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Black Mountain College By Saletnik, Jeffrey

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM156-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 16 September 2021, from
https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/black-mountain-college

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Abstract

Between 1933 and 1957, Black Mountain College served as an unlikely crucible of modernism. Despite its isolated location near Asheville, North Carolina, at various times its permanent and summer faculty included the likes of Anni Albers, Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, Jean Charlot, Lyonel Feininger, Joseph Fiore, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Karen Karnes, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, Beaumont Newhall, Amédée Ozenfant, Xanati Schawinsky, Ben Shahn, and Jack Tworkov. These artists and architects were joined by composers John Cage, Lou Harrison, Ernst Krenek, David Tudor, and Stefan Wolpe; writers and poets Robert Creeley, Charles Olsen, and M.C. Richards; as well as critic Clement Greenberg, musicologist Heinrich Jalowetz, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. There are few evident commonalities among the practices of this mix of European émigrés and Americans, yet the educationally progressive ethos of the College appealed to each of them. Its founding program was predicated upon a belief that the arts were central to higher education and that the practice of democracy would benefit from their curricular integration. Participation was prioritized in all activities, particularly in learning.

Between 1933 and 1957, Black Mountain College served as an unlikely crucible of modernism. Despite its isolated location near Asheville, North Carolina, at various times its permanent and summer faculty included the likes of Anni Albers, Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, Jean Charlot, Lyonel Feininger, Joseph Fiore, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Karen Karnes, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, Beaumont Newhall, Amédée Ozenfant, Xanati Schawinsky, Ben Shahn, and Jack Tworkov. These artists and architects were joined by composers John Cage, Lou Harrison, Ernst Krenek, David Tudor, and Stefan Wolpe; writers and poets Robert Creeley, Charles Olsen, and M.C. Richards; as well as critic Clement Greenberg, musicologist Heinrich Jalowetz, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. There are few evident commonalities among the practices of this mix of European émigrés and Americans, yet the educationally progressive ethos of the College appealed to each of them. Its founding program was predicated upon a belief that the arts were central to higher education and that the practice of democracy would benefit from their curricular integration. Participation was prioritized in all activities, particularly in learning. As John Andrew Rice, one of the school’s founders, claimed: ‘‘To read a play is good, to see a play is better, but to act in a play, however awkwardly, is to realise the subtle relationship between sound and movement.’’


Dining Hall, Lake Eden, Black Mountain College
Dining Hall, Lake Eden, Black Mountain College

Instruction began at the Blue Ridge Assembly campus of the College in the Fall of 1933. Rice, Theodore Dreier, and other alienated faculty of Rollins College aspired to create an environment in keeping with the educational principles of philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952). Dewey’s ethics encouraged hands-on learning activities directed toward each individual’s abilities and thus was antithetical to centralized teaching methods. Although priorities changed during the school’s thirty-seven year history, some semblance of this attitude remained present in both the College’s curriculum and its sociology. In addition to coursework in various subjects, students developed an individualized curriculum in consultation with the faculty and participated in interdisciplinary seminars. Students were unaware of their grades; external reviewers, rather than College faculty, evaluated the comprehensive examinations, which were required to graduate. In 1941, the College moved to a new campus on Lake Eden. In advance of the move, students and faculty physically labored to ready the site, which included them building a three-story studies building. As had been the case at the Blue Ridge campus, the new site included a small farm to provide food for faculty and students. As they had since the inception of the College, faculty and students resided on school grounds; they dined and socialized together. Academic life and daily life were integrated, although this became less of a priority in later years of the school’s existence.

The College’s arts curriculum was particularly significant. Josef Albers and Charles Olsen were among the most influential permanent members of the faculty. Many associated with the College, such as John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Willem de Kooning, taught only at the College’s primarily arts-oriented summer sessions and institutes. Albers, who had studied as well as taught at the Bauhaus, was brought to the College to develop its visual arts curriculum in 1933. He remained at the school until 1949. Albers introduced a material-oriented, process-based means of instruction meant to attune students to the properties of various visual materials. He developed a relational program of color instruction at the College that ultimately would be published as the well-known text Interaction of Colour (1963). Olsen, who joined the College faculty in 1948, advanced the notion of ‘‘projective verse’’ and, by extension, poetry that enabled a reader’s direct engagement with a text. He became the College rector in 1953, after which the school became increasingly literary in its orientation. Another poet teaching at the College, Robert Creeley, edited the Black Mountain Review (1954–1957), a magazine known for its employment of experimental verse. In addition to the visual arts and poetry, the College’s music curriculum was substantial. In summer 1944, Heinrich Jalowetz organized that brought together prominent musicians in celebration of the seventieth birthday of composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), who had revolutionized musical composition by introducing serial twelve-tone technique in the early 20th century. During the summer of 1948, Cage organized a festival devoted to the music of Erik Satie (1866–1925). He presented his infamous lecture ‘‘Defense of Satie’’ and performed Satie’s compositions for piano; the College staged Satie’s play, The Ruse of Medusa, which starred Fuller, Elaine de Kooning, and others in residence for the summer.

The College was officially dissolved in 1957, just as faith in the essentialist value system that underscored its founding principles began to wane, despite the College having hosted activities considered precursors for avant-garde practices in the 1960s. During the summer of 1952, for instance, Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg (a student), and others mounted an “untitled event’’ now regarded as central to the proto-history of Happenings and Fluxus art and performance. The success of the school’s students is also noteworthy; in addition to Rauschenberg, they include artists Ruth Asawa, Ray Johnson, Kenneth Noland, Dorothea Rockburne, and Cy Twombly.

Further Reading

  • Dewey, A.D. (2007) Beyond Maximus: The Construction of Public Voice in Black Mountain Poetry, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Díaz, E. (2014) The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Duberman, M. (1972) Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community, New York: Dutton.

  • Harris, M.E. (1987) The Arts at Black Mountain College, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Harris, M.E., et al. (2005) Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College (1933–57), Arnolfini Gallery; Kettle’s Yard Gallery.

  • Katz, V. (ed.) (2002) Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Lane, M. (ed.) (1990) Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds, An Anthology of Personal Accounts, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

  • Molesworth, H., et al. (2015) Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College (1933–1957), Boston: The Institute of Contemporary Art.

  • Reynolds, K. (1998) Visions and Vanities: John Andrew Rice of Black Mountain College, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

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09/05/2016

Article DOI

10.4324/9781135000356-REM156-1

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Citing this article:

Saletnik, Jeffrey. "Black Mountain College." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 16 Sep. 2021 https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/black-mountain-college. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM156-1

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