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Black Mountain College

Black Mountain College Collage

Started: 1933

Ended: 1957

"It was one of the most engaging, risky, and romantic seed-enterprises in the history of higher education."

Alexander Eliot

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

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.
Black Mountain College Image


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.

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