Black Mountain College - History and Concepts
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.
The original 22 students mostly followed Rice and Dreier from Rollins College, and many of the students came from poor families who could not afford college tuition. According to historian Martin Duberman, by the mid-1930s, most of the students enrolled, around 50 or so, came from the Northeast, and had heard of the school by word-of-mouth. Students took classes in philosophy, languages, economics, psychology, mathematics, and the arts, among others. With no pre-determined concentrations, students devised their own curricula in consultation with faculty advisors. While there were no grades given (although students grades were recorded for transfer purposes), promotion from the junior to senior division, as well as one's graduation, depended, in part, on one's performance on oral and written exams, often assessed by an expert in that field from outside the college. The school was never accredited, which perhaps kept enrollment low through the 1940s and 1950s.
The school placed equal weight on academia, the arts, and manual labor and fostered an egalitarian, democratic environment. Here, students, faculty, and trustees all had a voice in the running of the school, and students and faculty alike lived on campus, ate in the same dining halls, and participated in community life. In addition to a balanced curriculum of academics and arts, Rice insisted that the students and faculty work at the college to aid in the creation of "complete" people and make the school self-sufficient. They maintained a farm and built the buildings on campus. In these early years, an egalitarian and communal environment thrived.
While the school emphasized a well-rounded curriculum of humanities and science courses, the arts were a foundational component of the curriculum. Rice saw the arts as crucial for preparing the individual for participation in a democracy. As the first catalogue explained, "Through some kind of art experience, which is not necessarily the same as self-expression, the student can come to the realization of order in the world and, by being sensitized to the movement, form, sound, and the other media of the arts, gets a firmer control of himself and his environment than is possible through purely intellectual effort." To shape the arts curriculum, Rice recruited Josef Albers, who had just been expelled from the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany when the Nazis closed the school. Albers incorporated the Bauhaus' interdisciplinary approach to the arts, combining fine and decorative arts with craft, architecture, theater, and music.
Albers focused his teaching on drawing, color, and working with various materials, all fundamental for budding artists. As Helen Molesworth explains, "Looking, handwork, and critical assessment were the backbone of the Albers pedagogic method." He did not encourage self-expression, but his methods were open-ended and had profound impacts on many of his students.
The 1940s and World War II
In the late 1930s, the school bought property a few miles from the original campus, and began building new structures. By this time, Rice was having conflicts with other faculty members, felt uneasy about the move and the labor that would be required to create the new campus, and ultimately, he felt that the college was not living up to the ideal standards he envisioned. He resigned his rectorship in 1940.
With Rice no longer in the picture, Josef Albers' influence grew, and the arts flourished at the Black Mountain. Starting in 1944, the school began hosting summer institutes that offered a multitude of educational opportunities and enticed talented musicians, dancers, painters, photographers, visual artists, thinkers and educators to join the summer faculty as its reputation grew. Over the years, the summer faculty included Robert Motherwell, Walter Gropius, Jacob Lawrence, Willem de Kooning, John Cage, Alfred Kazin, Merce Cunningham, Clement Greenberg, and Paul Goodman, among others. These were some of the most intensely creative periods for the college. While these high-profile thinkers and artists brought much attention and acclaim to the school, historian Martin Duberman suggests that they were peripheral to the school's mission and ethos and did not foster the community spirit that thrived during the rest of the year. Despite this assessment, the summer of 1948 was perhaps one of the most famous summers in Black Mountain's history. Willem and Elaine de Kooning were present as were John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the architect Buckminster Fuller. In addition to the performance of Erik Satie's play, The Ruse of Medusa, the sets for which were designed by Willem de Kooning, the school saw the first attempt at erecting one of Fuller's Geodesic domes.
Critical to the school's success after the World War II was the GI Bill, which paid college tuition for returning soldiers. While there was in-fighting among many of the year-round faculty, students eagerly flocked to the school to experience the creative community.
Late Period and Closure
By 1948, the in-fighting among the faculty reached a nadir, and it became clear that they needed to reconsider the curriculum. It was difficult for the school to maintain faculty across a variety of disciplines, and it was decided that the curriculum should be reduced to music and visual arts; however this new plan was not feasible. In the face of a messy reorganization, Theodore Dreier and Josef and Anni Albers resigned from Black Mountain College in 1949. Their departure, though, did not expedite or make clearer the reorganization, as the remaining faculty could not agree on the future of the College, creating a fissure within the community. By the end of the 1953 Summer Session, most of the students and faculty had moved on to New York City or San Francisco. With few students and only a handful of faculty, including Charles Olson and Dan Rice, it was clear that the school would not exist much longer.
Despite the ongoing problems of faculty governance and curriculum disputes, the school saw many important avant-garde experiments in the first half of the 1950s. In 1951, poet Charles Olson returned to Black Mountain College to teach and became the dominant figure at the College until its closure. Under his guidance, Robert Creeley founded Black Mountain Review in 1954. Despite its short lifespan (ceasing publication in the fall of 1957) the radical literary magazine played an important role in the twentieth-century American literary scene, featuring experimental pieces by the future-Beat poet Alan Ginsberg and Olson's own Projected Verse.
In 1952, John Cage along with the musician David Tudor staged the first "Happenings" at Black Mountain College. Cage conscripted Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Olson, M.C. Richards, and Merce Cunningham to perform various actions of their choosing at set times. The result was a cacophonous performance with no one center of attention. Poems were read, a lecture given, records played, dancers performed through the dining hall, and Rauschenberg's White Paintings were displayed, but no one who saw the event describes it in the same way.
Taking on the rectorship in 1954, Olson attempted to resuscitate Black Mountain College, but mounting debts forced the school to sell off buildings and land. The internal disputes among the administrators also continued, and the school fully closed its doors in 1957.
Later Developments - After Black Mountain College
While Black Mountain College existed for only twenty-three years, it left an indelible mark on the American art scene in both San Francisco and New York. Some of the most influential American artists of the twentieth century can be counted among its students and faculty, and the school's communal ethos was essential to the development of American arts and counterculture in the second half of the twentieth century. As art historian Mary Emma Harris points out, Black Mountain also anticipated many of the challenges that faced universities in the 1960s, "such as the involvement of students and faculty in the administrative and decision-making process, the pass/fail system, and a more flexible curriculum." While there are no schools now in existence like Black Mountain College, Warren Wilson College in North Carolina provides a strong liberal arts education with on-campus work and community engagement. Black Mountain also served as a model for later intentional communities that promoted a cooperative way of living and art-making.