When Jeff Arnal stepped into the role of executive director at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center just about two years ago, one of his first initiatives was to apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The subsequent $25,000 Art Works award from the NEA, along with $60,000 from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, was earmarked for the curation of Between Form and Content: Perspectives on Jacob Lawrence and Black Mountain College.
The exhibition, which opens Friday, Sept. 28, not only examines the work of one of the most widely regarded modern artists of the 20th century but also celebrates the relocation of BMCM+AC to its new 120 College St. home.
Lawrence, who was born in New Jersey in 1917, spent eight weeks during 1946 at one of Black Mountain College’s summer sessions. He and his wife, fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, were invited as visiting faculty by Bauhaus artist, educator and Black Mountain College teacher Joseph Albers. “When people think about Jacob Lawrence, they tend to think about his subject matter and his content — his focus on African-American life in the urban environment, particularly in Harlem, and his serial paintings about African-American historical figures,” explains Julie Levin Caro, who is co-curating the show with Arnal. “He also painted images of workers and builders and craftsmen. He painted images of struggle and images of hope. There’s so much focus on his content, which is so important and so seminal to the history of American art. But it struck me that often people didn’t talk about him as an incredible modernist and the way he uses color and the way he reduces form and creates complex, reductive spaces.”
At a 2015 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which focused on Lawrence’s Migration series (a 60-panel set of narrative paintings depicting the mass relocation of African-Americans from the American South to Northern states; it earned the artist national recognition when he was just 23), “the focus was definitely more on the content than his modernist style. I was already thinking about curating [the Asheville] exhibition, and I knew that by focusing on Lawrence’s time at Black Mountain College and his interactions with Joseph Albers, learning about his Bauhaus ideas — about color, shape, form, texture and space, which is what Lawrence said it was about for him — that would give me the opportunity to put Lawrence’s modernist style into focus. And it would also allow me to talk about his important career as a teacher.”
Caro’s area of expertise is in African-American and modern American art, “so I’ve always known about Jacob Lawrence as an important artist, and I’ve always known about Black Mountain College as an important institution that supported innovative art,” she says.
When Caro moved to the Asheville area in 2011 to teach art history at Warren Wilson College, “I was inspired to do this exhibition, and I knew I had the resources here with the Western Regional Archives that hold the Black Mountain College papers,” she says.
Endless summerThe experimental liberal arts institution Black Mountain College, once located on the property that is now home to Camp Rockmont, started contemplating racial inclusion in the 1930s and, in the 1940s, began to incorporate African-American culture and history into its programming. Albers was pro-integration but was concerned about the timing. In 1944, he went so far as to write to author Zora Neale Hurston, seeking her advice. Two years later, he invited the Lawrences to the campus.
“What motivated me to want to do this exhibition, first of all, was curiosity,” says Caro. “There were a number of quotes I came across where Lawrence explained that this was an important experience — going to Black Mountain College, connecting with Joseph Albers, learning about the Bauhaus way of teaching and thinking about art.”
For Caro, the touchstone of Lawrence’s summer in Western North Carolina is an iconic photograph of the faculty of the 1946 Black Mountain College summer session all standing around a tree. Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence are there, with others such as Albers and his wife, textile artist and printmaker Anni Albers, painter John Varda, sculptor Leo Amino and designer Leo Lionni. Works from those artists are also included in the exhibition to lend context to the selections from Lawrence’s output that will be on display.
The show marks a new milestone for BMCM+AC in terms of borrowing work. “We have about 25 lenders,” says Arnal. “We’re borrowing work from major institutions all over the country,” including Clark Atlanta University, the Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, Howard University Art Gallery and — from the U.S. Coast Guard Museum — “Disembarkation,” painted while Lawrence was serving during World War II and related to The War Series, which he worked on while in Black Mountain.
Worth noting, BMCM+AC has already mounted an exhibition of Gwendolyn Lawrence’s work. While at the college with her husband in 1946, Gwendolyn sat in on classes with Albers and Amino. She also taught modern dance, informally, in the dining hall. “It’s a superinteresting and cool thing because one of the things Black Mountain College is so famous for is [its] innovations in modern dance with Merce Cunningham,” says Caro, pointing out that Gwendolyn was there two years before Cunningham arrived.
Though the Lawrences didn’t return to Black Mountain College or the Asheville area, the influence of the summer of ’46 played out in more ways than just creative output. The following summer, Lawrence did return to the South to paint on commission from Fortune magazine, likely due to a connection made with the magazine’s art director, Will Burtin, while they were both teaching at the college.
In 1949, poet Langston Hughes made an unannounced trip to Asheville, where he visited the Allen School, a private boarding school for girls of color. “He visited Black Mountain College as well,” says Caro. “He came because Jacob Lawrence had told him about it. That’s an interesting connection.”
Moving on up
The original BMCM+AC — which was founded by arts advocate Mary Holden in 1993 “to celebrate the history of Black Mountain College,” according to the museum’s website — was nomadic for its first five years before moving into an office (that doubled as a piano practice room) at Warren Wilson College. Early exhibitions were held at Zone one, the gallery of local artist Connie Bostic, located on Biltmore Avenue. (Earlier this month, the museum announced the naming of its gallery in honor of Bostic.) “[After] Warren Wilson, there were some shared office spaces at the Kellogg Center [a UNC Asheville-owned conference center in Horse Shoe], but it was short-lived,” before moving to its most recent home at 56 Broadway, says Arnal. The museum briefly expanded to a storefront at 69 Broadway as well, but a complication with the lease saw it return to one address.
The new BMCM+AC location — two levels of exhibition and event space adjacent to Pack Square Park — is well-suited to the growing institution’s needs. It came about by kismet. Arnal and Alice Sebrell, the museum’s program director and curator, had been looking for larger spaces in and around Asheville, to no avail. One day, when passing by 120 College St. — a 1925 building that previously housed attorneys offices and was once the home of the Asheville Times newspaper — Arnal happened to meet Miami-based building owner Charles Desseau, who offered to lease 6,000 square feet to BMCM+AC, with a plan to buy. “We understood that we need more gallery space and could take on more complicated exhibitions and projects,” says Arnal. “The path to ownership was key.”
The upfitting of the property has been extensive: The plumbing and electrical systems were replaced; a new HVAC system allows for museum-quality temperature control of artwork and archives; 17 zones of dimmable lighting helps to accentuate exhibitions; and a service elevator has been added. But some historical features remain: Blackened floor boards were refinished to reveal red oak; the tin ceiling was restored; and natural lighting from a large back window set into the brick wall floods the new library area.
The upgrade not only marks the growth of the museum, now in its 25th year, but allows for expansion of programming, making its grand opening the perfect time to mount the Jacob Lawrence exhibition.
The growth afforded by the new 120 College St. location — and the NEA and other grant funds — allowed Arnal to authorize production of projects by contemporary artists. “We … see commissioning new works inspired by Lawrence as an opportunity to expand the conversation around the artist’s historic and cultural relevance and the influence of his work on current creative practice,” says the BMCM+AC webpage for the exhibition.
“How do [we] continue to cultivate and connect with our local community and uncover and share this history and legacy that is so important and inspiring, but then also look, as Black Mountain College did, to national and international communities and artists and bring them to Asheville to produce and share their ideas?” Arnal asks. Part of that question was answered by the three artists selected to create new work for the exhibition.
That group includes animator/filmmaker Martha Colburn, whose films are among the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania. “I am animating a selection of paintings by Jacob Lawrence and doing this by using collage methods and stop-motion animation,” she explains of her Asheville piece. “The series of films is based on paintings that involve the use of tools in [Lawrence’s] paintings.”
Composer and electronic musician Tyondai Braxton (the former frontman of the experimental rock group Battles), was recently in Asheville to perform as part of the Make Noise 10th-anniversary celebration. His 2013 multimedia sculptural and electronic project HIVE, in collaboration with artist Uffe Surland Van Tams, premiered at the Guggenheim Museum. With his partner Grace Villamil, an artist and photographer, he conceived of an installation that includes constellationlike networks with a multitrack sound piece for the Lawrence exhibition.
Artist and writer Jace Clayton, aka DJ Rupture, “uses an interdisciplinary approach to focus on how sound, memory and public space interact, with an emphasis on low-income communities and the global South,” according to a press release. “Recent projects include The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, a touring performance piece for grand pianos, electronics and voice.”
For his part in the Lawrence exhibition, “What he’s settled on is a lecture-performance including an animation,” Arnal explains. “A component of his piece will live inside [120 College St.] on a video monitor.” Clayton will perform his commissioned work, “The Jacob Lawrence of Jacob Lawrence,” in conjunction with the African Americans in WNC & Southern Appalachia Conference on Friday, Oct. 19.
Right at home
There’s also a strong local component around the exhibition. Student artwork will be hung in the library of 120 College St. Local artist and educator Cleaster Cotton “will be part of the team that works in [area middle] schools in November, and we’ll have a community day in December,” says Arnal. The students will visit the Lawrence exhibition and create their own responses inspired by the ideas from the show.
The PERSPECTIVES Lunchtime Conversations series (second Wednesdays, October-January, at noon), held at the museum, features Cotton, artist and writer Clarissa Sligh, and historian and educator Darin Waters; as well as Barbara Earl Thomas, the former director of Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum, who studied with Lawrence. The series offers context for Lawrence’s work from their areas of expertise. Hood Huggers International, founded by local artist and poet DeWayne Barton, will lead walking and driving tours in collaboration with BMCM+AC. And Jacob Lawrence Community Day, on Saturday, Nov. 3, offers exhibition tours, poetry and art activities for all ages. The program is in partnership with LEAF Community Arts’ Easel Rider crew, including Cotton and Barton.
The educational element, and the many opportunities for the Asheville area community to interact with Lawrence’s work, in whatever way best suits each art enthusiast, seems in keeping with Lawrence’s own relationship to creative process. “In an early quote I came across, Jacob Lawrence said, ‘I am a student of the Bauhaus when I am teaching,’” says Caro.
She adds, “During my research, I spoke to one of his colleagues [Mike Spafford, a fellow painter] at the University of Washington, and he said one of the things he learned from [Lawrence], was ‘Always say yes’ when people offer things to you or people invite you to things.” In that attitude of saying yes, Caro muses, “I think [Black Mountain College] ended up being a wonderful opportunity for him.”
WHAT: Between Form and Content: Perspectives on Jacob Lawrence and Black Mountain College
WHERE: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 120 College St.
WHEN: Opening reception for exhibition and grand opening for new museum location on Friday, Sept. 28, 6-8 p.m. The exhibition remains on view through January. Visit blackmountaincollege.org/exhibitions for programming and related events