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Black Mountain

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ever since its major expansion in 2010, the Harwood Museum of Art has been the liveliest and most innovative art museum in New Mexico. Three concurrent exhibitions featuring the work of Oli Sihvonen, along with dozens of Black Mountain College (BMC) faculty and students, opened last September and are soon to close. Miss them at your peril if you are interested in 20th century art and the extraordinary legacy of this legendary college. Black Mountain opened in 1933, during the Depression, and like the Harwood, gives credence to the observation of numerous historians that economic downturns often spur creativity and innovation.

The Harwood has fully embraced the college’s informal, generative and collaborative spirit in two casually presented exhibitions. As you enter the museum, the welcoming gallery is hung salon style with a show titled “ONWARD! Snapshots, Polaroids and Study Prints from Black Mountain College” named for poet Robert Creeley’s words “I know this is the one life I’ll get – and it’s enough. ONWARD!” Families and friends loaned their photographs taken by BMC students when they were young and fervent that were taken by each other, of each other and for each other. As with all three of these exhibitions, there is no catalog, so see it while you can.

Hours, even days, can be whiled away in the museum’s large upstairs gallery where –– in addition to paintings, sculptures and photographs that are real treasures and surprises –– there are three tables of printed and audio material. There is also a 17-minute video with former BMC students who are now Taos residents, including painters Cliff Harmon and Barbara Sayre Harmon, gallerist and political activist Rena Rosequist and poet Cynthia Homire. Rosequist loaned more than 40 books from her personal library with passages she has bookmarked for gallery goers to peruse.

If you go
WHAT: Three exhibitions: “Black Mountain College and New Mexico”; “ONWARD! Snapshots, Polaroids and Study Prints from Black Mountain College”; and “Oli Sihvonen: The Final Years”
WHERE: Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St., Taos
WHEN: “Black Mountain College and New Mexico” and “ONWARD! Snapshots, Polaroids and Study Prints from Black Mountain College” through Feb. 5; “Oli Sihvonen: The Final Years” through Feb. 19.
HOURS: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-5 p.m.
CONTACT: 575-758-9826 or www.harwoodmuseum.org

The outsized influence of Black Mountain, a small school in rural North Carolina with fewer than 1,200 enrolled students during 24 years, has been admirably detailed by art historian Mary Emma Harris in her tome “The Arts at Black Mountain College,” to which she devoted 17 years. Although it was always an interdisciplinary school where students charted their own course of studies, there were roughly two phases, beginning with what is known as the Joseph Albers “Bauhaus” visual arts era from 1933 to 1949, and the Charles Olson experimental writing era from 1948 to the school’s closure in 1956.

Curator Jina Brenneman sees the exciting wealth of materials gathered for this overdue focus on the contributions of Black Mountain as merely the beginning of future research, exhibitions and publications. She has certainly opened a Pandora’s box that merits an in-depth history of Black Mountain in New Mexico.

The works on view are by both faculty and students who lived in New Mexico on occasion and those who found a home here. Many of the objects and documents are from the Black Mountain years and others are later, some very recent. Notable photographs made at BMC by Hazel Larsen Archer, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall are not only testaments to the days when the first history of photography as art was being written by Newhall, they show the intensity of artists and scholars inventing the future in this explosive place. Merce Cunningham flies through the air, breaching the frame. Buckminster Fuller builds his first dome from Venetian blinds … and it collapses.

There are many sweet spots and juxtapositions in this wonderful, big mess of a show, but be sure not to miss the extraordinary little rumpled and transparent sculpture by John Chamberlain titled “Le Mole,” 1971, and the buoyant, masterful paintings of his classmate and friend Jorge Fick, especially “Propeller Mother,” 1969. Also, the elegant, muscular ceramic sculptures by Robert Turner, including his powerful, black Afro-Asian pieces from 1999, are a revelation.

On the first floor of the Harwood, there is a solo exhibition for Brooklyn-born, longtime Taos resident Sihvonen (1921-1991), who attended Black Mountain from 1946 to 1948 on the GI Bill. Moving to Taos to continue his studies with Louis Ribak, he became a resident until he moved to New York in 1967. Over a lifetime dedicated to clean, flat, geometric-optical abstractions, Sihvonen created series of paintings in a large architectural scale. While other Taos moderns worked in a domestic scale suited to adobe walls, Sihvonen’s paintings –– majestic in their ambition, execution and scale –– certainly fill the white cube grandeur of the Harwood’s new Mandleman-Ribak Gallery. As noted, Sihvonen not only extended Albers’ color experiments, he investigated structure, even as he spent his final years neglected and in poverty, living over a Chinese gambling establishment. This lovely selection focuses on exquisite paintings from his final four years.

Writing about such wonderful exhibitions and heralding the exemplary verve of the Harwood has been one of many rewards for filling the back page of this newspaper section with images of worthy art and my fleeting thoughts. Since this is my last review for the Albuquerque Journal, which has canceled this column, I want to take the opportunity to thank the artists who are compelled to make their art through good times and bad. I look forward to many future exhibitions that fill in gaps of New Mexico art history as well as works of art that are only now gestating in studios. Thank you readers, and ONWARD!

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