Faculty of the 1946 Black Mountain College Summer Art Institute, including Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center collection

We’re excited to share that we’ve been awarded a $25,000 Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and $60,000 from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts to mount Between Form and Content: Perspectives on Jacob Lawrence and Black Mountain College, the first-ever exhibition to focus on the African-American painter’s experiences at BMC during the summer of 1946. This funding will allow us to produce a print and online catalogue for the exhibition, on view September 2018–January 2019, as well as commission new works by three of today’s most celebrated multimedia artists, who will create sound, video, and animation pieces as a response to Lawrence’s legacy and to the historic Black Mountain College campus at Lake Eden.

“The story of Jacob Lawrence’s BMC experience is one that needs to be told,” says BMCM+AC’s executive director, Jeff Arnal, who serves as performance curator for the exhibition. “It’s key to understanding his place as one of the great modernist masters and to more fully recognizing the broad educational impact of BMC. We’re thrilled to receive support from the NEA and Horowitz, two of the country’s integral arts allies, in this effort.”

Jacob Lawrence, “Windows,” 1977, lithograph 79/300, 17 3/4 x 22, Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center collection, gift of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence

One of the most widely regarded American artists of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) created paintings, drawings, and prints chronicling African-American history and experience during his lifetime. Known for creating pictorial compositions that hover between abstraction and a socially inspired narrative realism, Lawrence communicated his subject matter in a direct and powerful manner through a distinctive use of expressionistic color, line, and form, organized by a sophisticated design aesthetic.

With this 2018 show, we hope to greatly expand current scholarship about Lawrence, particularly around his role as a teacher. “Lawrence’s long and distinguished career as an educator has often been treated as a footnote to his work as a painter,” explains exhibition curator Dr. Julie Levin Caro, an expert in the field of African-American art and professor of art history at Warren Wilson College. Josef Albers invited Lawrence to teach painting at BMC in the summer of ’46, and his exposure to Albers’ Bauhaus-inspired theories and teaching methods greatly influenced his path, including his artistic explorations. In Lawrence’s own words, “When you teach, it stimulates you; you’re forced to crystallize your own thinking … you’re forced to formalize your own theories so that you may communicate them to the students … you go back to your studio and think about this again.”

Between Form and Content aims to bring to light the larger artistic and educational projects in which Lawrence, his wife Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, and other BMC faculty members and students were engaged at the 1946 Summer Art Institute, projects never before previously revealed. In addition to Lawrence’s paintings, the exhibition will feature artworks by Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, Josef and Anni Albers, Leo Amino, Jean Varda, Ruth Asawa, and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. Another focal point of the show will be the partial recreation of an exhibition of Lawrence’s paintings displayed at BMC that summer.

We also see commissioning new works inspired by Lawrence as an opportunity to expand the conversation around the artist’s historic and cultural relevance and the influence of his work on current creative practice. The exhibition is an amazing opportunity to fulfill our mission to expand the legacy of BMC by exploring how contemporary and performance art can participate in a dialogue with historic art. Three international working artists—animator/filmmaker Martha Coburn, composer/performer Tyondai Braxton, and music curator/writer Jace Clayton (DJ Rupture)—will expand pathways into Lawrence’s paintings. It will be the first time the museum has commissioned contemporary pieces for an exhibition (learn more about them below).

“Both the historical and new media portions of this project will look at art, culture, and race and examine issues of equality that are vital to our national conversation today,” shares Dr. Caro, who is working closely with fellow Lawrence scholars and advocates, including representatives from the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Caro explains that the summer of 1946 was one of Lawrence’s first direct experiences with the Jim Crow South. Recent scholarship about Lawrence’s politically motivated works of the 1940s casts the BMC experience in a new light, underscoring the importance and timeliness of an exhibition focused on his summer spent in Western North Carolina. Stay tuned for more information.

About the Commissioned Artists

Martha Colburn is an animator/filmmaker who uses collage to tell otherworldly stories. She has made films for authors Diana Wagman and Stephen O’Connor and music videos for Serj Tankian, Deerhoof, and They Might Be Giants. In 2010, her films joined the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania. Tyondai Braxton, a composer and electronic musician, was the former front man of the experimental rock group Battles. In 2013, in collaboration with artist Uffe Surland Van Tams, Braxton premiered HIVE, a multimedia sculptural and electronic project, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. He has also collaborated with composer Philip Glass, performing with him as a duo and remixing Glass’ work. Artist/writer Jace Clayton, aka DJ Rupture, uses an interdisciplinary approach to focus on how sound, memory, and public space interact, with an emphasis on low-income communities and the global South. His book Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture was published in 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Other recent projects include The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, a touring performance piece for grand pianos, electronics, and voice.

To experience the Lawrence project and exhibition as it unfolds, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For additional details about the NEA’s recent grant announcement, go to arts.gov.