the water’s fine

“All art is or was modern in its time, daring and new, demonstrating a constant change in seeing and feeling. If revival had been a perpetual virtue, we still would live in caves and earth pits. In art, tradition is to create, not to revive.” – Josef Albers, Design, 1946 (quoted in The Arts at Black Mountain College, Mary Emma Harris, 107).

Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945

Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945

My last gasp of summer reading that I squeezed in came from my interest in Black Mountain College – ostensibly a quasi precursor to the college where I graduated high school from (North Carolina School of the Arts – they have a high school for the arts within the University). But I didn’t know of that confluence until nearly the end of my reading. What I did know was that Black Mountain College was a really interesting and influential place. Lasting twenty-four years with a total of around thirteen hundred students (1933-1957) in the mountains of North Carolina, an experiment in education was lived out. A spirited, innovative, creative, floundering, democratic ideal of what a meaningful education alive in the world might look like.

Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948

Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948

Albers felt that “only dynamic possession is fertile–materially as well as spiritually.” He distinguished between the usual possessiveness or industriousness of the student who mindlessly accumulates and memorizes facts and theories to be regurgitated on an exam to please the teacher and the “dynamic possession” of the student for whom experience and action is an integral part of the learning process (15).

Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953

Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953

Albers, one of the founders of Black Mountain College had been a teacher at the Bauhaus.  Fleeing Germany and its fascist government, the ideals of democracy, particularly the expansion of community interests flourishing through hands-on education and art, in both the form and function of aesthetics and creative expression, were some of the very progressive and fascinating experimental ideas in the Black Mountain College education.

“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. –  John Cage, Silence, 1961 (quoted, 107).

Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing

Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing

My interest was peaked by the truly impressive array of artists and thinkers that took part in the experiment. Besides, Alders, some of the notable participants (to me) were Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsburg, Willem De Kooning, Charles Oslon, Robert Creeley, Anaïs Nin, William Carlos Williams, Merce Cunningham, as well as the artist whose work I have included here….it just goes on and on…amazing. Anni Albers, Josef’s wife, brought her extraordinary weaving and textile skills to the college, which I mention not only because they are beautiful but also because the artificial separation between “craft” and “art” was consciously ignored at Black Mountain College. Art for art’s sake is wonderful, but art in form and function is also a worthy pursuit requiring a finger to remain on the pulse of the mundane in a way that Art needn’t, necessarily. And we need art in both the profane and sacred realms…a teacup can transport just as well as a tempest, after all.

The visionary aspects of Black Mountain were holistic, ambitious in their creative freedom, and obviously difficult to maintain – how does one administrate an institution that stands for anti-administration and anti-institutional ideals? Not easily, and not for very long, apparently. But that is hardly the point. The point is that people try – they try over and over again, and the creative results are extraordinary, the human inspiration invigorating. Everything is cyclical, but to have the nerve and verve to let the cycle run is a testament to the spirit of life.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952

Today, it seems to me, so much emphasis is put on the material concept of “success.” “Failure” is anathema to our culture – but it is truly the “failures” that make life flourish. That’s where all the beauty and all meaningful success is fomented.  That is one thing Bucky Fuller’s genius proved, with his “magical world of his mathematical models” (151), he was, after all, the self-proclaimed most successful failure ever!  And any school that strove to recognize that is pretty great, and successful, in my book.

Undaunted, [by the failure of his geometric dome due to cost cutting inadequate materials] Fuller explained that failure is a part of experimentation and that “you succeed when you stop failing” (151).

I would only add that success, and learning, depend upon it.


*All photographs (except for the Reed drawing) are out of another very fine book, Black Mountain College: Experiments in Art edited by  Vincent Katz, in which four long essays accompany copious images of the art produced and inspired by Black Mountain College.

** Title taken from John Cage’s poetic response to the controversy over an exhibition of Rauschenberg’s all white paintings in 1953, (page 230):

To Whom
No subject
No image
No taste
No object
No beauty
No talent
No technique (no why)
No idea
No intention
No art
No feeling
No black
No white no (and)

After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows.

Hallelujah! the blind can see again; the water’s fine.

John Cage, Printed in Emily Genauer’s column in the New York Herald Tribune, December 27, 1953.






16 responses to “the water’s fine

  1. the alumni read like a who’s who of modern arts. It really was an important place

  2. In 1961, when I entered Colgate University, there was another member of the Art Department who taught alongside your father. His name was Arnold Herstand, and he had studied under Josef Albers at Yale (where Albers had gone after leaving Black Mountain). Among the more widely discussed topics that year was Albers brilliant series: “Homage to a Square.”

    By reducing form to its essence — squares with a square — Albers was able to create an in depth study (he painted literally 100s of variations) of the interrelationship of color. Although Albers’ work was far too formal to directly influence Eric’s own work, he was impressed by the discipline it took to take an abstract concept and explore it to maximum effect. What it lacked for Eric — and for me — was passion.

    In 1963, Herstand left Colgate to become head of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts. And in 1967, again by way of Eric’s personal letter to Herstand, I was accepted into their MFA program only to be thwarted at the last moment by the US Army which ordered me to active duty — first Fort Campbell, then Fort Sill. Returning to riots, I was on the streets of Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. when Eric wrote to say that Herstand was leaving Minneapolis to open his own gallery on East 57th Street in NYC. At the same time, I began exploring film and with yet another letter of recommendation from your father was accepted to Northwestern. Although I will never know what your father saw in me, I will be forever grateful for his persistent help and generosity. Josef Albers was a remarkable and inspiring teacher whose students adored him. But by every measure, so was Eric Ryan.

    • I had a feeling as I read the books on Black Mountain College that there would surely not be very many degrees of separation between it and my father. Thank you so much for confirming that feeling and shedding further light on his life for me. I am extremely grateful.

      I think I agree with you (and Eric, I suppose) regarding Albers’ own work, I like many of his paintings very much, but was not moved to include an image of one in my post. Anni Alber’s work was similarly formal in design but the materials of textiles add a quality that speaks to very primal and fundamental themes…the intellectual aspects of high concept art is a complex subject, but ultimately, for me, one must connect on more than just intellectual grounds- the head is a hollow vessel without the heart.

  3. The head is a hollow vessel without the heart indeed… I have so enjoyed this post and the discussion above, delving as they do into subjects so dear to my own heart.

  4. You walk when you stop falling
    you talk when you stop listening
    you read when you stop writing
    you sober-up when you stop drinking
    you know when you think less
    you is when you are
    you laugh when you cry
    you get silly when prompted

  5. one objection: Peaked should be piqued n’est pas?
    one appreciation: thank you so much for upholding the value of failure, or perhaps we should refer to it as the value of not being successful, as how can it be failure if it serves the worthwhile purpose of simply “being” without being noteworthy….

  6. I read your comment and then took a walk, and I couldn’t remember which peak I had used – for about a mile I felt horrified at the thought that I had used peeked, which seemed almost perverted to me! My peeking interest! haha…where it does peek, I dare not say!? Oh dear!

    I think, in hindsight I might have gone with pique, but peak is not, I don’t think, quite wrong…it denotes a pinnacle, a maximum of some sort – peak hours, peak interest…and when I wrote it I did have in my mind an image of a mountain top, and there right at the top was where my interest sat…pique is more of a stimulation, or even an irritation..but maybe I should have meant to communicate “stimulate” rather than a fullness of interest…I didn’t think enough about it, I suppose, I just wandered around a mountain in my mind…
    That being said, as I walked and resigned myself to the embarrassingly likely possibility that I had actually written something which in no way possible was in the realm of what I was trying to communicate, (peek) I thought, well that indeed is a failure. Where, Bucky!?, where is my success in this? The answer, I believe, is this: the success is in a friend, who not only took the time to read what I wrote, but further, took the time to alert me of a possible error. I am so grateful…
    And finally on your last point, I think you are correct: there is something valuable in having it BE- just letting it be a flat out failure. Instead of softening the idea (by the euphemism of “not successful”) let the word stand for the pain, death and blah of real failure, which does not ever feel good, but which is often extremely fruitful.

  7. “All art is or was modern in its time” but when Albers said this modern [as an] ism was just getting into its deathbed, soon to be wasted away, becoming nothing under the stained sheets. It had not yet transmogrified into the postmodern. “[t]heir exhibitions…” as noted by Jed Perl in his 2000 book “eyewitness,”(highlighted by an earlier reader) “…don’t give public expression to private feelings so much as they offer canny response to market pressures.”
    A college education, too, was not like that even a couple decades later when I got my BA in fine art at an engineer factory where the arts were thought of as insects at a picnic. I had some great teachers there, Bill Gass, Victor Papenek, Tony Vevers among them, as well as learning a lot from the institution’s ill-willed, but instructive bureaucracy.
    Things are little different now, half a century on, I’m on the other side of the lectern these days, but still the primary goal of the university is to manufacture graduates efficiently which now means profitably. And the goal of those it graduates is still to get a job.
    Maybe, if getting a well-paying job wasn’t such an iffy proposition, college students could still consider aesthetics and creative expression there, putting off the grind of middle age for couple of years. Maybe, if there wasn’t the vicious circle of getting into debt to go to college, to be able to get the job, to pay the debt…

    • Although – I am in college (non-traditional student) and I decided that considering aesthetics and creative expression, given today’s job market, is hardly the lesser risk! No one is getting jobs anyway, so one might as well do what I want! I have generous scholarships and am not accruing massive debt, but even still, I’d rather flip burgers with one hand and Tolstoy in the other than just flip burgers…actually, I have done that – doesn’t require a college degree, but education for education’s sake is the thing that gets lost – the journey that could, if you weren’t so focused on the chemerical “goal” be pretty meaningful – it’s all life, after all – there is no goal, just today.

      • You are right, in that education for education’s sake gets lost in the students’ quest for marketable skills. So I try to mix art into the craft I teach. Do they get it? Maybe. The students’ crusade for career is more the case now than when I went to college the first time in the late ‘60s, careers being harder to come by now.
        Also, you are right to say choosing to learn for learning’s sake and to compartmentalize that-which-pays-the-bills elsewhere is often the wisest path (no-path?). Even if you have no choice in the matter, like these days when a career (full time, benefits, job security, chances for advancement etc.) is not often forthcoming, be you degreed or not, says this lowly semi-compartmentalized adjunct.
        Even if you could land a so-called rewarding career, compartmentalization and living off, or near the edge of, the capitalist grid could be the healthier, more rewarding choice because a career—in my experience—was a mixed blessing, taking more than it gave. I don’t want to get even any more as that would get in the way of catching up with what could have been.

      • Yes, think you are correct and I agree with your penultimate sentence.
        But, “What could have been” doesn’t really exist, does it?

  8. I had never heard of Black Mountain College until now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s