The now well-nigh legendary Atlanta art and performance center Eyedrum is reinventing itself in ways not unlike the legendary Black Mountain College’s continuous self-reinvention, so it is appropriate that Eyedrum is hosting, through Nov. 12, “Idea + Place — Advancing the Legacy of Black Mountain College,” a documentary exhibition from Asheville’s Black Mountain College Museum. (It’s the first time the items in the exhibit are being shown in Atlanta.)
The handsomely designed show presents not only the history of the college, but portions of its legacy and anecdotal glimpses of the trials and tribulations it experienced along the way.
Black Mountain College and Eyedrum have more in common than the very different trajectories of the two might suggest. In the spirit of the history-making educational enterprise of 1933-1957, Eyedrum has always fostered an improvisatory, multidisciplinary approach to creativity that has often elicited raised eyebrows in the surrounding community, yet it, like the college, has fostered creative individuals who have had a lasting impact.
Of course, the North Carolina experimental school was working from the start at a different academic level, serving as a place of refuge for professors in flight from Hitler and professors dismissed from institutions of higher learning in the United States. But Josef Albers’ color theory, Anni Albers’ approach to textiles, and such other contributions to American culture as John Cage’s music and Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes produced consequences that went far beyond the realm of higher education. After Albers, Charles Olson attracted students whose poetry had as great an impact on American literature as the college’s graduates established in the visual arts.
The exhibition begins with a quick summary of the cultural impact of the Bauhaus, from which Josef and Anni Albers had come and which inspired much of the college’s multidisciplinary curriculum. Then it surveys the evolution of Black Mountain College itself, through explanatory panels combined with vintage photographs of the college and of artworks.
This survey tells a coherent and often entertaining story, but it’s so much to take in that the exhibition will yield its riches most for those who have at least a passing knowledge of the cast of characters.
It isn’t necessary, however, to have any idea of how influential a photographer and cultural critic the College student Jonathan Williams later became when you peruse the tale of a visit from the FBI, based on the Veterans Administration fear that the college posed a threat to what it called “internal security.”
Credit: Jennifer Klask
Credit: Jennifer Klask
The FBI concluded that Williams’ unorthodox approach to learning how to write poetry appeared to be a valid college enrollment, despite what Williams called “some laxity in the keeping of records by the college.”
The FBI noted with concern, however: “A student may do nothing all day and in the middle of the night may decide he wants to paint or write, which he does, and he may call upon his teachers at this time for guidance.”
In this fashion, the exhibition offers enough snippets about such students and faculty as Robert Rauschenberg, Shoji Hamada, Merce Cunningham and Robert Creeley to provoke visitors to do their own investigation of the aspects of the unique institution that interest them most.
There have been a fair number of books about Black Mountain College in the half-century since Martin Duberman pioneered the re-evaluation of its history with “Black Mountain: An Experiment in Community,” so there are ample sources to satisfy curiosity.
This includes Amanda Fortini’s July 7 survey essay in The New York Times, which serves as a very useful companion to this show. Each provides depth in aspects of Black Mountain College that the other mentions only in passing.
VISUAL ART REVIEW
“Idea + Place - Advancing the Legacy of Black Mountain College”
Through Nov. 12. Eyedrum, 515 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. SW, Atlanta. eyedrum.org.
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