Becoming Bodhisattva: Zen Buddhism at Black Mountain and Beyond

Roxanne Goldberg
Oct 20, 2014 8:33PM

When Buddhist philosopher D.T. Suzuki arrived in New York in 1951 to teach seminars on Zen at Columbia University, Eastern philosophy surged through the hearts and minds of American writers, artists, and thinkers. One of Suzuki’s most passionate disciples was John Cage, arguably the most influential figure in music and visual art of the 20th century. Cage extolled Zen Buddhism throughout his lifetime, but was particularly influential to his fellow artists at Black Mountain College, one of which would become lifelong friend Robert Rauschenberg.

Becoming Bodhisattva: Zen Buddhism at Black Mountain and Beyond investigates the relation between Zen Buddhism and artists who attended Black Mountain College as students and professors, placing particular focus on Robert Rauschenberg. Juxtaposing works by Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Cy Twombly and Willem de Koonig with 13th- 16th century Buddhist statues and textiles, aesthetic, spiritual and philosophical echoes of the historic works become evident in the modern paintings, photographs and collages. Furthermore, the exhibition title suggests the exhibited artists used their creative practices as paths towards enlightenment, and just like the surrounding historic objects, these 20th century artworks continue to affect individuals today.  

The pivot in the exhibition is Rauschenberg’s 1961 Trophy IV (for John Cage), a testament to the early gratitude the artist felt toward the experimental musician. The artwork creates a scenario for a boot to hit metal, paying homage to Cage’s notion that all sound is music, an idea inspired by Zen’s focus on awareness in everyday life.

The exhibition proposes a new mode of thinking toward Rauschenberg’s 1950 Mother of God. Historically, it is thought Rauschenberg’s Christian upbringing inspired the work. However, when placed in dialogue with an 18th century Hevajra Mandala, Mother of God assumes a meditative form and function.

Manifest elsewhere in the exhibition are Zen notions of seeing nothing (Rauschenberg, White Painting (three panel), 1951); dissolving the mind and body into one (Rauschenberg and Susan Weil, Untitled (double Rauschenberg), ca. 1950; Franz Kline, Untitled, 1959); and integrated time and space (Rauschenberg, Cy + Roman Steps (I-V), 1952; Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2007). Like the Zen notion of Indra’s net—in which the world is considered a spider’s web interwoven with diamonds that contain and reflect the images of all other diamonds, so that all actions are dependent upon and penetrate one another—Zen practices like sitting meditation and the ‘here and now’ are presented in the statues and textiles works and mirrored through more abstract or allegorical means, within the modern artworks. For example, elegant parallels are drawn between a 14th -15th century century bronze Buddha at the Moment of Victory and Rauschenberg’s 1949 photograph Quiet House—Black Mountain.  

Both the American artworks and Eastern objects may be viewed as proposed methods for overcoming the dualism Buddhism believes to cause suffering. The natural discourse between objects across times and geographies emphasizes the inner-harmony achieved when one experiences “being-time,” and therefore encourages one to consider becoming a bodhisattva, just like Rauschenberg and his contemporaries at Black Mountain College. 

Roxanne Goldberg