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Black Mountain College Artworks

Black Mountain College Collage

Started: 1933

Ended: 1957

Artworks and Artists of Black Mountain College

The below artworks are the most important in Black Mountain College - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Black Mountain College. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Monte Albán (1936)

By: Anni Albers

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.

Leaf Study IX (c.1940)

By: Josef Albers

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."

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Watchmaker (1946)

By: Jacob Lawrence

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.

Asheville (1948)

By: Willem de Kooning

While teaching during the 1948 summer session, de Kooning created Asheville over the course of a couple of months. At first, the all-over composition appears abstract, but upon close inspection, one finds eyes, hands, and a mouth, among other shapes. Additionally, the outline at the top center may suggest the Blue Ridge mountains, and the blue below that may make reference to Lake Eden, the site of Black Mountain College. The painting contains multiple layers though it is not thickly painted, as de Kooning would often scrape down a day's work and start fresh again on the cardboard the next day.

Josef Albers had a tendency of inviting faculty that he knew were completely different from himself, and de Kooning was no exception. His painting style caused much confusion among many of the faculty and students. While de Kooning and Albers had very different creative processes, de Kooning's use of collage technique was something that the artists shared. Asheville is not a collage in the traditional sense of combining various materials, but the composition recalls a collage with fragmented shapes placed next to each other, each outlined in black. Additionally, in the upper left, a grey circle with a line through it resembles a tack, which de Kooning would often use to temporarily adhere paper in different shapes to the canvas as he was working out the composition, thus further underscoring the painting's connection with collage. As Thomas Hess described the painting, it was "of sliced and torn paintings and drawings, pinned and tacked and taped together...."

Buckminster Fuller class, with Elaine de Kooning and Josef Albers, constructing the geodesic dome (1948)

By: Beaumont Newhall

In addition to Willem de Kooning, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, the summer of 1948 also saw the arrival of the inventor/architect/engineer Buckminster Fuller. Fuller's goal that summer was to construct the first geodesic dome that he had designed. Like the Bauhaus architects, Fuller was committed to the betterment of society through architecture and technology, but he used radically different forms from the Bauhaus school. His designs were based on the tetrahedron and sphere instead of the cube. As Mary Emma Harris describes it, "The dome...was to be 22 feet high, have a floor area of 1500 square feet, and weigh fewer than 270 pounds." Fuller hoped to revolutionize modern dwellings and make them more affordable.

With the help of students, Josef Albers, and Elaine de Kooning, Fuller attempted to erect his geodesic dome from venetian blind strips. Once joined together, the tensile strength of the bolted-together strips would cause the structure to pop up into a hemisphere. Unfortunately, the material was not strong enough, and the hemisphere failed to materialize. Fuller jokingly called it the "Supine Dome," and he remained undaunted by the failure. Ultimately, Fuller wanted to, in the words of curator Bryan Barcena, "[carve] a path to the future founded in the belief in collaboration, universality, interrelatedness, and a technocratic allegiance to progress through design."

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Quiet House Doors (Gelatin silver print)

By: Hazel Larsen Archer

Hazel Larsen Archer came to Black Mountain College as a student for the 1944 Summer Session and then enrolled full time, and in 1949 she was admitted as part of the faculty, teaching photography. Her portraits of students and faculty, such as Willem de Kooning and Buckminster Fuller, are integral to any documentation of campus life at Black Mountain.

In Quiet House Doors, Archer captures the play of light and shadow on two simple doors. The doors opened to a small, chapel like structure built to commemorate the son of Theodore Dreier who died in a tragic car accident in 1941. As art historian Alice Sebrell explains, "Quiet House represented a place of solace, retreat, and renewal for this predominantly secular community." By exploring the simplest of forms, Archer aimed to convey the essence of things without unnecessary distractions. She credited Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller for teaching her how to see.

Archer's own pedagogical methods centered around the student, encouraging his or her own self-discovery. She thought of the teacher more as "an usher" than an imparter of knowledge. She helped her students to look closely and taught them the craft of fine printing.

Untitled (Night Blooming) (c.1951)

By: Robert Rauschenberg

In this largely monochromatic black painting, Rauschenberg created a thick, textured surface, in part by pressing the freshly painted canvas into the dirt and gravel road at Black Mountain College. The canvas carries not only the impressions of countless small rocks, but some of those rocks actually adhered to the canvas resulting in a highly tactile surface. The thin white line that occupies the center of the canvas reaches from the horizontal ground up to the top where it barely pokes through the black textured surface to continue faintly along the horizon line. At the top center, a barely perceptible orb hangs above the white line, suggestive of a moon. As art historian Branden Joseph points out, the night blooming flowers of North Carolina include jasmine, honeysuckle, and sweet gardenia, thus the painting taps into not only our sense of sight and touch but also smell.

Rauschenberg spent two stints at Black Mountain. The first was in 1948 with his then-wife Susan Weil, where they experimented with light-sensitive paper, making photograms, and the second in 1951 when he began exploring photography, painted his infamous White Paintings, and a series of black paintings, including the Night Blooming series. During this time, he and Weil separated and he developed a relationship with Cy Twombly. Rauschenberg whole-heartedly embraced Black Mountain's ethos of experimentation and collaboration, which he sustained throughout his long career.

Vase (c.1952)

By: Peter Voulkos

Voulkos was invited to teach ceramics at the 1953 Summer Session. While the Black Mountain ceramics program did not get started until 1949-50, mostly because Josef Albers did not think working in clay provided enough rigor, it attracted much attention. Initially conceived as a place for functional, production pottery, many of the potters came to embrace the college's focus on experimentation. Voulkos, himself, created functional pottery in his early years, of which this stoneware vase is exemplary.

He was deeply influenced by the Japanese Mingei school, which as curator Cindi Strauss explains, "brought with them a philosophy of elevating craftsmanship with serial production." The bulbous shape of the vase, its earth-colored glaze, and the irregular horizontal lines combine to create an organic feel. Because of his time at Black Mountain, where he first experienced a creative community of artists, and a trip to New York, where he met Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, Voulkos would come to develop a more radical, expressionist style. By 1956, he largely abandoned functional pottery for ceramic sculpture that embodied the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism and the chance techniques of John Cage.

Related Movements and Major Works

Universal Bayer (1925)

Movement: Bauhaus (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Herbert Bayer

Herbert Bayer's Universal Bayer typeface, a classic of International Style typography, employs a minimal geometric design of the sans-serif type favored by the Bauhaus. At the same time, the simplicity of the design reflects Bayer's interest in enhanced legibility, generating a large amount of negative space between characters, in contrast to the cramped calligraphic scripts of traditional German typography. Describing typography as "human speech translated into what can be read," Bayer wanted written language to have the clarity of speech, and used only lower-case letters for this design since there was no phonetic distinction between upper and lower case. Each character has the same width, meaning that the letters represent interchangeable spaces on the page. The type was therefore extremely easy to work with and could be adapted to typewriter keyboards and typesetting machines. These aspects of the design perfectly sum up the Bauhaus emphasis on functionality and mass producibility.

Like Breuer, Bayer was one of the younger members of the Bauhaus's golden generation, born in Austria in 1900. He initially trained as an architect, and in the late 1910s was part of the Darmstadt Artist's Colony, falling under the influence of that group's Jugendstil or Art Nouveau principles, as well as its emphasis on the idea of the 'total work of art'. However, in 1920 Bayer became intrigued by Gropius's new endeavor, and in 1921 enrolled at the school, studying under Kandinsky, Klee, and Moholy-Nagy. Returning as a teacher in 1925, he was named the Bauhaus's director of advertising and printing during the Dessau phase. He developed the Universal Bayer typeface after Gropius commissioned him to create a typeface which could be used in all Bauhaus publications. At this time, German printers still generally favored Fraktur, a dramatic Gothic typeface designed in the 16th century for Albrecht Dürer's Triumphal Arch (1526) woodcut. By stripping out the ornamentation of German script, Bayer expressed the spirit of a new cultural movement that rejected backwards-looking nationalism and embraced cosmopolitan modernity, a movement spearheaded by the Bauhaus, and later snuffed out by the Nazis. His design was also intended to work within a classic Bauhaus compositional concept, wherein letters were arranged in diagonals lines thrusting upwards across the page, wrapping around objects and picked out in strong colors.

Bayer's typeface was never cast in metal, but its influence has been widespread and longstanding. As well as standing at the forefront of developments in International Style typography across the 1920s-50s, influencing the Architype Bayer and Architype Schwitters typefaces amongst others, it is also the inspiration for Google's Product Sans, and for Bayer Next, a typeface designed by Sascha Lobe for the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum in Berlin in 2014.

John F. Kennedy (1963)

Artist: Elaine de Kooning (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

When de Kooning traveled to West Palm Beach, Florida, to paint Kennedy's portrait, she commented that the president was difficult to sketch due to his "extreme restlessness..he read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to the other.." Upon returning to New York City, de Kooning worked tirelessly for nearly a year, sketching and re-sketching Kennedy based on her original renderings, as well as from hundreds of newspaper clippings and other images. Evidently awed by the task at hand, de Kooning's final product is a lean, vertical portrait with traditional dimensions, her gestural rhythms evoking the restlessness of her subject.

4'33" (1952)

Artist: John Cage (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Like Theater Piece No. 1, Cage created 4'33" while at Black Mountain. However, instead of relying on a number of performers to bring it to fruition, this work depends on the environment in which it is performed and chance. The three-movement composition does not contain a single note of music. Instead, Cage wrote detailed instructions for a single musician to enter the stage, prepare the instrument - initially a piano, but other instruments have been used - and then sit in absolute silence for the full duration of the piece, 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The performer's silence allowed the sounds of the surroundings and audience members to become the music itself. This piece clearly defines Cage's interest in aleatory music, in which chance determines the outcome and any sound can be musical. This shift towards the music of silence was sparked by a 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard. Cage expected to hear nothing within the sound-proofed room, but instead heard two sounds, one high and one low - his nervous system and his circulatory system respectively. Within that anechoic chamber, he discovered the impossibility of silence. This realization led Cage to compose 4'33" and to focus on the music created by our bodies and environments.

This piece was first performed in an outdoor amphitheatre in Woodstock, NY as part of a recital of contemporary piano compositions. Cage's revolutionary re-definition of music was received quite poorly at this first performance, with the sounds of nature overshadowed by the audience's outrage at the performer's silence. Despite the initial negative response, 4'33" was embraced by progressive artists as an important foray into the incorporation of ambient sound and durational elements within musical performance. The sheer spontaneity of 4'33" is an important precursor to Allan Kaprow's happenings, which fully matured in the late 1950s and early 1960s and also relied wholly on audience members to dictate the outcome of the art.

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