Black Mountain College
Summary of Black Mountain College
The experimental school Black Mountain College became a crucible for mid-20th century avant-garde art, music, and poetry. Founded on the principles of balancing the humanities, arts, and manual labor within a democratic, communal structure, the school's mission was to create "complete" people. It attracted a range of prominent teachers, including Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers, composer John Cage, painter Willem de Kooning, and poet Charles Olson. With an emphasis on interdisciplinary work and experimentation, students such as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ray Johnson, Kenneth Noland, and Ruth Asawa went on to make significant contributions to avant-garde art. After almost 25 years, the school closed for lack of money and students, but its importance and legacy has continued to grow to this day.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Even if not perfectly realized, Black Mountain College's experiment in community-centered education remains one of its most important legacies. The experience of education in a communal setting, where traditional hierarchies between faculty and students were subverted, was meant to imbue the individual student with a sense of his or her relations to others and the environment.
- The school had (practically) no grades and no tests, and students designed their own course schedules and concentrations. While there were classes in mathematics, psychology, and literature, the visual arts and music were at the heart of the school's curriculum in order to foster the decision making that the founders understood to be foundational to a democratic society.
- Josef Albers' previous teaching at the Bauhaus greatly informed the arts curriculum at Black Mountain College. Promoting both fine arts and craft, there was an emphasis on the hand made process. Additionally, Albers was insistent on providing training in the fundamental areas of drawing and color, and he promoted discovery and experimentation. Albers' assignments encouraged controlled trials with color and materials, but with the arrival of John Cage, experimentation using spontaneity and chance methods became more popular. These two approaches to learning had long-lasting influences in post-war art.
Overview of Black Mountain College
After being dismissed from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida for protesting curricular changes and violations of academic freedoms, John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, and other former faculty members founded Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina in 1933. Rice, a classicist and educational maverick inspired by the educational theories of John Dewey, and Dreier, a physicist and nephew of collector, artist, and educator Katherine Dreier, shaped the school's faculty and institutional life in the earliest years. Together, they sought to form a liberal arts college based on Dewey's principles of progressive education that emphasized personal experience over delivered knowledge.
Important Art and Artists of Black Mountain College
Anni Albers studied with both Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee when she was a student at the Bauhaus in Germany. Their commitment to abstraction as well as their interests in the arts of non-Western cultures, in addition to Albers' own wide-ranging readings and knowledge of Pre-Columbian textiles, informed Albers' methods and abstract motifs for weaving.
The weaving Monte Albán is indicative of the scale, abstraction, and colors that Albers used while at the Bauhaus, but it is also informed by her interest in Mexican and South American cultures. After coming to Black Mountain College in 1933, Albers, along with her husband Josef and friends Theodore and Barbara Dreier, travelled to Mexico for the first time. Here, she was inspired by the sculpture, pottery, and architecture of ancient civilizations and the prevalence of Mexican folk art. While she had previously been opposed to pictorial motifs, the lines in this particular weaving, created by additional weft threads, are based on the lines of Zapotec architecture.
Albers founded the weaving program at Black Mountain College, incorporating many Bauhaus ideas. Ultimately, weaving for Albers was an opportunity for experimentation unburdened by traditional rules. She wrote, "Material, that is to say unformed or unshaped matter, is the field where authority blocks independent experimentation less than in many other fields, and for this reason it seems well fitted to become the training round for invention and free speculation." As with so many other subjects at Black Mountain, hands-on learning and exploration attuned the students to the freedom of creative processes.
Josef Albers made it his mission to teach students how to see, to probe relationships between forms and color, and to notice what one usually passes over. In addition to his famed classes on color theory, matière studies were a staple of Albers' pedagogy. Here, he had students use found objects to create compositions in order to create relationships between textures, colors, and lines.
In his own matière study, Albers arranged six leaves symmetrically on a yellow sheet of paper. The symmetry of the composition echoes the symmetry of the leaves, while the organic and varied lines of the leaves undermine the strict orderliness of the composition, creating a playful tension. Frederick Horowitz notes that the poverty experienced at Black Mountain led Albers to have to improvise with materials at hand, but as he points out, "Their having to rely on cheap and discarded materials encouraged Albers's students to experiment and take risks, took the preciousness out of art, and underscored the idea that this was study, not art."
Additionally, Albers impressed upon his students that the formal relationships they created and found in their compositions had a parallel in human behavior and relationships as well. Horowitz explains, "...Albers conceived of talking about the formal elements as though they were living creatures. Lines, shapes, colors, and materials, 'should know about each other,' ... 'they should support each other, not kill each other.'"
Evidently, Albers had a particular soft spot for autumn leaves, telling his students, "You mustn't think of the autumn as a time of sadness, when winter is coming, because all the trees, they know winter is coming, so they get drunk! With color! Ach, it's beautiful! So now bring in leaf studies."
The figure in Jacob Lawrence's Watchmaker fills almost the entire canvas. Painted in a matte black and outlined in white, blue, and red, the craftsman, wearing a monocle, works intently at repairing a watch. A single light fixture hangs above to illuminate his task, and several clocks hang on the green paneled wall behind him, each displaying a different time. The disparity of the times and the angle of the table create a sense of dizziness and confusion, recalling Cubist space, and yet the intensity of the watchmaker's attention creates a stillness and quietness.
Lawrence was invited by Josef Albers to teach during the 1946 summer session. Though the two artists had very different methods of working and subject matters, Lawrence admitted that outside of his teachers in Harlem, Albers exerted the greatest influence. During this time, perhaps spurred by Albers, Lawrence used bold colors to create his compositions.
It is perhaps fitting that Lawrence chose this subject for a painting while at Black Mountain. While he recalled that the subject came from a watch repair shop he passed daily in Harlem in the 1930s, the focus on the tools and craftsmanship meld with Black Mountain's overall mission. As Bryan Barcena writes, "The tools of the craftsman's trade...are representative of a bridging of the haptic divide between tactile and visual concentration; their presence underscores the hand-eye choreography performed by the craftsman." The emphasis on craftsmanship - as opposed to fine arts - and materials at Black Mountain was central to the school's curriculum.
It was also at this moment in the school's history when the faculty and students made a concerted effort to try to integrate the campus, a controversial endeavor as the school was situated in the deep South during the era of Jim Crow. While their efforts were not altogether successful in the long run, they were more than a decade ahead of the desegregation efforts enforced in the South during the 1960s.
Useful Resources on Black Mountain College
- Look Before You Leap: Black Mountain College 1933 - 1957 (2015)By Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson
- The Arts at Black Mountain College (2002)By Mary Emma Harris
- Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (2009)By Martin Duberman