“Black Mountain College, North Carolina, United States of America...” must have sounded good to the ears of Anni and Josef Albers, at the Bauhaus, in the Nazi-infested quarter of Berlin-Steglitz in 1933. In Germany the name would be Schwarzberg, a name with a hint of the familiar Schwarzwald and so of that Waldeinsamkeit (forest solitude) that Germans revere in their souls, and that the Alberses must have yearned for in their own lives.

Black Mountain “just as well could be the Philippines,” Anni Albers later recalled feeling when she finally stood on the steps of Robert E. Lee Hall, in the Blue Ridge Assembly Conference Center of the Protestant Episcopal Church, the first quarters of Black Mountain College, and looked out over the Swannanoa Gap to the Black Mountains, the highest range in eastern America. Black Mountain College might have fared better in the Philippines, come to think of it. 1933: in Buncombe County, where it was, there was Prohibition, and politicians like “Buncombe Bob” Reynolds were real-life equivalents of fictional stereotypes like Senator Claghorn, of radio fame. The novelist Peggy Bennett Cole, an early student of the Alberses’, has noted that coming across them in “hillbilly setting, in the Southern Baptist Convention country of the Tarheel State, was a little like finding the remains of an advanced civilization in the midst of jungle.”

In nearby Asheville, Kenneth Noland was nine years old. Also in Asheville, Tom Clayton Wolfe was piling up manuscripts for New York editors named Maxwell Perkins and Edward Aswell to package into “novels” and “prose poetry” for an audience that had read little but five poems by Keats and Joyce Kilmer, a bit of prose by Jean Stratton Porter, and Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse. In Black Mountain town, Roberta Flack wouldn’t be born for seven more years.

I first heard of the Alberses right here in Highlands, North Carolina, in 1947, from Clark and Mairi Forman, delightful Southern renegades who liked cubist art and integrationalist politics. I saw a piece or two of Anni Albers’ weaving. I got to Black Mountain College in 1951, two years after the Alberses had decamped, ultimately for Yale University. I caught a glimpse of Anni Albers at a superb lecture I heard her husband give in New Haven in 1958. She is 87, still there. I am still here.

Looking back into books about the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, you find glimpses of Anni Albers and her husband that strike home. Once she wrote, “Very few of us can own things without being corrupted by them, without having pride involved in possessing then, gaining thereby a false security. Very few of us can resist being distracted by things. We need to learn to choose the simple and lasting instead of the new and individual.... This means reducing instead of adding, the reversal of our habitual thinking.” (This is not the American wisdom of the Miss Piggy diet: “Don’t eat anything you can’t lift.”) And Josef Albers counseled his students, “Please keep away from the bandwagon, from what is fashion and seems now successful or profitable. Stick to your own bones, speak with your own voice, and sit on your own behind.”

“We be modesty persons,” said Aunt Cumi Woody at Penland School once upon a time. Her quilts are cherished. I will forego Albers’ high-culture student Bob Rauschenberg and keep my crafted attention on isolated poets (Lorine Niedecker, Alfred Starr Hamilton, Basil Bunting, Mason Jordon Mason, Spike Hawkins) and country folks, artists and visionaries, like Henry Darger, Marion Campbell, Annie Hooper, Georgia Blizzard, and James Harold Jennings. James Harold lives out of Tobaccoville, NC and make “thangs” out of wood. I have a piece called “Injun, Two Flowers, and Moon.” James Harold says “Boys, it’s all about the sun and the moon and the stars... and all them aeons. They’ll keep you from gettin’ nervous, they ain’t got no death in ’em.” Right now he’s making a series of “Amazons,” pronounced A-may-zones— with “real big garbonzas,” as the distinguished drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs might have written in his old column for the Dallas Times Herald. James Harold doesn’t even like to put a price on what he makes. He’s a lonely man in a vacant place. He just likes to be sure people will come to see him and enjoy themselves. O art world, take note.

Jonathan Williams

(for Art Forum, New York, April 1987.)


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