Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Donald Alter and W.P. "Pete" Jennerjahn

As a supplement to the Mountain Xpress article, A Tale of Two Painters about Black Mountain College alumni, Donald Alter and W.P. “Pete” Jennerjahn, I am posting these excerpts from my conversations with each, respectively. The opportunity to speak at length with these two artists was tremendous. Both were incredibly accommodating and very pleasant to chat with.

Donald Alter

Donald Alter lives and works in Newburgh, NY. He was born in 1930 and attended Black Mountain College in 1948-1950. These are some comments Alter made during our telephone conversation November 19, 2010. See more of his work at

On Black Mountain College:

"Sometimes I smile at the realities of Black Mountain College, but I think that it is probably one of the main experiences of my life. That was a very very unique experience for me. Specifically there was contact with very exciting people. These were many artists in many areas and they were all accessible. It was very removed from the real world.

"We had a geographical location (Black Mountain) where all these artists could converge. That became a community where any talent could shine and emerge. Nobody would every think that Rauschenburg would be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. We didn’t realize how unique it was.

"At Black Mountain it was all primarily painting, but I did everything that I could touch. I did sculpture, weaving, all kinds of crazy stuff. Albers encouraged that kind of thing. We did a lot of artwork that required no paint and brush at all.

"In 1948-50 this was a very exciting time for art. Art started to really gel and young people had opportunity. Those are days that I think are gone now. I don’t see that happening today.
This is a lesson I try to impart to young people: they stand in awe of this great place where all of these great artists live but I keep telling these people that there’s great talents all over and you cant recognize it until they develop it and let it emerge.
I’m not particularly excited in the world of academia or how art is taught and what happens to youngsters who get into it.

"[After I left Black Mountain College] I never went back to school. It’s an individual pursuit. Once you learn yellow and red make orange you’re off and running.

On painting and career:

"I went into the textile design field in NY, but I always had a paintbrush in my hand. I was always involved in the arts. At a later age I went back to painting. In my mind I differentiated between the commercial world of art and the fine art world. I opted to go back into the world of painting at the age of 65.

"Back then people needed textiles. There were retails markets that were selling textiles, now that’s all being done in China. The markets have shifted. But that’s a whole other conversation.

"I tried to live my life with integrity as an artist. Being an artist is a very risky endeavor. Really at this stage in the game I feel humble and modest. There’s a lot of nonsense in the world.

"It is a very difficult area to engage in. When I finish a painting I call it a day and that’s all I do. The more arduous the effort the more depressed I can get. So maybe I go back to it later and it becomes alive again.

"There’s a lot of self-doubt and you have to get rid of that -- the self-doubt.

Hudson Valley Weave 2008

On personal creative evolution:

"The subject matter started to change (over the years.) I was no longer painting decorative flowers. If you look at those two paintings, in the gallery next to each other [Transformation 1949 and Hudson Valley Weave 2008]-- I picked up right where I was when I was a student at Black Mountain The biological forms, the colors -- it was uncanny.

"I went back and used the vocabulary I learned at Black Mountain

On Making a Living:

"Making a living is very difficult. That’s the real test that describes who you are. My neighbors don’t even know what I’m doing but I don’t disrespect them for it. The world is too complicated. You can ask a lot more of it than it’s bound to give you.

"There are people making large sums of money promoting painting. It’s a hard game to play and I don’t play it. I’m an old timer and the world I play in is a lot different.

"When I look at these younger upstarts I get excited, but a lot of it is hype. The art world is a very troublesome place. There are some crazy things going on.

"I figured out a way to make prints and sell them for 4 cents, I call them 4-penny prints. In the market place where art is being sold at Sotheby’s for millions of dollars I’ve been making prints for 4 cents, which I think, is pretty funny.

On criticism:

"It’s very difficult. Sometimes you feel a little bit upset --there’s no question about it. It’s like going to the office and the boss is not respecting your work. Its risky, it takes a lot of self-discipline. You really have to love it to keep up with it.

"Money pressure can get intense. I think that’s part of the real world that no one ever discusses in art school.


W.P “Pete” Jennerjahn and recent paintings

W.P “Pete” Jennerjahn lives near Sedona Arizona. Below are excerpts from our telephone conversation November 19, 2010.

On Black Mountain College and Josef Albers:

"I started life in 1922. I showed up at Black Mountain in 1948.

"I had already been through undergrad and grad programs at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The other schools were traditional as far as the art departments – with regulation of tests and credits. But Black Mountain didn’t deal in credits. You were examined by your faculty involved, I wasn’t there long enough to actually get a degree, but what Black Mountain did was they would solicit from the nation someone who had a reputation in that field and that person would come and examine you and evaluate you if you could graduate or not.

"I was focused on whatever Josef Albers was teaching at the time -- primarily color, painting and design.

"I had it up to here as far as responding to teachers in the grad schools I was at. My wife [Elizabeth Jennerjahn] who had been to BMC, recognized that Albers was someone special beyond any kind of other teacher.

"In previous teachers there were the kind of rote lessons on hue, value and intensity –and you did everything based on that kind of thing.

"I passed thru that period of my education during the Depression days when people we looked up to were doing murals in post offices and we were urged to do work murals. Of course that was a phase I passed on thru as I was encountering my teachers in college.

"At Black Mountain they didn’t deal in that at all. It was not the artistic theme we were working on. We were working in basic themes. Colors. In some of the painting classes we would do still life studies and work from the wonderful scenery on campus. There was actually a lake there and we were very influenced by it.

Contrary Shadows, 1952

On Color:

"What was in effect in the US at the time was that you were realistic about color. And the color did not have an independence or a value other than their literalness so if you wanted a whole other feeling to arise from what you were working on you could feel free to abandon the old rules.

"After my working with Albers I taught a color course. I would have the students answer a questionnaire with questions like, “What are your favorite colors? What colors would you not put together? The idea was to have them declare their attitudes towards color at the time. After some time I would have them take the colors they hate and make them shake off those old rules and work freshly with color to have something happen. I told them, 'I want you to use the colors you hate and put them together so that they support each other.'

"Even in my painting now I’m continually challenging myself. The idea of the subject matter now is not important. I’ll put a color down and think which color I don’t want to see next to that color. So I work with those colors to figure out how to make the colors work together. I might give it some ludicrous type of title. More or less I am still struggling to keep from falling into the same combinations of things.

On the art world now:

"From what I gather from the young people I see submitting to the exhibits – they are much freer than when I was going through art studies back in the 40’s. There are still a number of them caught up in the old attitudes in relation to color so they’re not making full use to what the medium has to offer them.

"I remember in Milwaukee there was a contemporary art exhibit that came through [in the 1940’s] and there were things that came through in collage, that we were just scratching our heads over, and now nobody thinks twice about that kind of thing.

"I don’t subscribe to art magazines so I don’t have a good handle on the current art trends but I would say there is more flowing into the matter of not having things flat on the wall. There’s a lot more collage and layers of things, which was unheard of when I went through as a college level student.

"Many people are doing bulky 3D works that are much more tolerated than my time. It was rare to have things made out of metal and pipes and bent mechanical parts. Artists today are infinitely more adventurous in materials than they were back in those days.

On his own paintings:

"Lately I’ve been working with thin washes of acrylic. I started to give up on oils out of a frustration because I had a studio in the Adirondacks of NY and I would be getting all worked up making paintings and then when it was time to pack up the painting was too wet to ship.

"I began to like the flow of working with acrylics and I didn’t have to worry about drying time.
I enjoy working with acrylics because I can work with them in a way I had been doing with watercolors. I could do more things with liquid acrylics. It felt more on the same territory of expression as watercolor.

On mixing colors:

"It depends on what my need is. If I want a certain color that is opaque and it lies between cadmium orange and an earth color I will mix if I have to. I try to be economical about it -- not to indulge so that it takes me 4 tubes to get around to a color. I feel that I should be able to arrive at a color that I had in mind with no more than two tubes.

"Albers would buy tube color but would only add white. He would only add white. The only indulgence he gave himself was to lighten colors with white. To a certain extent I try to keep that same kind of economy. And at time I try to get a variation.

"I have paintings 4 feet high with slight color variations produced as color stripes. I did 10 years in that phase of horizontal stripes. The shift changes very little from stripe to stripe --like in the sky. On most of those paintings there are no two similar stripes of color.

1 comment:

John E. Green said...

Wow - once again why we love Asheville and all of the talented people that live here.