fb-pixel Skip to main content

Recalling Black Mountain’s incident on the lake

“Female Figure” by Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg (left) and Rauschenberg’s “Minutiae” in “Leap Before You Look.” Globe Staff

It had been snowing for a couple of hours at Black Mountain College on the night of Monday, Jan. 28, 1952. Conscious of the plummeting temperature, Charles Olson, the hirsute, heavy-set, and heavy-drinking poet who had only recently — and still as yet unofficially — taken over the running of the college, knew it would be a good idea to drain the water cock of his car’s radiator.

But it was dark. He needed a flashlight.

He went down to the dining hall, a large, wooden building on the south side of picturesque Lake Eden. It was here that dance rehearsals, lectures, and concerts were held.


And it was here, the following summer, that perhaps the most famous event in the history of Black Mountain College took place. Documented in “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957,” a major exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art that closes on Jan. 24, and referred to as “Theater Piece No. 1” — or simply “The Event” — it emerged from discussions between the composer John Cage, the pianist David Tudor, and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

All three had the idea of staging a theatrical piece in which several unconnected activities would take place within the same time frame. The whole school attended the performance, but no one could later agree on what actually took place.

According to Cage, he stood on a ladder and delivered a lecture while Cunningham, pursued by a small white dog, danced a solo in front of and among the audience. Olson and Mary Caroline Richards recited passages of their poetry. Photographs and snippets of movies were projected onto all-white paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, which were hung at an angle from the ceiling. Rauschenberg himself played old and scratchy records on a windup Victrola with a loudspeaker horn.


But “Theater Piece No. 1” was still several months off in the future. On this night, when Olson arrived at the dining hall, he found Cy Twombly playing the little organ with three other male students on guitar, drums, and piano. They were bashing out something intense by Cage’s friend, the experimental composer Morton Feldman.

“Too bad you weren’t here earlier,” said Twombly, when he saw Olson enter. “We were really beating it out. Now, it’s leveling off.”

Olson revealed his purpose — the flashlight. Twombly told him he could find one in Rauschenberg’s car.

Olson had already noticed that the two artists, Twombly and Rauschenberg, were “constantly together.” They had met at the Art Students League in New York. Twombly was from Lexington, Va. He was the son of a former pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He was tall, confident, good-looking, and his painting impressed Olson.

“MIN-OE” by Cy TwomblyCraig F. Walker/Globe Staff

It was strange. Even the things Twombly made in a frenzy the night before also looked somehow as if they had been around forever. A painting he had made the previous year, “MIN-OE,” hangs in “Leap Before You Look” beside works by Rauschenberg. Thickly painted off-white and blue-gray forms stand against a black ground, conjuring the zoomorphic forms of ancient Iranian metalwork — or an illuminated shape reflected in water at night.

But Olson, whom Twombly had asked that very day to write a preface for his upcoming show, was not the only one impressed by his work. The painter Robert Motherwell had recently described him as “the most accomplished young painter whose work I happen to have encountered.”


Rauschenberg, Olson was less crazy about. There was something skittish and unpredictable about the boy. He, too, was from the South. But where the naturally aristocratic Twombly was a Virginian of Yankee descent, Rauschenberg was the son of fundamentalist Christians from Port Arthur, an oil-refining town on the Texas Gulf Coast.

A photo of Robert Rauschenberg by Hazel Larsen Archer.Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, Asheville, NC.

The idea that there was such a thing as being an artist hadn’t even occurred to Rauschenberg until he visited the Huntington Art Gallery in California in his early 20s, he told Calvin Tomkins.

He had been drafted during the war, and had ended up, after boot camp training, working with disturbed draftees and traumatized soldiers at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. “This is where I learned how little difference there is between sanity and insanity and realized that a combination is essential,” he said.

He was still, evidently, working on getting the combination right. His remarkable good looks, boundless energy, and winning grin could not hide the fact that he was a loner, sensitive to criticism, prone to self-indulgence, and in the middle of a profound personal crisis.

Unlike Twombly, who had had a great year, Rauschenberg’s 1951 had ended in “total defeat.” His show at Betty Parsons Gallery had received disappointing reviews. Parsons had chosen not to renew his contract. But the problem was not just that he was feeling the “terrible pressure,” as Olson had surmised, “of the clear genius of this lad, Twombly.” The bigger problem was that Rauschenberg was falling in love with Twombly.


This was difficult. In fact, it was excruciating, because Rauschenberg was already in love with, and married to, another artist, Susan Weil. And they had just had a son, Christopher.

Rauschenberg had met Weil in Paris in 1948. They were both enrolled in art classes at the Academie Julian. Weil, who was just 18 — six years younger than Rauschenberg — was shy, and walked with a limp. As a child, she had been in a motorboat with her father and brother when it caught fire. Her brother was killed. She was badly burned.

Unlike Rauschenberg, Weil had grown up in a family that, as she explained, “went to galleries and museums and talked about art.” And so, in this early period of their relationship, she helped Rauschenberg “find his way.”

This ultimately involved leading him to Black Mountain. Visiting the college as a high school student, Weil had left determined to study under Josef Albers, the rigorous former Bauhaus teacher who had run the college since 1933.

An article in Time magazine had described Albers as “the greatest disciplinarian in America.” Rauschenberg felt that he could do with some discipline, so he followed Weil to the college in the fall of 1948.

Albers’s manner was such that everyone, even favored students, “would dissolve into tears at some point,” remembered Weil. But he was particularly tough on Rauschenberg.


“I was Albers’s dunce,” he later said, “the outstanding example of what he was not talking about.” Albers’s criticism of him was relentless. And yet Rauschenberg still rated him “a beautiful teacher.” Years later, he said, he was “still learning what he taught me.”

That first semester, Rauschenberg met Cage, who had been invited to teach a course in the structure of music and choreography, and Cunningham, who was teaching a workshop in modern dance. But he spent most of his time with Weil. They were in love and inseparable. Albers called them the “Bobbsey twins.”

The atmosphere at the college was democratic, youthful, idealistic. It was also fraught: “There was always some super-emotional revolution going on . . . so that every morning at breakfast half the student body would be in tears,” Rauschenberg remembered.

Weil and Rauschenberg left at the beginning of the summer of 1949, just as Albers’s directorship was coming to an acrimonious end. They enrolled at the Art Students League in New York, and spent the summer of 1949 on Outer Island, where Weil’s family had a house. “Rauschenberg and I were really finding our way together, in that tender period before you legitimately can call yourself an artist,” recalled Weil. The following year, they began experimenting with blueprints, the primitive photograph process whereby objects are placed on photo-sensitive paper exposed to the light.

When Weil and Rauschenberg decided to make a full-scale image of her 6-year-old brother, Jimmy, they became the first artists to use the blue-print process to make actual full-scale images of the human figure.

The sheets they used became larger and larger. The department store Bonwit Teller put them in its windows along Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. The Museum of Modern Art included one in a show devoted to photography and abstraction. (A striking one is featured in “Leap Before You Look.”)

They were married in June 1950, and Weil was pregnant by the end of the year. She gave birth to Christopher in July 1951. But within a month, Rauschenberg had returned to Black Mountain, leaving Weil and their colicky son in New York. “I wasn’t getting much work done,” she later said, wryly summarizing a period that must have been sleepless and full of anxiety.

Rauschenberg was no longer officially a student at Black Mountain, but he had come to treat the place as a refuge — both from the pressures of finding himself as an artist, and from a marriage that was, as Weil acknowledged, falling apart.

He returned from Black Mountain to spend most of the winter with Weil in New York. But in January, he was back by Lake Eden, with his flashlight, when Olson came looking for it.

And that’s when one of those odd, inexplicable, deeply private things happened: an event (quite unlike “The Event” performed later that summer, which went down in all the art textbooks) that belongs to no larger art-historical narrative, and which can barely find a place within any sensible biography. Instead, it was a glitch, an embarrassment, a brain-snap — a human occurrence both inchoate in origin and unclear in consequence, a sort of dream action that beguiles us, leaving behind an impression like the indentations in the empty half of a marital bed. Pressure. Longing. Absence.

So again: It is late January, it is dark, it is snowing, and we are by a lake in the hills outside Asheville, N.C. Rauschenberg had been playing canasta up at the farm an hour earlier. Hyped up, as Twombly later tells Olson: “He had shaken all over trying to get a winning hand down.”

Now, in the dining hall, as Twombly and his friends bash out their music, Rauschenberg is seen leaving the hall barefooted — “blown out by the pressure” of the music, according to Olson.

“Bob put your shoes on,” Twombly says. Olson, who has had a long day of classes and meetings, is outside, desperately keen to get home to his wife, Constance, who is still up, feeding their baby, Kate.

Suddenly, as he is turning away, there is a cry from the direction of the dining hall, near the path that leads to the lake: “Olson, the flash, hurry!”

He turns, walks, and then — picking up on an unnamed urgency — he begins to run. He passes the flashlight to Nick Cernovich, who points it in the direction of the lake, and sees the beam pick out a head in the water.

The situation becomes suddenly clear: “Twombly,” wrote Olson the next morning to his friend Robert Creeley, in a tone, still adrenalized, of lingering dismay, “was 20 feet out, up to his hips, and saying, with as much tension as his southern voice can, that he couldn’t go any further, that he couldn’t catch his breath. And it was Rauschenberg farther out, out towards the middle, making these moans, & catchings of the voice.”

Olson knows he has to act. He wraps his overcoat around him, thinking that he’ll have to dive in after Rauschenberg. Then, a better idea comes: He starts off around one side of the shore to find the raft in the dark.

He is hurrying. He can see Rauschenberg turning out further toward the middle of the freezing lake. Now, suddenly, he sees Twombly begin to turn back in, “defeated by the cold.”

Whether because Rauschenberg wants to be rescued by Twombly and now has to relinquish this hope, or for some other reason, he, too, now reverses course, and begins to head back in.

And that, in essence, is it. “It was over,” wrote Olson, “the sense, that he might be going under, and, that I should have to plunge in.”

Twombly halted his retreat and moved a little back toward Rauschenberg, cooing, “This way Bob, this way.” Olson told the student who had brought him a second flashlight to get blankets. Shining the light back on Twombly and Rauschenberg, he saw them finally emerging from the water.

Rauschenberg was a cold and sodden mess, “with no focus in his eyes.” Olson hurried him, “half-carrying him,” into the dining hall and through to the kitchen, where there was fire, all the while resenting (as he openly admitted to Creeley) “the wetness of his clothes against me (I do not like him).”

The episode perturbed Olson deeply. He went to bed feeling a chill in his ankles, and fell asleep “still as though I had been in the lake.”

What he couldn’t get out of his head was what he had noticed when he had bundled Rauschenberg into the kitchen. Four men had been sitting at the table, openly ignoring the drama. None seemed surprised by Rauschenberg’s actions; none felt obliged, as had Olson despite his dislike, to help him.

In fact, one of the four was even “wreathed,” wrote Olson — who fails to hide in his account a homophobic disgust at the behavior of what he calls “these sexually marginal girls & boys” — “in as pleased and passive a smile as I have ever seen.”

Of all the actors in this strange night-time melodrama, buffeted by riptides of jealousy and desire, it was only Twombly, “hunched over an electric burner, quietly,” who retained his dignity in Olson’s eyes.

Had the idea of dignity been anywhere in his consciousness at this point, Rauschenberg may have felt the same way. But he was probably too distressed and confused. Whether his berserk behavior was a genuine attempt to drown himself or a mere cry for attention is perhaps unimportant.

In truth, though Rauschenberg would soon become one of the most justly celebrated artists of the second-half of the 20th century, he was at this moment simply a bewildered young man trying to negotiate a weird amalgam of jealousy, despair, creative rivalry, and infatuation.

He still loved Weil. Together, they returned to Black Mountain in the early summer. But Weil and Christopher departed after just a few weeks, and divorce proceedings began in the fall.

Depressed, Rauschenberg accepted Twombly’s invitation to join him on a trip to Europe. They went to Rome, Spain, and then North Africa. During their time away, they collaborated on work, making major breakthroughs, ingesting indelible influences.

But all that is another story.

The incident on the lake is what lingers in the mind. Had Olson not recorded it, as the poet himself marveled, it might all have passed “into the silences of history . . . just as though he [Rauschenberg] had gone for a swim and had come out, with no help. . . . No-one except those involved would have known that the event had happened at all.”

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957

At Institute of Contemporary Art,

through Jan. 24. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.