Leap Before you Look: Black Mountain College (1933-1957) at the Hammer presents the first ever comprehensive survey of the North Carolina College in the United States. Curated by Helen Molesworth, the collection comes to life with particular pluck and clever presentation that is both charmingly archival and playfully approachable. With more than 250 objects, the exhibit offers enough material to appeal to an art historian and educate a novice.

Seeing the works in conversation with each other and their history creates a wonderful survey of this important piece of 20th century art history. Starting with a timeline, the exhibit guides you through the work chronologically and by medium to explore the depths of Black Mountain College.

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Josef Albers’s color-theory class with Nancy Newhall, Ray Johnson, and Hazel Larsen Archer, n.d. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Ashville, NC.

Black Mountain College was founded by a group of dismissed faculty members from Rollin’s University in 1933. The leader, John Rice, was influenced by philosopher John Dewey’s principles of a progressive education This education was rooted in learning through experiences, “realizing one’s own capacities and learning how to live with others.” It also drew greatly from European traditions and aesthetics as Black Mountain was a retreat for European expats during WWII. It quickly became a home for experimental art in America. 

But what is a school without teachers? The first hires were Josef and Anni Albers, who were integral to the vision of the school. The Albers embraced materiality and wanted to explore the relationship between all forms of expression. They eschewed the divides between art and craft (and later, performance).

A collection of color studies from one of Josef Alber’s lectures gives you the feeling of being in an art masterclass. The Alber’s Bauhaus inclinations were softened by several visits to Mexico from 1933-37. Photos from their travels in Mexico show the influence of the southern colors and pyramids. Serpentine spirals from archeological sites like Monte Alban and Tenayuca ooze through their work and become a formal theme. 

Photo by Kelby Vera

Color Study Demonstration by W. Pete Jennerjahn, from Albers’ lecture.

A rich sunflower yellow wall accents the gallery and becomes the backdrop to student studies from one of Alber’s class. The colors flicker as the slides change and a pair of iPads programmed with digitized copies of two students notebooks are available to peruse. The notebooks and student slides offer an intimate view from the Black Mountain student’s perspective.

Candid archival photos are enlarged to decorate whole walls. They show students studying photography in the gardens, relaxing on docks and swimming, and working together. These snapshots capture the charisma and energy of this mythical learning environment. They also show the work-ethos Black Mountain demanded during the lean years of the Depression. 

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Elaine de Kooning (center), R. Buckminster Fuller, Ray Johnson, Albert Lanier, and others with the Supine Dome, 1948. Courtesy Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC.

In addition to the Black Mountain’s focus on interdisciplinary learning, they promoted an environment of self-governance and collective organization in order to lessen the power divide between students and teachers. This meant students were in charge of almost all aspects of campus life, from cooking to farming to carpentry.

Black Mountain College was far ahead of its time regarding gender. Female artists were allowed to thrive at the school. In the exhibit, Anni Albers gets equal billing to her husband. Her tapestries capture glittering shapes and make some of the most charming pieces in the collection. The wavy weaving of Ruth Asawa sensually decorates the room and tempers the angular force of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes.

Of course the show must give a well-deserved nod to Buckminster Fuller and his experimental architecture. With the purchase of the Lake Eden campus in 1937, Black Mountain became a destination for architecture. There are scale-models of Fuller’s geodesic dome as well as photos of his many experiments with the design. The creation of the dome involved much trial-and-error, but Fuller emphasized failure as an essential part of the learning process. This would be adopted as fundamental to the experimental philosophy of Black Mountain.


John Cage’s “Water Music” and “Untitled” Ruth Asawa sculpture. Photo by Kelby Vera.

The exhibition makes space for music and performance to live besides visual art, in the tradition of the school. Dance was an important part of the social climate of Black Mountain and after John Cage and Merce Cunningham visited the school in 1948, it became fertile ground for some of the 20th century’s most important figures in dance.

In the center gallery, Cage’s music plays from the speakers with haphazard beauty— an unexpected jolt to the usually silent museum atmosphere. A piano sits besides a small black mat for dancing. Behind the mat is a wall for film projections. In the corner the notations for Cage’s “Water Music” are displayed at poster-size. They look like half sheet-music, half dance step diagram, capturing the whimsical power of the song.


Portrait of Charles Olsen and his poem “The Kingfisher.” Photo by Kelby Vera.

After the Albers’ departure in 1949, the school shifted its focus to poetry and literature under the guidance of writer Charles Olsen. Several portraits of prominent authors like Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan appear with their work. Below the portraits sit books to read through and headphones to listen to each writer recite their own work.

The final wall of the exhibit is potent: a deep teal with a description reading ‘Haptic’ gets to the core of Black Mountain College. Where most art prioritizes the visual, Black Mountain College wanted you to regard each sense as equal; to experience painting, dance, music and poetry on the same plane. Through the legacy of artists and aesthetics that Black Mountain College cultivated, they’ve achieved something beyond seeing.

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College (1933-1957) offers a beautiful entry point art initiates to learn and lets the art-buff immerse themselves in the fantasy of time passed. The collection offers enough work and history for several visits of thinking and enough enchantment to coax you to the Black Mountains of North Carolina whenever your imagination needs to wander.

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Photography students studying in a cabbage patch. Photo by Barbara Morgan.

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College (1933-1957) is at the Hammer until May 15th. You can visit for a schedule of related programming.