Last week, the ICA opened “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957,” a comprehensive survey of the now-legendary North Carolina liberal arts school’s sprawling artistic legacy.
Capturing the interdisciplinary spirit and multitudinous history of Black Mountain is no simple task. Experimental, progressive, and often on the brink of insolvency, the school helped spur a crucial pivot from the modern to the contemporary. It encouraged collaboration and cooperation between artists (not to mention their viewers, listeners, and readers) and blurring lines between practices and media that might otherwise never have mingled — dance and weaving, painting and music, pottery and poetry.
Black Mountain’s particular prowess in poetry is commonly associated with its later years, once artists Josef and Anni Albers left the school in 1949 (the former was tapped in 1933 by founder John Rice to head the arts curriculum), and poet Charles Olson took the reins as rector in 1951. From that year until the school closed in 1957, it hosted numerous writers, many of whom had roots in or subsequently settled in New England.
But while poets like Worcester native Olson, Arlington native and eventual Brown University professor Robert Creeley, Milton’s own John Wieners, and the Californian Robert Duncan all sprang from Black Mountain in the mid-’50s and into the pages of Donald Allen’s landmark anthology, “The New American Poetry 1945-1960,” the energy behind their poems had been alive at Black Mountain for some time.
Steve Evans, an associate professor at the University of Maine who contributed essays to the exhibition’s catalog on Olson, Duncan, and the influential “Black Mountain Review,” edited by Creeley, suggests that there was a question central to the work of many of the artists and poets working at Black Mountain: “What happens at the moment where a mark is just beginning to bear meaning?”
Look at Franz Kline’s sweeping black lines or Rauschenberg’s white panels, or the tension and release in a dance piece from Merce Cunningham, or the conceptual openness of a John Cage composition, or in the Albers’ and Olson’s shared affinity for Mayan glyphs, and you can see the Black Mountain fascination with how and why art tips over into communicating ideas. Evans sees Olson’s influential theories of “projective verse” (which stressed the vitality of the breath and the body, and treated the empty page like an open field) as a poetic counterpart to action painting. “It’s the same idea that was used in abstract expressionism,” Evans says.
“Leap Before You Look” keenly addresses the poetic concerns of Black Mountain — the intersections of language with the body, the voice, collaboration, tactility, and presence — by incorporating poetry into the program in as many forms as possible.
Along with other printed poetic artifacts, issues of the “Black Mountain Review” are on display. Evans describes the “Review” as “a great test case for the collaboration between visual arts and poetry”; poems by Creeley or Olson could appear alongside works by Kline or Philip Guston. There are also three poetry stations featuring archival audio recordings of Olson, Duncan, and Creeley reading from their own work.
“We really wanted to bring the poets’ own voices into the show,” says co-curator Ruth Erickson, who also contributed essays to the catalog and is overseeing execution of “Theater Piece #1,” a John Cage piece first performed at Black Mountain in 1952. Widely considered the prototypical “happening,” it invited artists from multiple fields to participate through uncoordinated, spontaneous actions.
“Exactly who participated, we don’t know; and exactly what they did, we can only surmise,” Erickson says of the famously undocumented work. “It’s this great space of unknowing.”
As part of the exhibition’s performance component, the ICA will present an ongoing reimagining of “Theater Piece #1,” enlisting five local artists to propose different sets of “actions.” These include a multimedia performance from Jonathan Calm, Cage-inspired music by Timothy McCormack, a workshop in performance art with Kelly Nipper, a reading series of “Poets in Ekphrasis” organized by Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges, and a microcosmic reimagining of “Theater Piece #1” from writer, musician, and Exact Change publisher Damon Krukowski. Performances of each version will unfold over the exhibition’s run.
“Rather than try to re-create some idea of what actually happened, which sort of felt anathema to the very idea of ‘Theater Piece #1,’ we decided we would totally let that impulse go,” says Erickson, “and that we’d rather use its parameters and its energy to create something new.”
For Legros Georges, the influence of the Black Mountain poets still resonates throughout contemporary poetry — from the predominance of free verse to the importance of individual perception in making meaning. Her contribution to “Theater Piece #1 x 50” assembles nine local poets — Julie Ann Otis, Tanya Larkin, Clara Ronderos, Fanny Howe, Ruth Lepson, Martha Collins, Nicole Terez Dutton, Aaron Smith, and herself — to write poems in response to works in the exhibition, as well as read their own works. For her, Cage, whose works drift in the space between music, poetry, performance, and conceptual art, can be seen as a useful center of gravity within Black Mountain’s swirl of activity.
“There’s the idea of disciplines in art,” she says, “but I don’t think the world operates in disciplines. Cage confounds this idea of what we learn, what is our practice, what ought to be our practice, and how should art behave.”
For Krukowski, whose “Theater Piece #1 Revisited” will recur throughout the exhibition and include recorded and live music, dance, poetry, a reading of a “prose with silences” from Cage, and a series of “actions” which rely on visitors (hint: There’s a toy piano), Black Mountain’s poetic force came in large part from its radically different idea of arts education.
“Today, you have these specialized MFAs, and people who read poetry tend to be a sub-sub-culture,” he says. “You don’t have the sense, necessarily, of this fluid boundary of what poetry is or could be or can be in relation to the other arts.” At Black Mountain, “all the disciplines were really one, not divided necessarily into ideas of expertise, just ideas of technique.”
To that end, one of his favorite ways of thinking about the process and place of poetry at Black Mountain comes from one of its best-known potters, M.C. Richards. “Poets,” she wrote in 1962, “are not the only poets.”
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story misstated precisely what the poets in Danielle Legros Georges’s performance were responding to; it is the works in the show as a whole. The story was also updated to include a fuller list of those poets.