Exhibitions on Mid-Century Abstraction and Modernist Design at Black Mountain College to Open at Asheville Art Museum

  • October 20, 2021 10:53

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Mary “Molly ” Gregory, Lazy - J Chair, circa 1945 , ash, leather, and brass , 26 3/4 × 17 1/8 × 24 1/2 inches. Asheville Art Museum. © Estate of Mary Gregory, image David Dietrich
Ruth Asawa, BMC Stamp (Wallpaper) , circa 1953 , ink on paper, 13 1/8 × 24 3/8 inches. Asheville Art Museum. © Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Claude Stoller, Jalowetz Cottage , 1942, gelatin silver print on paper, 8 × 10 inches. Asheville Art Museum. © Claude Stoller, image David Dietrich.
Gerald van de Wiele, Quarry, 1957, oil on canvas, 84 1/2 × 51 3/4 inches. Asheville Art Museum. © Gerald van de Wiele

The Asheville Art Museum is planning two new companion exhibitions highlighting artworks from its collection. GesturesMid-Century Abstraction from the Collection explores works in a variety of media that speak to the vibrant abstract experiments in American art making during the middle of the 20th century. Modernist Design at Black Mountain College features the museum's collection of groundbreaking designs from Black Mountain College (BMC)—including architecture, furniture, ceramics, textiles, and more—and situates them in the context for BMC's influences and surroundings. Artists featured in the two exhibitions include Anni Albers, Josef Albers, Ruth Asawa, Jorge Fick, Buckminster Fuller, Mary “Molly” Gregory, Karen Karnes, A. Lawrence Kocher, Albert Lanier, Jo Sandman, Mim Sihvonen, Robert Turner, Gerald Van de Wiele, and more. The exhibitions will be on view in the museum’s Explore Asheville Exhibition Hall from October 22, 2021 through January 24, 2022. 

Gestures: Mid-Century Abstraction from the Collection

“There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture . . . that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about.” —Helen Frankenthaler, 1994

The 1940s through 1970s marked a period during which many artists in the United States emulated the above words of Helen Frankenthaler, one of the most innovative and influential artists of her time. Gestures: Mid-Century Abstraction from the Collection, drawn from the Museum’s Collection with select loans from regional collectors and institutions, highlights works in a variety of media that speak to the vibrant abstract experiments in American visual culture that emerged after World War II. The artworks shown here explore some of the many approaches to abstraction. Aesthetic ideas emanating from institutions such as Black Mountain College in Black Mountain, NC, and Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts in New York City are visible in the works of those who studied there. Relationships that spanned from local to global also contributed to the progression of and dialogues around abstraction. Though many associate the well-known Abstract Expressionism movement with New York City, these works demonstrate the variety of national and international currents in non-representational art that were investigated across the country, including here in Western North Carolina. The artists painting, sculpting, and printing at midcentury set the stage for continued risk and discovery that carries into American art today.

This exhibition is organized by the Asheville Art Museum and curated by Hilary Schroeder, assistant curator, with assistance from Pamela L. Myers, executive director, and Corey Loftus, fall 2021 curatorial fellow. Learn more at ashevilleart.org

Modernist Design at Black Mountain College

The experiment known as Black Mountain College (BMC) began in 1933 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression and headed towards World War II; budgets were low, but creativity was high. When Josef & Anni Albers emigrated from Germany to the United States, they left the Bauhaus school of art and design behind but brought with them their modern aesthetic and design prowess. As faculty leaders at BMC, they attracted well known architects like A. Lawrence Kocher and Buckminster Fuller, among others, to teach architecture and design.

Robert Chapman Turner, Pitcher, circa 1955 , glazed stoneware , 7 3/8 × 9 5/8 × 8 inches. Asheville Art Museum. © Estate of Robert Chapman Turne r.
Ruth Asawa, Basket, 1948 – 1949, copper wire , 4 1/2 × 7 1/2 × 7 3/4 inches. Asheville Art Museum. © Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artist Rights Society (ARS), NY
Jorge Fick, Untitled, not dated, pastel, crayon, and pencil on paper, 18 3/4 × 23 7/8 inches. Asheville Art Museum. © Estate of Jorge Fick.
Jo Sandman, Love, 1960, oil and enamel on canvas, 47 × 47 inches. Asheville Art Museum. © Jo Sandman.

Perhaps most progressive of their actions was to hire a woman, Mary “Molly” Gregory, to head the furniture workshop. An openness to creativity and a smart resourcefulness—on the part of both faculty and students (like Ruth Asawa, Albert Lanier, and Mim Sihvonen)—meant an artistic output of groundbreaking designs including architecture, furniture, ceramics, textiles, and more that has yet to be fully assessed. This exhibition highlights the Asheville Art Museum’s collection of design from BMC, like the rarely seen Gregory furniture, and situates it in the context of its influences and surroundings at BMC.

“This exhibition combines artworks from the Museum’s Collection and on loan to explore a particular aspect of Black Mountain College that hasn’t been considered in depth: its design,” says Asheville Art Museum’s Associate Curator, Whitney Richardson. “From the chairs used at the Blue Ridge Assembly to the architecture built at the Lake Eden Campus, the story of the design elements utilized by the faculty and students, and what they created within those contexts and environments, helps us look back at this place and time to proclaim BMC’s importance in the historical timeline of design. The aspect of this exhibition that excites me the most is displaying all of the Museum’s Molly Gregory furniture together for the first time since the Museum acquired it in 2017. Gregory’s ability to instruct BMC students on how to make their own furniture—mixed with her resourcefulness in using what the inadequately funded college could provide and the production of simple, modernistic furniture that has stood the test of time—astounds me.”

Modernist Design is organized by the Asheville Art Museum and curated by Whitney Richardson, associate curator. Support is provided by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation and Julia & Jim Peterson. Learn more at ashevilleart.org

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