Friday, November 13, 2009

Artists as Collaborators

"Everybody seemed to be interested in other arts- that was probably the thing that was the most exciting."

That sounds very much like something several artists who have moved to rva have told me about our fair city. Actually, it references Black Mountain College, a N.C. university in which the study of art was seen as central to an education; it was open from 1933 through 1957 and an unusually high number of students and faculty went on to become major influential artists of the twentieth century.

"Black Mountain College: Education and the Arts" opened today at the Flippo Gallery at RMC and it was completely worth going to Ashland for the second time in less than 48 hours. The exhibition of photography, collages, paintings, prints and posters is a fascinating cross-section of the artists that came through BMC and influenced one another during that very fertile period in the late 40s.

The Robert Rauschenberg "Jacob Javitz Center" poster looks like an rva graphic designer's dream, with random images floating in the foreground. The Alvin Lustig Design magazine cover on first glance evokes an "Oh, I've seen that a million times" reaction; then you notice the year it was done - 1946- and you realize how influential this man's work was on subsequent generations of designers. Hazel Larsen Archer's photograph of "Merce Cunningham Dancing" is a study of the line of the dancer's body in mid-air, echoed on the ground by his tiny shadow behind him, looking like that of a doll.

Also fascinating was a look at the women who accompanied some of the men to BMC while they taught, but were really artists in their own right, albeit less well-known. There was an etching by Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, wife of faculty member and Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence. Sue Weil, Rauschenberg's wife, had come to BMC as a student and later married the artist; her "Musical Chairs" was like a Chinese puzzle with squares moved to the wrong places, causing a fractured image.

Probably most arresting were the photographs of the artists themselves; the handsome and artistic faces of composer John Cage and artists Rauschenberg, M.C. Richards and Willem de Kooning. We can only hope today's photographers are capturing current artists as meaningfully.

In the meantime, the exhibit is up through early January and it's a terrific reminder of the importance of creative people coming together and influencing each other. Just like what happens right here in River City.

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