The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (BMCM+AC) has been awarded a $25,000 Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and $60,000 from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts to mount Between Form and Content: Perspectives on Jacob Lawrence and Black Mountain College, the first-ever exhibition to focus on the African-American painter’s experiences at BMC during the summer of 1946. This funding will allow the museum to produce a print and online catalogue for the exhibition, on view September 2018–January 2019, as well as commission new works by three of today’s most celebrated multimedia artists, who will create sound, video, and animation pieces as a response to Lawrence’s legacy and to the historic Black Mountain College campus at Lake Eden, located just minutes from the museum’s downtown Asheville location.
“The story of Jacob Lawrence’s BMC experience is one that needs to be told,” says BMCM+AC’s executive director, Jeff Arnal, who serves as performance curator for the exhibition. “It’s key to understanding his place as one of the great modernist masters and to more fully recognizing the broad educational impact of BMC. We’re thrilled to receive support from the NEA and Horowitz, two of the country’s integral arts allies, in this effort.”
One of the most widely regarded American artists of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) created paintings, drawings, and prints chronicling African-American history and experience during his lifetime. Known for creating pictorial compositions that hover between abstraction and a socially inspired narrative realism, Lawrence communicated his subject matter in a direct and powerful manner through a distinctive use of expressionistic color, line, and form, organized by a sophisticated design aesthetic.
With the 2018 show, the museum hopes to greatly expand current scholarship about Lawrence, particularly around his role as a teacher. “Lawrence’s long and distinguished career as an educator has often been treated as a footnote to his work as a painter,” explains exhibition curator Dr. Julie Levin Caro, an expert in the field of African-American art and professor of art history at Warren Wilson College. Josef Albers invited Lawrence to teach painting at BMC in the summer of ’46, and his exposure to Albers’ Bauhaus-inspired theories and teaching methods greatly influenced his path, including his artistic explorations. In Lawrence’s own words, “When you teach, it stimulates you; you’re forced to crystallize your own thinking … you’re forced to formalize your own theories so that you may communicate them to the students … you go back to your studio and think about this again.”
Between Form and Content aims to bring to light the larger artistic and educational projects in which Lawrence, his wife Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, and other BMC faculty members and students were engaged at the 1946 Summer Art Institute, projects never before previously revealed. In addition to Lawrence’s paintings, the exhibition will feature artworks by Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, Josef and Anni Albers, Leo Amino, Jean Varda, Ruth Asawa, and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. Another focal point of the show will be the partial recreation of an exhibition of Lawrence’s paintings displayed at BMC that summer.
As Arnal points out, the BMCM+AC also sees 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. The museum views this exhibition as an opportunity to fulfill their mission to expand the legacy of BMC by exploring how contemporary and performance art can participate in a dialogue with historic art. Three international working artists—animator/filmmaker Martha Coburn, composer/performer Tyondai Braxton, and music curator/writer Jace Clayton (DJ Rupture)—will expand pathways into Lawrence’s paintings. It will be the first time the museum has commissioned contemporary pieces for an exhibition.
“Both the historical and new media portions of this project will look at art, culture, and race and examine issues of equality that are vital to our national conversation today,” shares Dr. Caro, who is working closely with fellow Lawrence scholars and advocates, including representatives from the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Caro explains that the summer of 1946 was one of Lawrence’s first direct experiences with the Jim Crow South. Recent scholarship about Lawrence’s politically motivated works of the 1940s casts the BMC experience in a new light, underscoring the importance and timeliness of an exhibition focused on his summer spent in Western North Carolina.
To experience the Lawrence project and exhibition as it unfolds, follow BMCM+AC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For information about BMCM+AC’s current exhibitions and programming, visit blackmountaincollege.org. And for additional details about the NEA’s recent grant announcement, go to arts.gov.