Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, R. Buckminster Fuller, Clement Greenberg, Willem de Kooning and othersBlack Mountain College
BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE was founded in 1933 on the grounds of a YMCA summer camp on the outskirts of the small Western North Carolinian mountain town of the same name, about twenty miles from Asheville. With minimal structure born of both ideological inclination and economic necessity, Black Mountain’s experiment in education was ground-breaking and brief. In 1957, when the College closed its doors, it had dwindled to less than a half-a-dozen paying students, with a little over a thousand having attended since its inception. Notwithstanding its short life and modest size, Black Mountain has assumed a prominent place in widely disparate fields of thought. It has been heralded as one of the influential points of contact for European exiles emigrating from Nazi Germany; as a standard-bearer of the legacy of intentional, planned, or alternative communities such as Brook Farm in Massachusetts; as the bellwether campus of Southern racial integration; as an important testing ground for proponents of progressive education; and as a seminal site of American postwar art practices. Adding to the College’s legend, the number of famous participants—faculty included Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, R. Buckminster Fuller, Clement Greenberg, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Charles Olson, and Ben Shahn; among the students were Johnson, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, Kenneth Snelson, and Cy Twombly—and the breadth of their artistic diversity, have garnered the College an impressive reputation.
If the College was a “galaxy of talent,” to use a semi-ironic phrase by former student Ray Johnson, as an institution it was also characterized both by periods of bitter dispute and evanescent harmony. Experimentation, and its close relative interdisciplinarity, were key themes of this conversation. Seemingly everyone who attended Black Mountain College shared a desire to experiment, but they did not necessarily agree on what this meant. In particular, competing approaches to experimentation were advanced by the College’s most notable faculty members during its heyday in the mid 1940s to early 1950s: the visual artists Josef and Anni Albers, composer Cage, and architect-designer Buckminster Fuller. Simultaneously, visual artists such as de Kooning, Kline, and Motherwell, and poets such as Olson and Creeley, were developing visual and literary rhetorics of expressionism that subsequently came to dominate the post-WWII cultural landscape. In contrast, the vocabulary of the test developed at Black Mountain experienced a somewhat deferred reception, coming to prominence only later in the 1960s in part through responses to the work and pedagogy of figures like the Alberses, Cage and Fuller.
In spite of its precarious existence, the legacy of Black Mountain College is enormous: the rigorous artistic practices and influential teaching methods that emerged in its brief twenty-three year existence made it the site of a crucial trans-Atlantic dialogue between European modernist aesthetics and pedagogy and its post-war American counterparts. The fact that Black Mountain College is frequently cited as a source in contemporary music, visual arts, and architecture practices that explore what experimentation can mean today, suggests that working “experimentally” in a cultural practice can foster a shadow venture: using the academic microcosm to pose models of testing and organizing new forms of political agency and social life.