Why Are We Still Talking About Black Mountain College? – The New York Times

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In 1933, a handful of renegade teachers opened a school in rural North Carolina that would go on to shape American art and art education for decades to come.
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Among the most enduring and evocative images of Black Mountain College — the experimental liberal arts school in rural North Carolina that was founded during the depths of the Great Depression, and that fostered the talents of numerous artists during the uniquely hopeful and propulsive period that followed World War II — are several photographs of R. Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller, the eccentric inventor and designer, attempting to construct his first large-scale geodesic dome. It was the summer of 1948, and Fuller, who was a faculty member in residence at the school — along with the likes of Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Peter Grippe, Beaumont Newhall and Richard Lippold — had brought with him rolls of aluminum Venetian-blind scrap stock and enlisted students and faculty to help him build.
A look at how art is taught – if it can be taught at all – and what the future holds for aspiring creators.
In one of the photographs, which were taken by Newhall, Fuller and his students survey the slats they have laid out on the grass. In another, Fuller stands, plans in hand, alongside Elaine de Kooning and Josef Albers, then head of the Black Mountain art program — all three of them dressed in casual summer clothes, looks of intense contemplation on their faces. In the end, the material was neither sufficiently strong nor tensile enough for the structure to remain erect (it was jokingly called “the Supine Dome”), but its collapse is beside the point. The photos are symbolic of what, at root, Black Mountain was about: a group of working artists merging art and life, study and play, and countenancing failure, as the art historian Eva Díaz has written, “as part of a dynamic process of educational risk.”
Like ancient Athens, the Bloomsbury Group in London, the Harlem Renaissance, Vienna during the heyday of Mozart or Freud and 19th-century Concord, Mass., Black Mountain College was the site of a genius cluster, though in the unlikeliest of places: at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Swannanoa Valley, 15 miles east of Asheville and near the small town for which the school was named. There, from 1933 to 1957, a ragtag group of teachers — helmed variously by an irreverent classics professor, John Andrew Rice; physics professor Theodore Dreier; chemistry professor Frederick Georgia; former Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers (who arrived in 1933 with his wife, the textile artist Anni Albers); and, in the 1950s, the poet Charles Olson — offered students a liberal arts education with art at its core. “Art is a province in which one finds all the problems of life reflected,” Josef Albers wrote in 1934, in the Black Mountain College Bulletin.
It was, in fact, the college’s summer sessions in the arts — and the impressive lineup of visiting faculty who came to teach at them — that would solidify its mythical reputation. Among the many well-known names who have cameos in Black Mountain’s history are the painters Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Leo Amino and Ben Shahn; the photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind; the art critic Clement Greenberg, the social critic Paul Goodman and the literary critic Alfred Kazin; the composer Stefan Wolpe; the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius; the poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Hilda Morley (who, along with Olson were part of a group of writers known as the Black Mountain Poets); the Bauhaus potter Marguerite Wildenhain and the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, who, in 1955, was designated a Living National Treasure of Japan. Plenty of students, too, would become famous artists in their own right: Ruth Asawa, Ray Johnson, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, Susan Weil, Cy Twombly, Francine du Plessix Gray, Robert De Niro Sr., Arthur Penn and John Wieners among them.
“Don’t you think it’s quite impressive that we are talking about Black Mountain College in 1987?” reads a charmingly quaint remembrance delivered at the opening of an exhibition that year at Bard College and collected by independent scholar Mary Emma Harris as part of the Black Mountain College Project, an online archive and independent study of the college that Harris has been pursuing since 1968. But it is now 2022 — nearly nine decades since the school’s inception — and people are still talking about it (many, in fact, more than mildly obsessed with it). Indeed, this unusual, unaccredited little college in the middle of rural nowhere has been the subject of at least 10 full-length books and several poetry collections, and is a perennial topic of museum exhibitions — see, recently, “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957,” organized by the Los Angeles-based writer and curator Helen Molesworth in 2016. Why the fascination? It is, of course, riveting to read about any group of artists — especially those whom we know would become famous in the fullness of time but who were still in the process of honing their craft, working and carousing together in anonymity, cross-pollinating ideas (and at times, with each other) and, ultimately, forming a community that amounted to more than the sum of its parts. “There was a rare coming together of kindred spirits in an environment receptive to interaction, experimentation and a lively, imaginative exchange of ideas,” Harris has written of the summer of 1948 at the school, yet her words apply to Black Mountain as a whole.
Black Mountain College lives on not just because reading about it and looking at the many images it produced is pleasurable and immensely entertaining, but because it was a uniquely generative institution. It modeled an innovative style of education that would form the paradigm for numerous art and liberal arts schools and arts organizations in America (including the one where I have been a fellow, the Black Mountain Institute — no relation — at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which took its name in homage and sought to emulate its ethos). And it educated a generation of confident, independent, original thinkers — artists of the imagination, if you will, if not necessarily career professionals — to participate in a democratic society. But, above all, it gave rise to a network of artists who would spread its utopian spirit, ideas and vision to various precincts of the contemporary art world.
BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE was the brainchild of John Andrew Rice, who, in early 1933, was dismissed from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., in large part for having unorthodox ideas about education, among them a belief in “the freedom to learn in one’s own way and according to one’s own timetable,” as Martin Duberman writes in “Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community” (1972), his sweeping and dishy book about the place. Eight faculty members who were also dismissed or who resigned in solidarity with Rice, along with a handful of free-spirited students, urged him to start a college of his own, one that would be a laboratory for the progressive model of education espoused by John Dewey, which was grounded in the principle of “learning by doing.” Furnished buildings were rented from a Protestant summer camp that left them unoccupied in the off-season (in 1941, the campus was moved to nearby Lake Eden), and a $10,000 donation was obtained from the Forbes family. That first fall, there may have been roughly two dozen students and half as many teachers who, as a 1936 Harper’s article noted, “pooled their personal book collections and called the result a college library,” but Black Mountain College had been formed.
It was an unconventional institution from the start. Rice and his fellow dissidents believed that a college should be owned and run by its faculty and students. There would be no board of trustees, no dean, no president and limited administration beyond a secretary, treasurer and the lead role of “rector,” all of whom taught classes, as well. There was also a Board of Fellows, which was composed of several professors and a student representative — this group would primarily make business decisions on the college’s behalf — as well as a “disemboweled” advisory council, to borrow Duberman’s colorful word, that had no real power. As for the curriculum, there wasn’t one, really: neither required courses nor formal grades. Professors taught what they wished, and students graduated when (or if) they wanted — only about 55 of the 1,200 or so students who attended Black Mountain in its 24-year existence attained a formal degree — as long as they passed two sets of exams, one roughly at the halfway point and the other before the end of their tenure, whenever they decided that was. The hierarchy, too, was minimal, with students and most faculty living in the same building and taking their meals together.
There were none of the “usual distinctions,” Duberman writes, “between curricular and extracurricular activities, between work done in a classroom and work done outside it.” Students often performed chores as part of the “work program”; afternoons were left free for activities outdoors, which might have included chopping wood, clearing pasture and planting, tending or harvesting crops. As Mary “Molly” Gregory, a woodworking teacher, recalled of her time there: “We did build several buildings designed by faculty and students. We did have a farm, which supplied meat, milk, vegetables. We did help with maintenance chores, worked in a print shop. There was a woodworking shop where we built furnishings, lab equipment, utensils for parties and small houses for pigs.” By all accounts, the manual labor was not only fun but gave students a meaningful sense of contributing to the day-to-day maintenance of the college. It was also a great leveler. “You might be John Cage or Merce Cunningham,” Molesworth tells me, “But you’re still going to have a job to do on campus.”
Among Black Mountain’s most visionary notions was to put the arts “at the very center of things.” Rice believed that the study of art taught students that the real struggle was, in his words, with one’s “own ignorance and clumsiness.” The idea was not to produce artists per se (“in fact,” as Harper’s rather bitingly put it, “the college regards it as a duty to discourage mere talent from thinking itself genius”) but thinking citizens who, honed by the discipline inherent to the arts, were capable of making complex choices — about their own work and, ultimately, in the larger world. Students were thus encouraged to study music, drama and fine art, and classes in other subjects were scheduled so as not to conflict. “Art was not relegated to the sidelines,” says Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, “It was the basis of all education.”
Yet, for his idea to succeed, Rice needed a visionary to head the art program. The problem was, he didn’t know many artists himself. He went to meet with a young Philip Johnson, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who suggested Josef Albers, an abstract artist, theorist and popular professor at the celebrated Bauhaus in Germany, arguably the most famous art school of the time. In July 1933, in the face of Nazi harassment, the Bauhaus faculty elected to shut down and refused to comply with requirements for reopening, like hiring Party members to teach. Albers was out of a job, but the more salient issue was that his wife, Anni, a master weaver and former Bauhaus instructor, was Jewish in an increasingly menacing atmosphere. It was at this time that a telegram from Black Mountain College arrived. “I don’t speak English,” Albers replied. Rice, ever the maverick, wrote back: “Come anyway.”
It’s widely agreed that the hiring of Albers, now regarded as one of the most influential visual arts professors of the 20th century, was Rice’s savviest move. A gifted, passionate teacher with a reputation for being somewhat intense, Albers had been an instructor at the Bauhaus for a decade; he took the school’s preliminary design course (the Vorkurs), on which he’d put his own spin, and brought it to Black Mountain, where he taught drawing, basic design and color theory. Albers gave his students uniform assignments, and then critiqued their work in class. His aim was to teach people “to see” without preconceptions or ego: “I want to open eyes,” he said. So many artists took his class over the years — Rauschenberg, Twombly, Johnson and Asawa, to name a few — that it has become an iconic detail in the history of American art: the Museum of Modern Art owns two notebooks (their covers labeled “Colour” and “Design”) belonging to Austrian Australian architect Harry Seidler, who studied under Albers in 1946. Molesworth affirms that Albers’s pedagogical legacy is considerable: “The template of American art school is still the Black Mountain template,” she says, “between the crit, a rotating roster of guest speakers and the interdisciplinarity — that’s literally art school.”
Rauschenberg called Albers “the most important teacher I’ve ever had,” noting that “the focus was always on your personal sense of looking.” Asawa said that the idea for her crocheted wire sculptures came to her on a trip to Mexico in 1947, where she met up with the Alberses (who were on sabbatical there) and was taught basket weaving by local artisans. To be sure, one of the most enchanting aspects of the Black Mountain universe is seeing the matrix of influence among the artists. Fuller, Cage and Cunningham ate breakfast together every morning the summer Fuller built his flaccid geodesic dome. In the evenings, Cage gave a short presentation of Erik Satie’s music, culminating in the staging of the French composer’s 1913 surrealist play, “The Ruse of Medusa.” The performance, starring Fuller as the Baron Medusa and the writer Isaac Rosenfeld as his servant, was co-directed by a young Arthur Penn — who would go on to direct the films “The Chase” (1966), “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “Alice’s Restaurant” (1969) — and featured a set designed by Willem and Elaine de Kooning. A few summers later, in 1952, Cage mounted another collaborative performance at Black Mountain. This was his infamous “Theater Piece No. 1” — now considered to be the first countercultural “Happening” — in which he delivered a lecture, Olson and M.C. Richards read poetry, David Tudor played piano and Cunningham danced, of course, while a dog chased him around. Rauschenberg’s austere all-white paintings, one or more of which were hanging from the ceiling of the dining hall at the time, were an important inspiration for Cage’s controversial 1952 silent piece “4’33.” Everybody was influencing everybody else, and documenting it all in photographs.
The astonishing number of major avant-garde artists who graced the Black Mountain campus is surely the principal reason for the school’s abiding grip on the cultural imagination. But I would argue that there’s more to it: Black Mountain feels bound up with — in fact, a formative influence on — a critical moment in American history, particularly the postwar period, when the country emerged victorious from overseas conflict, then entered an unprecedented economic boom and era of artistic prospering. Against the backdrop of such momentous societal change, the college was a creative refuge settled by countercultural pioneers — “a community pledged to rebel against all traditional modes of behavior, in life as in art,” as Francine du Plessix Gray has written. It was experimental, idealistic and offbeat but, compared to the intensity of the ’60s and ’70s, when people would become far more radicalized, it now feels rather innocent. Black Mountain existed at a time before second-wave feminism, the civil rights movement or identity politics. Albers was teaching formalism, Olson radical subjectivity, and everyone was concerned with colors, shapes, beauty and truth — all in the earnest belief that these lofty ideals would make a better world. From our current vantage, when politics has become such an inextricable part of art and life, it’s easy to regard the whole phenomenon as a kind of picturesque fantasy, to feel nostalgic for a seemingly simpler time.
It is certainly tempting, when looking at images of Black Mountain, of students gamboling outdoors, or waltzing together at one of the college’s Saturday night soirees, or attending class in a sunlit cabbage patch, to “just see the glorious things that came out of there and picture the dances and the cheerful community and all those geniuses together,” as Weber puts it — to romanticize and idealize it. That would likely have annoyed the Alberses, according to Weber, who says they felt it was “glorified” as “some sort of paradise.” In fact, it was a precarious, improvised situation taped together on a shoestring budget. When Helen Frankenthaler visited Greenberg while he was teaching one summer, she found it not to her liking: “The food was terrible. Most of the people were dingy. The barracks were unspeakable. Most of the personal situations were nightmares. And there were snakes.” Like any institution, it also had its entrenched problems, backstage dramas and internecine conflicts. Chief among those was the debate over integration on campus, as some faculty opposed admitting Black students, citing fears of violence from the surrounding town. But the students and on-board faculty persisted and, in fits and starts, made headway. In 1944, the college’s first Black student, Alma Stone Williams, was admitted to the summer music institute as a “visiting guest,” and the first full-time Black student, Sylvesta Martin, enrolled the following year. The faculty was also slowly, if temporarily, diversified. The singers Roland Hayes and Carol Brice were invited to come for the 1945 summer institute, while several other Black teachers were brought on full-time, though only for short stints: Dr. Percy H. Baker, a biologist, was hired as a visiting lecturer in the fall of 1945; Mark Fax, a composer, taught the following semester; and the painter Jacob Lawrence — who, with his unique blend of social realism and modernist abstraction, would become one of the most famous painters of the 20th century — was invited by Albers to come with his wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, for the summer of 1946. Still, attracting Black students proved challenging. Not only was the South still segregated under Jim Crow laws but, as Baker pragmatically pointed out, “College for us serves a very economic purpose” — it was difficult to persuade Black students of the advantage of a school where they might “not receive a degree.”
The plight of women at Black Mountain was likewise complicated and less than utopian. On the one hand, it was a realm where women were essentially free: to make art, to perform in the art of others, to dig ditches, to farm — “this was not a finishing school,” Molesworth says. On the other, women still had to deal with the nagging, pervasive sexism of the time: Olson, who walked around campus shirtless in a serape, was known to make inappropriate remarks to — and sometimes even to exclude — his female students; Albers, despite his austere demeanor, had, according to the biographer Charles Darwent, a reputation for not keeping his hands to himself. Black Mountain, for all its progressive ideals, was still trapped in its historical moment.
In the end, the college found itself, like so many institutions, mired in internal disputes and administrative conflicts, and it closed, in 1957, for the reason many do: lack of money. Its influence, though, would long be felt on the arts in this country. Albers, who left the college in 1949, went on to run the Department of Design at Yale, and train many more young artists. Asawa, who is known to most as the creator of striking biomorphic wire sculptures, co-founded the Alvarado Arts workshop in 1968 — an arts education program that at its peak was in more than 50 San Francisco public schools — and helped start the city’s first public arts high school, which now bears her name, in 1982. Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline advanced the spirit of collegiality and collaboration espoused at Black Mountain as founding members of the Club in New York City — a haunt frequented by pretty much the entire pantheon of important midcentury artists and thinkers, everyone from Isamu Noguchi to Hannah Arendt. And on and on. Yet, arguably, even more significant than the individual artists the school dispersed was its overall ethos. It offered a model of experimentation, optimism and freedom, set alongside social responsibility, and it taught a generation of artists to perceive the world with an ethical clarity that’s all too rare now. “In short, our art instruction attempts first to teach the student to see in the widest sense,” Albers wrote in June 1934, “to open his eyes to the phenomena about him and, most important of all, to open to his own living, being and doing.”
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