PETER GILLIES: 3 Women Artists at Black Mountain: Ruth Asawa, Susan Weil & Hazel Larsen Archer.

Given the long overdue recognition of the work of Anni Albers and her contribution to art and design education (her drawings, prints, weavings, wall-hangings and textiles are currently on show at Tate Modern until 27.01.19), now is the ideal time to reconsider the work of other women artists associated with Black Mountain College.

During her early years at Black Mountain, in a typescript modestly entitled ‘Weaving in a College’, Anni Albers states that ‘the interlacing of the vertical and the horizontal threads is in thousands of variations possible, a constructive task that gives free play to fantasy and intellect’. Making use of the grid as ‘an open weave’ incorporating ‘an active line’ informed Anni’s aesthetic. In the work of those students who studied at Black Mountain such as Ruth Asawa, Susan Weil and Hazel Larsen Archer, one can see the impact of Anni’s teaching and ideas, notably in the role played by interlaced layers of materials; in the tonal contrasts and textural values that have been playfully yet meaningfully juxtaposed; and in the interwoven lines of their structure.

Ruth Asawa was a student at Black Mountain from 1946 to 1949. She is best known for her graphic works and her sculptures of crocheted wire, as well as later on as an educator who instigated a progressive arts programme adopted by schools throughout San Francisco in late 1960s and early 70s. Various examples of Asawa’s work can be seen at:

Susan Weil came to study at the college in 1948 and since her early collaborative work with Robert Rauschenberg (between 1949-51) she has continued to this day, using various media (including painting, collage, print and bookmaking) to explore different ways of depicting the human figure in space. Weil’s work is available to

view at:

Hazel Larsen Archer first went there as a graduate student in 1944 and for more than half of the nine years she spent at Black Mountain, ran the photography course, whilst also documenting so much about the life of the college. Larsen Archer’s work

is featured at

Also, see: Hazel Larsen Archer

Although the work of Asawa, Weil and Larsen Archer has attracted some attention from curators, collectors and critics, all three women artists remain less well known when compared to their male contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, John Chamberlain and Ray Johnston, to name only a few. This paper will address that imbalance by reflecting on ways of placing the work of Asawa, Weil and Larsen Archer at the heart of the cross-disciplinary experimentation that developed during their time at the college.

In relation to the visual arts, it is worth considering the workshop environment and the laboratory-like atmosphere that was in place by the mid to late 1940s when Asawa, Weil and Larsen Archer became students. With her husband Josef, Anni Albers came to teach at Black Mountain in 1933, their tenure lasting until 1949. Their very particular approach to art education, brought with them from the Bauhaus, revealed their unwavering indebtedness to Paul Klee. It inflected their teaching, their own work, their statements about the creative process, and most importantly, the work of their students. The Alberses as a couple, were committed to Klee’s premise of combining construction with intuition.

Through the classes they attended and the studio environment they inhabited, students such as Asawa, Weil and Larsen Archer would have been familiar with the idea of the grid as a means to apply an open-weave, a technique Anni employed in the pre-liminary weaving course using even found natural materials such as stems and leaves. Indigenous artefacts as well as other inspirational materials encountered on their travels in Central and South America were frequently displayed by Anni – for example, an early 19th Century woven textile – part of a growing collection which she used as a source both for her own teaching and her own work. Evidence of her collaborative projects spanning architecture, interior design and printmaking informed her sharing of technical knowledge with students. Several of Anni’s woven room-dividers situated in her studio during this period illustrate the dialogue between prominent horizontal and vertical elements (and between the tighter and looser shapes they make), for these would have been key to demonstrating the ethos she advocated.

The ‘Basic Design Course’ taught by Josef Albers was equally influential: he encouraged students to test tactile non-art materials against one another, always asking ‘how do they correspond, how do they contrast, how does the texture of a material contribute to its appearance?’

The teaching of both Anni and Josef Albers provides the framework for Ruth Asawa’s work. In her early paintings, intensity is achieved simply by multiplying abstract motifs through the acts of repeating, mirroring and turning (Klee’s principles of design). Encouraged to let her drawn line meander, Asawa finds active ways to unite figure and ground, inner and outer shapes, as well as positive and negative space.

Although many of her shapes often seem geometrically derived, here spatial representation brings together geometric and organic ways of working. With their notable spatial vibration, three scintillating works on paper from 1947-48 (in fact they are responses to course exercises set by Josef) seem especially influenced by Anni’s complex structures of stepped triangles. In one of these, Asawa confidently introduces a swathe of black ink that creates a ravine-like space diagonally across the drawing. This produces fullness in both areas of light and dark that Asawa defines as ‘the areas in between’, creating the sense of movement she seeks as triangles are energized to meander freely off the grid.

Two paintings both entitled Dancers (c. 1948) show the influence of attending Merce Cunningham’s dance class, indicating her search for a visual and graphic means to show the expressive capacity and movement of the human body, what she identifies as ‘the liquidity of form’. Gradually becoming less interested in the geometric, Asawa starts to integrate more biomorphic shapes, so here we find cellular forms floating in relation to one another in a sea of saturated blue pigment where some of the shapes sit in correspondence, as if paired as dancing figures. These biomorphic shapes and forms will underpin all her later sculptural work.

Referencing Anni’s room dividers, two images (also c. 1948) made with college laundry stamps using the words ‘Double Sheet’ and ‘BMC’ cover pages of paper in undulating patterns. In both cases, these inked impressions fall like a woven curtain or layers of semi-transparent fabric. Again there is this increasing sense of Asawa making something that will hang in space, for these graphic representations anticipate a coming together of sculpture,textiles and architecture.

From the late 1940s she starts to make her signature wire sculptures that function as three-dimensional line drawings. In 1947 while visiting the Alberses in Toluca in Mexico where they are on sabbatical, Asawa learns techniques for crocheting baskets from local weavers, for it was this process that inspires her suspended crocheted wire sculptures and installations.

It therefore becomes clear that Asawa’s later work consolidates the input of several practitioners at Black Mountain: from Anni, how to adapt textile methods of construction; from Josef, a rigorous understanding of material properties, how to exploit wire’s malleability, linearity and light weight; from the experience of dance with Cunningham, recognising the way inter-locking forms can hold their space, each one acting as an analogue for the human body; and additionally, from observing Buckminster Fuller’s attempt to raise a geodesic dome (in summer 1948), she was encouraged to explore wire’s capacity for tensile construction. Above all, Asawa’s work is about using the economy of ‘the active line’. On making something to occupy space, she reflects in a very Klee-like manner: ‘I realised that if I was going to make these forms, which interlock and interweave, it can only be done with a line, because a line can go anywhere’

In her early work at Black Mountain, Susan Weil is already dealing with questions about how to articulate and make best use of the human figure. In paintings and drawings she explores ways of depicting the whole body, especially in how to fragment, how to privilege and reorganise separate parts of the figure. Weil moves from a figure drawing style adopted in classes with Josef to a method of overlapping transparent tones of colour with an interlacing of Klee-like lines, and then shifts again to a more painterly style in keeping with other women artists around her at the college, such as Elaine de Kooning and Pat Passlof.

Like Asawa, Weil benefits enormously from the Alberses, particularly their multi-media approach of being open and inclusive to the potential use of materials, sharing in this open orientation to art making. Their influence is also reflected in the way she embraces the grid as an essential structure. This questioning of how visual information can be horizontally and vertically arranged and most importantly, re-arranged, will become the dominant feature in Weil’s later work. Fragmentation therefore becomes a major theme as she learns to employ fragments that can be torn, enfolded or reconfigured to animate the surface of the whole. In an early collage Secrets (1949) she uses each word as a torn image, so that the reordering and exchanging process creates a series of disjunctures. By bringing together the geometric with the organic, Weil allows the edges to float off the surface, emphasising again Klee’s method of construction through intuition.

Through her many collaborations, especially in the way she used them to open out the development of her work, Weil’s work typifies the Black Mountain multi-disciplinary approach to the arts. In the early blueprints she made with her then husband Robert Rauschenberg, Weil adopts the same aim of wanting to fragment the body. Having learned the technique from her grandmother, she showed him the means of exposing photosensitive blueprint paper by placing objects within it to block-out the light exposing process. The recurring motifs of arms and hands, legs and feet are then registered against the blueness of the background, as if painting with light.

With further objects placed into it, the blueprint image becomes a surface of accumulation. The ready use of found materials, encouraged by both of the Alberses in their teaching, permeated the culture at Black Mountain. While there, Weil and Rauschenberg organised the dump-truck collection as their work assignment (according to Weil, the most coveted task among the students of the time). Therefore, while incorporating the human body as a primary resource, now traces of plants, leaves, twigs and found objects become a vocabulary of forms that are repeated throughout the series of blueprints in ingenious ways. The images reveal a total command of the medium, with both Weil and Rauschenberg switching between the roles of model and producer. From 1950 their images become larger, to include the one-to-one physical scale of the human figure – for example, Sue (c. 1950-51) – which uses everyday materials such as clothing, and in this particular case, a walking cane to unify the image.

Her later collaborations involve a striking sequence working with Jose Betancourt whereby Weil continues to make photograms and cyanotypes, exposing each composition directly onto a canvas. More recently she has been working with her son Christopher Rauschenberg to develop panoramic grid-like friezes in which elements are swapped around to create an image verging on the familiar, but full of unexpected juxtapositions. In these and other ongoing projects, Weil proceeds with her original aim of bringing together unexpected materials into assemblages that investigate figure-ground relations. Her sequential making of images continues to engage in processes she describes simply as ‘swapping’, ‘trading’ and ‘crumpling’.

Reflecting upon her time at Black Mountain as a student and then as the college’s first full-time photography teacher (from 1949), Hazel Larsen Archer notes the influence of Josef on her visual aesthetic, his ability ‘to open avenues of looking’ helping one ‘to learn to see’. An over-riding quality of Larsen Archer’s photographs is their intense spatial and physical intimacy, for in many of them there is a strong sense of the play of light, as if to bring out the abstract properties of patterns and repeated shapes. Her series of images titled Quiet House Doors (1948) are typical of how she seeks out soft monochrome shades and fleeting textural effects. Her emphasis is on the role of the empty areas to provide a pause in the pictorial composition, always placing value on the fullness of negative space.

Like Anni, Larsen Archer is always reflecting on the medium itself, stating that the camera ‘faithfully records not only what is in front of it, but what is behind it as well’. As a device, she believes the camera offers a way ‘of observing one’s self observing’. Her sense of proportional balance and appreciation of detail – how the information in the photographic frame is arranged – helps to create this sense of contemplation.

Certainly Larsen Archer’s work was influenced by both of the Alberses, especially in her wanting to create images with a strong formal unity combining the geometric and the organic; and by putting real emphasis on staying close to the materials at hand. Two photographs named The Minimum House (a building designed and built by Paul Williams, as well as involving other architecture students in its development) use the intimacy of looking through the camera’s lens to focus on the materiality – the textures of aluminium, wood and stone, and the reflective panels of glass – where the expressive characteristics of a surface are in dialogue with the ephemeral nature of passing light and shadow.

It was these strong images with their fine print quality resulting from meticulous darkroom procedures, completed during the 1948 summer programme, that led to Larsen Archer’s teaching appointment. Her former students Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly on separate occasions both noted her influence on them as a teacher who really nurtured their lifelong interest in photography.

Larsen Archer’s photographs of staff and students, and particularly those of various activities at Black Mountain, function as documentary images recording the life of the college as a community, revealing its efforts to merge faculty with the student body. For example, the portrait of Buckminster Fuller with whom she had also studied, surrounded by his array of geometric domes, and likewise, the accompanying shots of students involved in assembling one of the larger scale domes on site. A series of studies of Merce Cunningham’s improvisations caught in mid-air suggest the very motion of his dance: by avoiding any sense of a blurring in the image, each study becomes a figure arrested in space, caught as a clearly defined active shape.

In almost all of her photographs, Larsen Archer brings a very personal aesthetic, as in the portrait of sculptor Richard Lippold, with its interplay of tonal harmonies and surface contrasts. The series of Ray Johnson’s head taken up-close from front and back are typical in their effect, best described as photographic studies where she is collaborating with the subject. Taking the back of the head, she uses a wide aperture and a shallow depth of field to get only the central area of his hair in focus. The same is true with her series of Merce Cunningham’s head, pushing into the subject’s physical space while shooting even while her own mobility was restricted due to polio. Although frequently confined to a wheelchair, or using crutches, she still manages to achieve an incredibly dexterous way of working.

Given the examples discussed, it might seem curious, then, that the work of Asawa, Weil and Larsen Archer is not better known. Their vital contribution to the art of the period, especially in terms of the story of Black Mountain College, needs to be acknowledged, appreciated and understood. The last exhibition in the UK to tell that story (Starting at Zero at the Arnolfini and Kettle’s Yard in 2005-06) downplayed the contribution of women artists by including only a small amount of their works compared to their male counterparts. With the Anni Albers retrospective at Tate Modern currently gaining rave reviews, for other women artists associated with Black Mountain, this could well be the turning of the tide.


Peter Gillies is a poet and painter based in Falmouth. His work has been shown in Italy, France and Germany, as well as in the UK. He has received several artist’s awards from ACE and he has twice been artist-in-residence at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice. His publications include Sintesi (with Andreas Kramer, 2003), Passaggio (2005) and A Music Box of Snakes (with Rupert Loydell, 2011). In 2016 he completed his PhD at PlymouthUniversity entitled Painterly Poetics. Most recently his writing has been published in StrideDecals of DesireInternational Times and Norwich Arts Review.





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