A tale of two painters

Black Mountain College opened in 1933 and closed in 1957. Do the math, and that would put the youngest students of BMC somewhere around 70 years of age. “We have 255 names and addresses of alumni in our database,“ says BMCM+AC programs director Alice Sebrell. “Unfortunately, many of them are reaching the age of declining health. News of deceased alumni arrives more and more frequently.”

For this reason, BMCM+AC has begun a series of Living Legacy exhibitions. Last summer, the sculptures and photographs of Kenneth Snelson were exhibited. In February, North Carolina artist Irwin Kremen’s work will be on display, and Pat Passelhof — an artist who studied closely with Willem de Kooning — will be exhibited in 2012. “That’s the point of the Living Legacy series — to organize shows of those who are still living and working at a high level while they can be around to enjoy it,“ says Sebrell.

Through February 2011, BMCM+AC exhibits the paintings of Donald Alter and W.P. “Pete” Jennerjahn. Considering that both artists are in their 80s and have been creating art throughout their lives, the small exhibit (around 15 paintings each) is a slim representation of their oeuvres. Nevertheless, it is a significant presentation of each artist’s creative progression.

A series of paintings produced by Jennerjahn while he was still at Black Mountain College in the late 40s and 50s, present overlapping shapes and shifting colors rendered thickly in oils. These graphic paintings become even more interesting when one considers the era in which they were produced.

“What was in effect in the U.S. at the time was that you were realistic about color,” Jennerjahn, 86, told Xpress. “It was during the Depression days, and people we looked up to were doing murals in post offices and we were urged to do work murals. Colors did not have independence or a value other than their literalness.”

Jennerjahn says he enrolled in BMC because he had heard about Josef Alber’s revolutionary approach to color theory. “[He taught us] that if you wanted a whole other feeling to arise from what you were working on, you could feel free to abandon the old rules.”

Albers’s teachings continue to influence Jennerjahn. “I’m always challenging myself,” he says. “I’ll put a color down and think about which color I don’t want to see next to that color. I work with those colors to figure out how to make it all work together. More or less I am still struggling to keep from falling into the same combinations of things.”

Donald Alter was only 17 when he entered Black Mountain College in 1948. “This was a geographical location where all these artists could converge,” Alter says. “It became a community where any talent could shine and emerge. Nobody would ever think that Rauschenburg would be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”

Today Alters, who is 80, lives in New York’s Hudson River Valley, and his paintings of the last decade reflect the lush landscape and urbanization of that region. “Transformation,” a small piece he made at Black Mountain College in 1949, demonstrates Alter’s playful use of shape, color and vigorous line. It is not unlike “Hudson Valley Weave,” a painting Alter produced in 2008. When viewed side by side, the paintings and prints at BMCM+AC demonstrate Alter’s ability to evolve his aesthetic without compromising his original creative voice.

So what do Alter and Jennerjahn think of the new generation of artists who have emerged since the BMC days? “They are much freer than when I was going through art studies back in the ‘40s,” says Jennerjahn. “But there are still a number of them caught up in the old attitudes in relation to color so they’re not making full use to what the medium has to offer them.”

Says Alter, “This is a lesson I try to impart to young people: They stand in awe of Black Mountain as this great place where all of these great artists lived. But I keep telling these people that there’s great talent all over, and you can’t recognize it until you let it develop and emerge.”

      Visit artseenasheville.blogspot.com to read full transcripts of interviews with Donald Alters and W.P. Jennerjahn.

what: Two Painters: Donald Alter and W.P. “Pete” Jennerjahn, part of the “Living Legacy” series
where: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 56 Broadway. blackmountaincollege.org or 350-8484.
when: Through Feb. 5

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