"Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957" answers the age-old question of whether the people make the place or the place makes the people.

"Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957" answers the age-old question of whether the people make the place or the place makes the people.

The answer, as you might guess, is "Yes."

"Leap Before You Look" is the first major touring exhibition of work by those associated with Black Mountain College, a progressive and, ultimately, transformative liberal arts school nestled in the mountains of eastern North Carolina during the early and mid-20th century. The exhibit features more than 200 works from 90 artists working in a wide array of mediums and genres. The Wexner Center for the Arts is the exhibition's final and only Midwest stop.

"It was a different kind of liberal arts school, inspired by progressive education and a dissatisfaction with higher education as it stood," said Co-Curator Ruth Erickson of The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. "It centralized the arts, placing the visual arts at the very center of the curriculum and the core of its DNA."

It's no accident, either, Wexner Center Curator-at-Large Bill Horrigan suggested, that Black Mountain College founder John Rice was himself a Classics professor.

"There were no grades and a flattened pedagogical hierarchy between teacher and student," Horrigan said.

Built on the idea that the arts were central to a liberal arts education, the school fostered an atmosphere of progressive experimentation and inquiry across the spectrum of the arts, from fine art, to craftwork to the performing arts.

Helping foster the college's progressive ethic were early faculty additions Josef and Anni Albers, who relocated to the rural US south from Germany's Bauhaus school, which incorporated crafts and the fine arts, among other progressive approaches. Josef Albers wrote of the college, "We do not always create 'works of art,' but rather experiments; it is not our intention to fill museums; we are gathering experience."

Other notable faculty included John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Alvin Lustig and Mary Callery.

"There was an incredible intersection of people there as [the college] gained in reputation," Erickson said. "People were coming from Europe, from other schools, making the region extremely cosmopolitan."

Notable alumni include painter/graphic artist photographer Robert Rauschenberg, avant-garde artist Stan VanDerBeek, writer/critic Francine du Plessix Gray, Navajo painter Harrison Begay and Beat-era author and painter Fielding Dawson.

Erickson also pointed to the contributions of some less well-known associates featured in "Leap Before You Look," noting not only the scope of their work, but its influence.

"Hazel Larsen, for example, is largely unknown in art history. But she taught Rauschenberg how to take photos," she said. "I thought [at the outset of assembling the exhibition] that the legacy of Black Mountain College was these iconic figures. Here we include some objects that are not fine art, but perhaps student work or exercises that are themselves an aesthetic experience."

Philosophies such as the integration of the arts with the full curriculum, plus what Horrigan described as "porous disciplinary boundaries," contributed to the tenor of experimentation, aided by the school's rural location and overall lack of resources.

"It's hard to separate the people from the conditions," Erickson said. "The location may have been a hindrance, but it was so isolated. As with many utopian experiments, there was this feeling of getting away and into a totally different space-time continuum. We hear from alumni that there was a sense of endless time, that they were able to experiment with the porosity, allowing the avant-garde to flourish, and the idea that that came from the isolation."

The cross-disciplinary dynamic ushered in a new era in art, shaping not just art history but history itself.

"Black Mountain College witnessed and propelled the shift from the modern to the contemporary period, from purity of medium to the mixing of mediums and collaborative mode of authorship," Erickson said. "Would that all have happened without Black Mountain College? Yes. Did Black Mountain College help shape that shift? Definitely."

SIDEBAR:

Black Mountain MinEvent

Choreographer Merce Cunningham developed what he called MinEvents, excerpts of repertoire staged and combined in fresh ways, often in non-traditional spaces.

As part of the Wexner Center's "Leap Before You Look" exhibition of work from Black Mountain College, OSU Dance Professors Karen Eliot and Daniel Roberts, both former dancers with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, will join OSU student dancers in restaging sections of three of Cunningham's BMC-era works: "Septet," "Dime a Dance" and "Suite for Five," all set to music by Black Mountain colleague John Cage and French avant-garde composer Erik Satie. The works will be presented at 4:30 and 6 p.m. on Oct. 6 and 27 in a space created specifically for this exhibition.

"He imparted wisdom about how bodies move, about how energy is deployed into space," Eliot said of Cunningham. "The more you watch it, the more you see the chemistry of it, the mechanics. You see what he was doing to put it together.

"He liked a lot of movement going on at the same time, often seemingly unrelated. Visually, you could see these sort of energy fields. He didn't dictate how to look, how to focus, but provided a visual field for the audience member to look freely."

Eliot, who danced with Cunningham in the 1980s and then came to teach at Ohio State where Roberts was one of her students before his time with Cunningham, said Cunningham was also experimenting with technique at the time these three works were created.

"He was purposefully looking to make something visually that was unexpected or surprising," she said. "He had a specific use of what we call physical weight, and how a dancer articulated movement of legs and feet was very specialized."