The connections between the Wexner Center and Black Mountain College go back to long before Leap Before you Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957. Below, Curator at Large Bill Horrigan shares more about this special relationship.
During the 2016 Fall semester, courses taught by professors in six Ohio State departments (Art, History of Art, Classics, Dance, Theatre, and Comparative Studies) will be devoted in part or in whole to Leap Before You Look. While meaningful curricular tie-ins with the center’s program offerings are always pursued, with this exhibition, those connections seemed almost to write themselves. It’s a testament to Black Mountain’s game-changing impact on post-WWII American culture.
Certainly its legacy is embedded within contemporary arts institutions like ours, founded on the values of experimentation and risk. That’s why it’s at once startling and unsurprising to read in the Wex’s very first calendar of events, in November 1989, the introduction to John Cage’s Essay installation begins by pinpointing the source: “The landscape of the performing arts has changed dramatically since John Cage orchestrated his first happening at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1952.”
Cage’s Essay, a sonic installation in the Performance Space, was part of the Wex’s first exhibition, Prologue: The Building, and it was followed in the first months of 1990 by a lecture/performance by the artist himself, plus a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the presence of Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning in the exhibition, Art in Europe and America: The 1950s and the 1960s. All four artists had spent overlapping time at Black Mountain before each of them would go on to become radical disrupters within the American avant-garde.
Over the years, other Black Mountain artists would infiltrate the Wex’s program history—Elaine de Kooning and Ray Johnson in Face Value: American Portraits in 1996, Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly in Part Object Part Sculpture in 2005, and one-person shows by de Kooning and Johnson in 1999 and 2000, respectively. The Cage/Cunningham partnership was honored with the Wexner Prize in 1993, with Rauschenberg receiving that accolade in 2000. On the latter occasion, Black Mountain’s irreverent ethic informed the curatorial choice of placing a number of Rauschenberg works throughout the galleries, interspersed within three otherwise unrelated exhibitions.
Inevitably, the Black Mountain artists would come to be interpreted and invoked by others such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project, which performed a piece by Cunningham here in 1997. Tacita Dean’s 35mm film portrait of Cunningham, Craneway, screened here in 2010, and as part of her 2012 solo exhibition, Annie Leibovitz included portraits of Cage and Cunningham in an extraordinary collage of artists whose work the Wex has supported over past decades.
Even now, roads continue to lead to and from Black Mountain. In the mid-1990s, Charlie Ahearn was a resident in our Film/Video Studio Program, producing a documentary portrait of Martin Wong that accompanied our exhibition of Martin Wong: Human Instamatic, on view here this past summer. As it happens, while the exhibition was here, Ahearn was in North Carolina on the college’s original site from 1933-1940. He participated in the inaugural session of Black Mountain School, a summer program held there “to create conditions necessary for a present day community of pioneering artists and critical thinkers.” In many ways and places, Black Mountain College persists.