Monday, September 1st, 2003

Black Mountain: Experiment In Art Edited by Vincent Katz with essays by Martin Brody, Kevin Power and Robert Creeley.

Josef Albers Teaching, August 1948 Photo by Rudy Burckhardt, reproduced p.114 Courtesy the Estate of Rudy Burckhardt
Josef Albers Teaching, August 1948 Photo by Rudy Burckhardt, reproduced p.114 Courtesy the Estate of Rudy Burckhardt

Imagine an art school that functioned like no other. Located far from the bustling art scene of New York, it was nestled remote North Carolina, miles away from anything. Here, the student decided what classes to take and how long his course of study would last. A school that could not afford to pay its professors a cash salary, but was so popular that teachers came anyway, ready to use their cars for lodging in lieu of being part of the spirit of community the school fostered. A school that had no endowment, operated on a shoestring budget from year to year, and conferred no degrees, but that saw its graduates go on to attend the prestigious graduate programs at Columbia and Harvard.

There was once such a place, and Black Mountain College was its name, and it was the hotbed of experimentation in the visual, musical and literary arts from 1933 to 1956. A whole generation of artists, writers, dancers and musicians cut their creative teeth here, and their legacies live on to this day. Black Mountain: Experiment in Art, edited by Vincent Katz, examines the history and influence the college had on the artists and teachers who emerged from its uncommon ground, and in doing so, it leaves no doubt as to its importance in the greater scope of American art history.

Black Mountain: Experiment in Art is the exhibition catalogue to “Black Mountain College: Una Aventura Americana” presented at the Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, which Katz also curated. Katz’s opening essay, which shares the title of the book, presents a condensed but in no way incomplete survey of the people events that secured the college’s place in history. The history of the school, what could easily be boringly encyclopedic, is light and interesting, allowing the reader to move breezily from one profile to another. The text has a yearbook feel, as if these were our classmates, rediscovered again for the first time in years. The stories lend themselves to a quixotic notion of the artist, but they are not melodramatic for these collaborations were not born out of romanticism, but out of practicality and experimentation.

Founded by John Andrew Rice, Black Mountain was a school where experimentation was indeed the focus; one where the students would constantly question, and the teacher would foster the discussion, not provide The Answer. Calling Black Mountain College an “experiment in art” is therefore appropriate in this context. Rice gathered a group of like-minded colleagues each irritated by the rigid structures at other universities, and started a college run entirely by the faculty, where the students were free to create independent patterns of study. As Katz notes, “these organizational principles were adhered to for the duration of the college’s existence. They proved its great blessing, its difference, and its difficulty.”

The school officially opened in September of 1933, fifteen miles from Asheville, North Carolina in an under-utilized YMCA building. It would later move to property purchased at nearby Lake Eden- 667 acres with sixteen buildings and an artificial lake. From the beginning, because it was so small, one was required to be part of an integral unit at the college, so close that it took on the character of a large family. Rice, convinced that the arts should play a central role in college education, reasoned that an artist should head up the college. Physics instructor Ted Dreier (nephew of collector Katherine) suggested contacting Philip Johnson, then director of the department of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, for a recommendation. He suggested Josef Albers, and thus began Black Mountain’s venture into experimentation in art and in art education.

In its twenty-three years, Black Mountain College produced some of the most important collaborations and ideas in the twentieth century. Teachers included Lyonel Feininger, Ilya Bolotowski, Walter Gropius, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Jacob Lawrence, Beaumont Newhall, Ben Shahn, Robert Motherwell, Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Harry Callahan, and Aaron Siskind; that’s just the short list. Big names in literature were also drawn to the campus -Thornton Wilder, Henry Miller, Irwin Panofsky and Anais Nin. It was that sense of community, the freedom to experiment, that drew of them to this sometimes exhilarating, sometimes lonely place. It was the only place many of them did not hesitate to try.

A school as small as Black Mountain provided the perferct breeding ground for cross-disciplinary collaboration. Katz explains that John Cage’s 4’33” -possibly the composer’s most famous (or infamous) work wherein the composer sits at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds but plays nothing-was derived from Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. Cage saw Rauschenberg’s paintings (multiple planks of white, painted in subtle textural variations) as a gutsy experiment, and as such, ventured to create a musical piece based on similar ideas. Katz notes that Cage had been afraid that the piece would be taken as a joke. In any other environment it might have. By stepping into this realm, Cage was then able to take his ideas one step further. It was at this point that he created Theater Piece No. 1-widely accepted as the first “happening.”

That specific works are splendidly reproduced is another strong point of this text. Using descriptive analysis to show exactly where pivotal developments lie, Katz provides the reader a link between idea and practice. He explains that de Kooning’s gestural style and “typically de Kooningesque palette of ‘weak’ or ‘offbeat’ colors” were discovered in 1948 while teaching at Black Mountain. Asheville was painted in that year, and indeed it reveals what we know to be “de Kooningesque”, “active color rhythms in compressed space, though still relying on the linear definition of partially bounded areas.” By including a section on recent work from a handful of Black Mountain artists, Katz offers insight into how their work has evolved over time.

One area where the book falls short is in its explanation of exactly why the school failed to endure. Without a board of directors or an endowment, the school’s financial stability was always in question. Albers did much to keep things going despite this. He arranged for guest lectures, for slides for presentations, and ensured the variety of artistic viewpoints evidenced by the range of artists who taught at the college. He urged friends and alumni to donate art books to the library.

Albers left the school in 1948, and it was at this point that the poet Charles Olson took over. With a writer now in charge, the focus shifted naturally from the visual arts to the written word and became the same kind incubator for literature that it had been for the visual arts only five years earlier.

Olson studied at Wesleyan and Harvard, worked for the Office of War Information during World War II and worked on FDR’s reelection campaign of 1944. He made a name for himself in 1947 with Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville, but his years at Black Mountain from 1948 to its closing in 1956 were the most critical to his career as a writer. Most memorable was the 1950 publication of his essay “Projective Verse”-composition by field, where the page was a canvas on which words could be dropped in a variety of positions, not just one after another. Another key aspect of Projective Verse was the demand that it be made in the moment, one word or thought was meant to spur the next-it is not a meditation but an abstraction, like a Pollock on paper. Olson also made his mark by urging authors to publish their own works. Under his direction, the movement known as the Black Mountain School of writers was formed, which included Robert Creeley, Fielding Dawson, Robert Duncan and Joel Oppenheimer, among others.

Olson was an imposing figure, both physically and intellectually. Robert Creeley’s essay “Olson and Black Mountain College” sheds light on the complexities of person. As Creeley puts it, “It was hard not to come under his spell and he was finally bored by those who did.” Olson’s methods were challenging. His way of teaching was curious. He taught late at night, with classes lasting sometimes into the next morning. The structure that Albers had instituted was clearly erased.

When Olson took over in 1948, attendance at the college was at its peak. But what exactly led to its decline? Was it Olson’s domineering personality? Dorothea Rockburne, only seventeen when she came to the school in 1951, said, “it was strange and wonderful place, but it was very sexist. Olson was extremely sexist, and I’d never experienced that before.”

Was it slipshod management? By Creeley’s account, and within the essay by Kevin Power, “In Around and About The Black Mountain Review: Robert Creeley and Company,” it would appear that Olson spent too much time on his own writing endeavors instead of public relations and fund raising. In 1952, a prospectus for the school reported a 1:2 faculty to student ratio, and by 1954, there were only seven students enrolled. There was no science class, and Olson urged Robert Creeley, who had no knowledge of the sciences, to teach it. Creeley told Olson, “Biology was the one class I never took.” Olson’s reply, “Terrific, you can learn something.”

Was the small campus suffocating? Ilya Bolotowski found it too isolated, “a lively place, but very much inbred. And that finally became stifling, like living in a small room with mirrors; nothing else exists, except endless reflections.” Or were the teachers themselves to blame? Six of de Kooning’s ten students left the same year he did. When asked by Albers if he knew anything about that, de Kooning replied, “Sure. I told them if they want to be artists, they should quit school and come to New York and get a studio and start painting.”

In 1955, the college lost the land surrounding the school and the remaining buildings were practically in ruin. Robert Duncan described the main building as “a derelict piece of modernism-nothing looks more rundown than an art moderne building ten years later.” A very desperate end for something that once had so much glorious promise. Even so, this text leaves one with a feeling of inspiration and with a hope that art, inspired by experimentation, is useful and can still change our perception of the world.

Black Mountain: Experiment In Art
Edited by Vincent Katz with essays by Martin Brody, Kevin Power and Robert Creeley.
MIT Press, 2003