Leap Then Look Active Archive Digital Residency 



A shortage of money and conventional art materials was used at Black Mountain College as a means of getting students to look around; to appreciate and use the things that were available to them in the natural environment, or that they would usually discard.

Join us in responding to the instruction MAKE THE MATERIALS PERFORM. Find different textures, patterns, colours, and forms. Create unexpected combinations. Use photography and film to find new ways of looking at and interacting with what you are making.

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Artist and teacher Jacob Lawrence talking about his experiences at Black Mountain College.

Matière studies at BMC usually combined natural materials with construction paper, card, and paint. There were 35mm cameras for documenting explorations and slide projectors used in performances. Now that video and photography are as available as paper and paint, how can we use our phones and tablets as both cameras and screens to document and inspire exploration?

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During Matière Studies classes, Josef Albers invited students to experiment with materials. They explored their physical and tensile properties through making constructions from paper and card, and their visual qualities by experimenting with the ways in which they could be made to look different, through unusual combinations of form, texture pattern, and colour. For Albers, all materials performed, and it was by exploring and experiencing the ways in which materials can change and be manipulated that led students to a true understanding of their possibilities in the creative act.

Over the course of Albers’ long career at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and later at Yale, he collected and photographed hundreds of his students’ matière experiments many of which can be accessed through the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation. Here are a few of our favourites.


“Beginning with the ordering of simple materials, such as blades of grass, leaves or seeds, [Anni Albers] and her students sought to discover new forms of material articulation.”

Catherine Nichols.


Explorations of colour, pattern, form, and materials were all common practice at Black Mountain College from its outset with the arrival of Anni and Josef Albers in 1933. Anni taught weaving and ran the weaving workshop and Josef taught colour theory and drawing. Their joint enquiry into the possibilities of material and form were of enormous influence on generations of students and staff at Black Mountain, and their legacy continued well after their departure in 1949.


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“Civilisation seems, in general, to estrange [people] from materials in their original form. The process of shaping these is so divided into separate steps that one person is rarely involved in the whole course of manufacture, often knowing only the finished product. But if we want to get from materials the sense of directness, the adventure of being close to the stuff the world is made of, we have to go back to the material itself, to its original state, and from there on partake in its stages of change.”

Anni Albers

Weaving is a slow and precise process. Yet at Black Mountain College many of Anni Albers’ and her students’ textiles capture the freshness and spontaneity of manual experimentation made possible by exercises using simple found materials and coloured paper. These experiments and studies allowed students at BMC to make discoveries, working directly with materials. These became experiences they could draw upon in the paintings and textiles they went on to make.

We animated these simple paper experiments to capture some of the movement and manipulation that went into their construction. The end results are less important than the practice of playing with the pieces of paper, finding surprising combinations and compositions. These discoveries can only be arrived at through first-hand experience. If you are open to the process something will always happen!



“I think that Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do, and then you put a label on it afterward. It doesn’t bother me whether it’s craft or it’s arts, and what I like is that the material is irrelevant. You take an ordinary material like wire and you give it a new definition. It’s the distance between effort and effect and I’m curious to know where it will take me. And it may be something very different from anything you ever imagined.”

Ruth Asawa in 2002, talking about her experience at BMC

Ruth Asawa was a student at Black Mountain College from 1946-8. In that time, she traveled several times to Mexico with the Alberses, met Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and mathematician Max Dehn. She describes the importance of this cross-disciplinary climate and also the lack of materials at BMC as important factors in the development of her work. Having few standard art materials students turned to work with natural materials and Asawa combined an interest in natural forms with the craft practice of knitting to explore three-dimensional abstract form, light, and space. She went on to use these techniques to create the many large woven wire hanging sculptures for which she is most well know.

Laurence Cuneo, Ruth Asawa, 1999. Estate of Ruth Asawa.

Exploring simple form and space. These images are created by taking long-exposure photographs (6-8 seconds) of simple 2D bent wire shapes being slowly turned. Lit by a torch, the wire traces three-dimensional forms in space which are captured by the camera. Echoing the spaces created by the sculptures of Ruth Asawa.

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Part of our approach during this Active Archive Residency has been to find ways of bringing together the concurrent processes of archival research and experimental art-making, in ways that fit with the philosophy and approach of BMC.

Ruth Asawa, who was a student at Black Mountain in the late 40s, used the BMC laundry stamp to create a large fabric artwork, combining approaches to design, textiles, and typography.

Asawa used the BMC stamp as both content and material. For us, images and works of art from the archive can be approached in a similar way. Artistic interventions in the archive can be a way to spend time with the material, gaining insight into its significance and creating new relationships with it.

Images credits: Leap Then Look, BMCM+AC permanent collection, Josef & Anni Albers Foundation, David Zwirner Gallery.

Asawa Images: Ruth Asawa, November 1954. (Photo by Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images); Hanging Sculptures in Ruth Asawa’s home, BMCM+AC collection; Asawa drawing, 1954. (Photo by Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Image, Ruth Asawa’s home, BMCM+AC collection; Asawa with hanging sculptures, photo by Laurence Cuneo, Estate of Ruth Asawa. Asawa Drawing at BMC, Western Digital Archive, untitled sculpture drawing ink on paper 1951-53, Estate of Ruth Asawa. Ruth Asawa, Untitled (BMC Laundry Stamp) 1948-49, reproduction in BMC Photographic Viewbook, 1949-50.