastian Matthews, was so welcoming and enthusiastic at the recent BMC conference. He started a blog just for this show and it’s full of wonderful Ray J images and stories. Much more about Ray Johnson before and after the show in February.
Jeffery Beam, UNC botanical librarian and Hillsborough poet, has made a major contribution to Black Mountain documentation with his recently posted Jonathan Williams archive, which gathers a wide selection of photography, poetry and essays in order to capture the unique vision of Jonathan Williams. Jeffery and Richard describe the scope of the project below.
The work he produced for more than half a century is such that no one activity or identity takes primacy over any other. He is never only a poet or photographer, an essayist or publisher. What we find instead in the figure of Williams is a continuity that cuts across these practices — something we might call a poetics of gathering. All of his efforts are linked through an unswerving desire to collect and preserve, harvest and distribute.
The project, which resides at Jacket Magazine, includes a photo essay, past essays and new pieces in response to Williams’ death in 2008 or commissioned for this project. More details from Jeffery:
You’ll also discover 26 portraits of Jonathan from the age of about 12 up until 2005 – with other images scattered throughout the essays, 24 photographs by Jonathan – a number of which have never been published, works of art in honor of Jonathan, an unpublished interview with Jonathan by editor Richard Owens, a complete Jargon bibliography by Owens, and a selected Jonathan Williams publications bibliography compiled by me from a forthcoming complete bibliography. Jeffery Beam
Raleigh has some small claims to fame relative to Black Mountain lore. Long before Glenwood South became known as an art center, Gilliam & Peden Art Gallery on Glenwood Avenue organized a show, curated by Ben Williams, called Black Mountain Connection. It featured Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as many others as seen below. This is my copy of the prospectus for the 1987 show.
(click to enlarge)
The NC Museum of Art hosted a major exhibition of BMC material in 1987. In conjunction with this show, which also traveled to Annandale-on-Hudson and New York City, New York, , MIT Press published a truly sumptuous volume entitled The Arts at Black Mountain College by Mary Emma Harris. The book is wonderful, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t now come now with the checklist of the exhibition which is tucked inside my copy from the show. Looking over it, I recall the intense immediacy evoked by the multitude of so many different kinds of objects in that show. There were architectural models, prints, oils and products of every imaginable drawing device and surface; announcements, bulletins, programs, photographs, glyphs, scores, weavings, calligraphy, letterpress printings and bound books. You got a sense of the interspersing and practical (yet clearly micro-utopian) productivity of this self-contained culture studying culture. The exhibition, The Arts at Black Mountain College 1933-1957 was organized by the Edith C. Blum Art Institute of Bard College and contained 219 items.
NCSU’s Gregg Museum has also done its part for BMC. Anni Albers was featured in a 2007 lecture (links to pdf) by Mary Emma Harris (who had previously lectured there about the architecture of Black Mountain). The NCSU Colleges of Textile and Design offers specialized degrees combining design and technology through the Anni Albers Scholars Program, which “is named for a designer who exemplifies the ideals and goals to which the program aspires: textile designer and artist Anni Albers.”
Yet another local connection to the threads of BMC influence is Margret Kentgens-Craig, part-time Raleigh resident (and fondly remembered stalwart supporter of my Paper Plant bookstore), whose book The Bauhaus and America: First Contacts 1919-1936 delineates the major connections between the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College. Walter Gropius, a nine year director of the Bauhaus, lectured at the college, but also “tried continually to secure a teaching position at Harvard for Josef Albers.” Lucky for BMC he didn’t! Albers, according to Kentgens-Craig, “was the first Bauhaus master to acquire a position at an American educational institution, Black Mountain College. His wife Anni, who was Jewish, joined him.” The book describes the enormous impact Bauhaus ideas had on American architecture, and credits Lawrence Kocher, a BMC instructor, with creating opportunities for the dissemination of those ideas.
A final BMC note: Jeff Davis posted recently at his blog Natures previewing the Charles Olson Centenary Conference, taking place at Simon Fraser University in Briitish Columbia June 4-10, 2010. Jeff will be in Vancouver “to make a presentation on Olson’s curricular projects.”
what he could
when he got round
He is always alerting me to wonderful things, such as his readings for Groundhog Day, or a friend’s musical setting for a soldier’s last letter home, or the blooming of the Dove tree in the UNC Arboretum. Recently he gave me the news that Jonathan Williams had died. He knew the man and understood his importance as few do.
Here is the beginning of Jeffery’s obituary:
Poet, publisher, and photographer Jonathan Chamberlain Williams, founder of The Jargon Society press, one of the most renowned small presses of the last half of the twentieth century, and champion and publisher of some of the most important mid and late century poets in the United States and England, died on March 16, 2008 in Highlands, North Carolina. Williams, 79, began his avant-garde press while a student at the Chicago Institute of Design, naming it “Jargon” not only for its meaning of personal idiom, but after the French spring pear, “jargonelle” and the French “jargon,” meaning the twittering of birds.
Jeffery writes of his personal work, the incredibly important work of The Jargon Society press, but mostly he evokes for us the amazingly unique style and oulook of this man.
Williams’ interests and talents, revealed him as a Renaissance man – publisher; poet and satirist; book designer; editor; photographer; legendary correspondent; literary, art, and photography critic and collector; early collector and proselytizer of visionary folk art; cultural anthropologist; curmudgeon; happy gardener; resolute walker; and keen and adroit raconteur and gourmand. Williams’ refined decorum and speech, and sartorial style, contrasted sharply, yet pleasingly, with his delight in the bawdy, his incisive humor, and his confidently experimental and inventive poems and prose. His interests, in his own words, raised, “the common to grace,” while paying “close attention to the earthy.” At the forefront of the avant-garde, and yet possessing a deep appreciation of the traditional, Williams celebrated, rescued, and preserved, as he described it, “more and more away from the High Art of the city” settling “for what I could unearth and respect in the tall grass.”
Just closed is a show whose prospectus gives some idea of the many dimensions of this man. Thank you, Jeffery, as we try to find the proper way to remember and honor this unique individual.
Condolences may be sent to poet Thomas Meyer, Jonathan’s partner and
collaborator for forty years:
The Jargon Society
P O Drawer 10
Highlands, NC 28741