Adam Void and the Legacy of Black Mountain College: a Contemporary Take on Art History (Part 1)
On the surface, Brooklyn street art and Black Mountain College don't share much in common. Black Mountain College, the now defunct liberal arts college in rural North Carolina that opened in 1933 and closed in 1957, had an unlikely, unique, and understated impact on American modern art. Names such as Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, Cy Twombly, John Cage, Robert Creeley, and Buckminster Fuller filled the student and faculty rosters, and many of the artists who lived, worked, and learned at Black Mountain transferred their practices 600-plus miles north to the city, where the so-called New York School was established. On the other hand, Brooklyn street art is a much more contemporary phenomenon, grounded in just a few decades of real interest in graffiti as a recognized art form. Arguably, until the proliferation of blogs and zines, and mainstream fame of artists like Banksy, street art was always on the periphery of the "legitimate" art world. Its artists are becoming more visibly invisible (most choose to keep their identities secret), crossing over into fine art galleries, and selling prints online -- definitely a 21st century practice.
Street art began to surface in New York in the 1960s and peaked in the Bronx in the 1980s, characterized by aerosol spray paint, often on the subways. But even in the 1980s, graffiti crossed into the fine art world through figures like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. When post-1980s city streets began to see the addition of stencils and wheat paste, street art began to move more formally into the realm of "high art" as art world movers and shakers shrewdly identified a serious art practice with recognizable styles, artists, and motives. The Brooklyn street art movement blossomed in the mid 2000s as Brooklyn saw an expanding wave of street artists using new materials and trying different methods.
One thing the Brooklyn street art movement and Black Mountain have in common today comes in the form of a freight train- and art genre-hopping artist, Adam Void (or AVOID pi). Originally from South Carolina, he moved to New York City where he lived for five years before returning south to North Carolina, where he has lived and worked since 2012. Along with his wife, artist Chelsea Ragan, Void's home base is a cabin in the mountains outside of Asheville through which dozens of artists have passed. In our email correspondences, I asked what had brought him to the Asheville area, and he explained:
... we wanted to remain connected to the arts, and specifically to the avantgarde tradition, but live in a beautiful place where the land can have a positive influence. ... Here we are still connected to the art world through the digital connection and through the post office, however we get lost in the woods, ride freight trains down the mountain, paint secret messages in drainage culverts, and talk shop with the locals (in our natural southern accents **credibility**). This is the place for us to be.
The history and legacy of The South and southern artists was of constant interest to Void throughout his education. Although formally educated at MICA where he earned an MFA in 2012, tireless curiosity stoked his artistic self-education well before that in what he termed the "DIY tradition" of performance art, youthful vandalism, and zines, and throughout his time in New York City as a founding member of the Brooklyn Street Art Movement.
The connection between New York City and Black Mountain College is well documented; in fact, its legacy would not be what it is, if not for this connection. By the early twentieth century, New York City had just become the new center of the art world, permanently shifting the focus from Europe to the United States. American avant-garde artists were experimenting with methods and materials, and stripping down painting, music, and performance to its bare essentials and questioning form, substance, and the limits of nothingness in art. Composer John Cage credited the inspiration for his silent pieces to the famous White Paintings of Robert Rauschenberg; artist and composer were friends and worked together at Black Mountain College and later in New York City. If even just this one artistic achievement was the only product of collaboration at Black Mountain, I would still name it a brilliant success in the history of American modern art. And yet this was only one of countless collaborations and exchanges, thus placing Black Mountain College in the modern art historical canon as a hotbed of artistic innovation.
Bewilderingly, in art history Black Mountain is generally treated with a sort of benign neglect. It is often referenced in passing within a biography of an artist who studied or taught there, but is nevertheless largely overlooked as a whole. Even in art history, Black Mountain has always had a few things against it:
Firstly, it was not an art school but a liberal arts college where a general education was offered through art, but students were not trained to be professional artists. Painter and school rector Josef Albers, who went on to teach art at Yale, tirelessly expounded on the need for practice and study, but he did not see a use for self-expression in class.¹ Students were taught skills and new methods, and were provided with a platform for sharing ideas in an unusually intimate environment, but students were not producing finished artworks and were actively discouraged from viewing themselves as artists.
Secondly, I feel strongly that the entire experience and existence of Black Mountain comprised something like a gigantic artwork in which numerous artist-participants contributed, and therefore it is difficult for traditional art history to qualify it when there are few individual, concrete artworks to have emerged from it (and if they did, such as the Cage-Cunningham "happening" during the 1952 summer session, no one even thought of it as anything unusual or different at the time -- it was just what they did there.) Artist Joseph Fiore remembered that there were "so many happenings that just 'happened' at Black Mountain that weren’t called that […] just incidents of daily living."²
Thirdly, it was not in New York. The distance to North Carolina was a far stretch for many artists who viewed New York as the be-all-end-all of the art scene. To remove oneself from that scene seemed counterintuitive to many who were trying to establish careers.
There is a benefit to Black Mountain flying under the radar, though, and that is its ability to amaze and mystify even today. The second part of this post will take a closer look at Adam Void to whom Black Mountain College continues to provide inspiration.
¹ ‘Oral history interview with Josef Albers, 1968 June 22-July 5,’ Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Transcript. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-josef-albers-11847.; Albers was asked why he had previously stated that he despised self-expression in art: ‘I do not consider self-expression as important. It's not important as a method of teaching. And it's not important as an aim of any art branch. When we are honest - that's my saying - if we are honest then we will reveal ourselves. But we do not have to make an effort to be individualistic, different from others.’
² David Patterson, ‘Two Cages, One College: Cage at Black Mountain College, 1948 and 1952.’ In The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies. Volume 4, Spring 2013. http://www.blackmountainstudiesjournal.org/wp/?page_id=1866: 24.
Black Mountain College images from Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center Collection.