Black Mountain College - A Fascinating Chapter in the History of Education and the Arts
The Black Mountain College has long been acknowledged as the birthplace of the true American avant-garde, and an intiative which accomplished to emancipate itself from its European counterpart within this faculty’s halls.
This experimental school was founded in the middle of the 20th century on the principles of attaining a perfect balance between academics, arts and crafts within a purely democratic society where all members, students and teachers alike, were considered to be equal. The program had the goal of creating complete people, developed to be versatile and spiritually free instead of brainwashed and ready to serve.
Operating in a relatively isolated location away from the clutches of urban life, the Black Mountain College inspired an informal and collaborative spirit – such a manner attracted a venerable roster of instructors despite the school’s infamously restrictive budget. Some of the innovations and associations formed at Black Mountain proved to have a long-lasting influence on the postwar American scene, high culture and, eventually, on Pop art, the last of the great modern movements.
Looking back at it now, it’s astonishing that the Black Mountain College managed to become such an iconic chapter of American art history. Conceived, fundraised and established in a time span of only three short months during the summer of 1933, the institution had its ups and downs during the 24 years it was functional – yet, despite only being active for two and a half decades, the school’s influence on the arts in America can still be felt to this day.
Another surprising aspect of this institution from today’s perspective is that its initial idea was literally too romantic to come true – set in the dreamy outdoor setting of a North Carolina mountain, everyone was to enjoy a fabled atmosphere of collaboration, experimentation for experimentation’s sake and disregard for traditional hierarchies.
Yet, despite everything standing against it, the visionary idea of the Black Mountain College came true.
The Black Mountain College – A School Like No Other
The Idea Behind The Black Mountain College
The 1930s were a sinister time for the European scene, to say the least. The rapid ascension of Adolf Hitler accelerated the closing of the Bauhaus, Germany-based arts and design institution which had gained international recognition for its innovative approach to creative education. German artists and intellectuals, the creative force of the Old Continent’s avant-garde, fled the witch hunt which accompanied the rise of Nazism, seeking refuge in neighboring countries and constantly keeping in mind that Hitler’s plans were destined to break free beyond German borders.
In the meantime, across the Atlantic ocean, the Great Depression plunged the US population into an economic turmoil. It was amidst this international chaos that four drop-outs from the Rollins college were plotting to organize a new kind of art school. These revolutionary thinkers were John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, Ralph Reed Lounsbury and Frederick Raymond Georgia.
Opening the Gates
The Black Mountain College finally opened in the year of 1933. The school quickly became a small but stubborn light in the otherwise very greyish, if not completely dark landscape of international modern art.
The founders gave a warm welcome to those artists and intellectuals who had been forced to relinquish former posts due to political or economic circumstances on either of the continents. They all came gladly as the story of the Black Mountain College was spreading like wildfire – the school was fundamentally different from other colleges and universities of the time due to the idea that the arts are central to the experience of learning.
Furthermore, the democratic governance and the financial independence were all unconventional concepts before Black Mountain College came to be. In order to financially support itself, the college community participated in its operation, including farm work, construction projects and kitchen duty. But there were no fees, quotas of any kind, entry exams, tests, pressures, debts or student loans.
Instead, the community thrived in an environment fostered by a strong sense of community and artistic intensity.
Early Years of the School
The early years of Black Mountain College, marked by optimism and rapid development, saw the school get the most out of its conceptual foundation, John Dewey’s principles of progressive education. This belief stood for an idea that the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a student’s general liberal education.
Keeping that notion in mind, the school’s founders hired Josef Albers to be its first official art teacher, as he was similar minded individual who had already established himself as a leading educator at the German Bauhaus School.
Speaking no English, he and his wife Anni just left the turmoil in Hitler’s Germany and crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat – yet, Josef Albers was not able to say no to a rebellious college in the mountains of North Carolina. By allowing their followers to learn through personal experience rather than delivered knowledge, Albers immediately contributed to the environment that placed equal weight on academia, the arts and manual labor in an egalitarian environment of perfect democracy.
This quickly placed Black Mountain College on the educational map during the first few years of its existence. Slowly but surely, the faculty stopped being a tale of a fantasy education system and was starting to take real shape on an international stage.
Needless to say, the first few years of the school’s existence set an atmosphere in which avant-garde creativity flourished. The Bauhaus’ interdisciplinary approach to the arts, combining fine and decorative arts with craft, architecture, theater and music, was quickly incorporated.
Guided by a philosophy that insisted on anti-hierarchical values, the college was governed by both students and teachers who made all the decisions in collective meetings that allowed no interference from foreign boards. Being financed through private foundations meant that the community had full autonomy over the school’s program and, instead of focusing on usual brain-cramping classes other universities were so fond of, Black Mountain College focused on music, visual arts, theatre, dance, architecture, weaving, woodwork, literature and creative writing.
The Prime Years of Black Mountain College
When the flames of the World War II swallowed all of Europe, those who were lucky enough were able to cross the ocean and get to the shores of the United States. Many refugee-artists were attracted to Black Mountain College for its reputation as an experimental artistic scene. By 1945, the faculty included some of the greatest artists and thinkers of the time, including Walter Gropius, Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Alfred Kazin and Paul Goodman.
Some were students, some were teachers, but they were all equal in status. From that point on, the careers of these revolutionary thinkers were taking place at Black Mountain College and the institution became instrumental in their works.
Although the school was a vital part of all the aforementioned artists’ creations, it is perhaps John Cage that owes the most to Black Mountain College – in 1952, he staged his first happening here as fellow-classmates assisted him. As a result of the associations he made in the institution, Robert Rauschenberg started creating Cage’s sets on a regular basis.
In the meantime, the success of this experimental school spread throughout the world in a time that desperately needed some form of hope. Black Mountain College started outputting exceptional individuals, a direct result of a system that sought a balance between academic work, arts and manual labor within an informal class structure. Nearly every student in the country dreamed of becoming a part of an institution that encouraged a remarkably interdisciplinary environment with flexible academic schedules and experiments with different media.
During the forties, the college attracted new guest lecturers such as the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham and Katherine Litz, as well as some notable pupils including the likes of Ursula Mamlok, the aforementioned Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. These three individuals became a centerpiece of the Black Mountain College as, suddenly, the school did not only pride itself on attracting great minds – it was starting to create them.
The Last Chapter of The Faculty
Despite the fact past events proved the school’s worth and everyone associated with it was full of optimism, the Black Mountain College was about to start falling apart as the 1940s were coming to an end. Josef and Anni Albers, two key figures throughout the history of the school, left in 1949. The remaining staff could not agree on the future of the college, creating a gap within the community that grew over time.
By 1953, most of the pupils and lecturers had moved on to the Big Apple or San Francisco in order to find more inspirational and harmonious places to develop creativity. In 1951, poet Charles Olson returned to Black Mountain College to teach and became the dominant figure at the college in what seemed to be the faculty’s last hope of revival.
As it turned out, it was. In only two years, the number of students had dwindled to 15 and the institution became a sort of artist colony where unsatisfied authors could find solitude. Yet, there were no more classes, workshops, seminars nor collective meetings.
Despite all attempts by Olson to resuscitate the Black Mountain College and somehow keep it afloat, mounting debts and internal disputes among the administrators forced the school to close its doors in 1957.
The Legacy of Black Mountain College
Legendary even in its own time, the Black Mountain College attracted and created brave artistic spirits, some of whom went on to become well-known and extremely influential individuals in the latter half of the 20th century. This was what ultimately cemented the school’s legacy as it became impossible to talk about these individuals without referencing their artistic education.
Even now, decades after its closing in 1957, the powerful influence of the Black Mountain College continues to reverberate as some of its students are considered to be true milestones of American modern and contemporary art – Willem de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, Francine du Plessix Gray, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Dorothea Rockburne and many others made an impact on the world in a significant way. They always made sure to credit the school that revolved around a romantic idea of spiritual, creative and social liberty.
Black Mountain College North Carolina: A Thumbnail Sketch
Black College Museum & Arts Center
While Black Mountain College existed for only twenty-three years, the faculty’s ideas and program have been immortalized through the Black College Museum & Arts Center, an establishment based in downtown Asheville. The Center is designated to preserve and continue Black Mountain College’s unique legacy through a diverse programme of exhibitions, publications, lectures and films.
The museum indicates that their aim is very similar to the initial Black Mountain College concepts:
Our goal is to provide a gathering point for people from a variety of backgrounds to interact, integrating art, ideas and discourse with an emphasis on process rather than on product
Due to the Center’s efforts and the overall quality of the studies it once provided, the Black Mountain College is still very much alive in the third millennium. Only now, instead of attracting and producing a relatively limited number of quality individuals, the Black Mountain College is inspiring artists on a global level, echoing throughout the contemporary art scene.
Editors’ Tip: Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art (MIT Press) Unavailable for several years, a generously illustrated book that documents the most successful experiment in the history of American arts education. Composer Martin Brody offers a history of the musical world of the 1930s to 1950s, in which Black Mountain played a significant role. Critic Kevin Power looks at the experimental literary journal The Black Mountain Review, which was instrumental in launching the Black Mountain school of poetry. The book’s editor, Vincent Katz, discusses the philosophy of the college’s founders, the Bauhaus principles followed by art instructor Josef Albers, and the many interactions among the arts in the college’s later years.
- Katz, V., Brody, M., Creeley, R., Power, K., Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, The MIT Press, 2013
- Lyle, E., 2016, Back to School: Re-creating Black Mountain College, Art In America Magazine [Sep 21, 2017]
- Anonymous, Black Mountain College: “The Grass-Roots of Democracy”, Radio Open Source [Sep 21, 2017]
- Harris, E. M., The Arts at Black Mountain College, The MIT Press; Reprint edition, 2002
- Diaz, E., The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, University Of Chicago Press; 1st Printing edition, 2014
- Molesworth, H., Erickson, R., Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, Yale University Press, 2015
Featured images: Black Mountain College, via proyectoidis.org; A Class, via nybooks.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.