The New York Times has titled Black Mountain College as one of “six nodes of progressive culture in America.” Founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, there were innumerable renowned artists that pasted through these hallowed halls for such a limited period of existence, including Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Shahn, and Joseph Albers — who brought the constructivist ideas to light from Germany, and John Cage, to name a few. The College was infused with the principles of the Bauhaus from the artists who had fled the Nazi invasion, and tempered with Zen Buddhism. Lesser known artists were influential as well, photographer Hazel Larsen Arch was credited by Rauschenberg to have stated that, “photography is about the eye not the hand.”
One of my professors, Beaumont Newhall at the University of New Mexico, was in residence there, along with two of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century, Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. Their influence was so great that Rauschenberg was unclear whether he was to pursue photography or painting. In this writer’s mind, Rauschenberg is the most adroit artist to employ photographic imagery into his paintings. His series, Hoarfrost, made a huge impact on me as a young photographer seeing it at the Ace Gallery in Venice, CA. in the 1970’s. More challenging than it appears, collage incorporating imagery is very challenging. Rauschenberg reported to Barbara Rose, the infamous art critic that, “Then the paintings started using photographs.” He even placed photo equipment in his sculptures, as in his series Combine.
Operating in a relatively isolated rural location with little budget, in the mountains of North Carolina, Black Mountain College inculcated an informal and collaborative spirit and over its lifetime attracted a venerable roster of instructors. A broad range of artists were cultivated here, from engineer Buckminster Fuller who developed the geodesic dome there (improvised from venetian blinds slats in the back yard — illustrated below), to Merce Cunningham who changed the face of modern dance for many generations. The educational tenants established here were predecessors for many progressive colleges thereafter, including Goddard, Bennington, Naropa and Evergreen State College. Operating out of a rented YMCA, they finally shut the doors to the College due to financial difficulties in 1962.
The list of students is staggering, which included the venerable architect Walter Gropius, William de Kooning, Ben Shaun, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Peter Voulkos and Robert Motherwell. These include my most cherished and inspiring artists. Guest lecturers included Albert Einstein and Clement Greenberg, the influential critic. Never has an art educational facility garnered more talent in the West!
He transcribed some of the antics and intellectual achievements at Black Mountain. Duberman claims there was not enough structure and therefore it reverted back to an autocratic environment.
“Drawing on the familiar distinction between negative freedom from rules and restraint, and positive freedom to be constructive and creative, Wallen argued that Black Mountain had concentrated too much on producing the first kind of freedom (‘laissez-faire’) and not enough on the second (‘democracy’). The difference between the two hinged on the lack of structure and leadership characteristic of the laissez-faire climate. Their absence created insecurity and frustration, which brought passivity and confusion, which led to a reversion back to autocratic methods in order to restore some semblance of productivity and harmony.”
One of the most notable artists at Black Mountain was Cy Twombly, one of my favorites. In 1992, Renzo Piano was commissioned by Dominique de Menil to build a small, independent pavilion dedicated to the work of Cy Twombly on the grounds of the Menil Collection. Standing amongst the Menil’s surrounding bungalows, the Cy Twombly Gallery is built of Menil-gray coloured block concrete, is square in plan and contains nine galleries. The pavilion’s walls are made of cement blocks, with internal cement pillars to support the roof structure. His indefatigable work is far from the Bauhaus esthetic but wonderfully celebratory of color and movement. One can see Merce Cunningham’s movements in his strikes of color as in the riffs of John Cage.
Ruth Asawa, a San Francisco resident for many years, was in attendance there. Recently passed in 2013, Asawa was a ground breaking sculptor (her work can be viewed in the entrance to the tower at the De Young Museum in SF) had her first solo exhibition there in 1960. Asawa has enjoyed grand rewards for her work. This year, her wire gourd shaped sculptures sold at Christie’s in the six figures. Her daughter has willed the estate to Stanford University.
The energy derived from the artists escaping Nazi Germany infused the aesthetic of the College, starting with Josef and Anii Albers in 1931. A faculty member, Josef Breitenbach, a photographer employing collages and Rayograms fled Germany to Paris and joined the Surrealists’ ranks. The Surrealist “revolution” had by then become dominant in the Parisian art scene. Soon after his arrival, Breitenbach came into contact with André Breton and his circle. These artists contributed to the College sensibilities by artistic influence if not by attendance — including Man Ray, Brassaï, Eli Lotar, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Roger Parry. Breitenbach eventually escaped from Marseille in 1941 to attend Black Mountain College.
Josef Albers, who wrote the book on color theory and later moved on to rule the Art Department at Yale for many years, established a code of artistic expression that ran through the College, some concurred — some rebelled, but the influence of the Bauhaus is unmistakable. Artists as varied as Lyonel Feininger and the monumental graphic designer Paul Rand, (whom I met later in his life) studied under him in the ten semesters he resided at Black Mountain.
Never before in the Western world had a gathering of so many prominent artists existed to instruct. Yes, the Paris Commune and the New York Abstract crowd garnered many heroes, but to teach, even the Bauhaus lacked the depth and complexity of the Black Mountain faculty. ‘The Bauhaus Vorkurs’ ‘was a foundation course, an enduring prototype for combining art, design and architectural studio education.’ Walter Gropius introduced this at Black Mountain. American arts education lacked the spatial dynamics at that time. Revolutionary was the start of ‘the workshop’ in education, while breaking up into smaller groups. There was an effort, for the first time in arts education, to integrate art and life which many artist had explored, most notably by Marcel Duchamp. Following in the tone of The Bauhaus, there was a focus on practical investigations of materials for furniture and textiles. There was also integration, for the first time, of other artist forms: photography, theater, ceramics and textiles. John Dewey, an educational theorist asked, “Why is architecture of our large cities so unworthy of fine civilization?” There was a need for institutional change in education of the art. Many of the students went on to head important University departments and Museum positions.
Black Mountain College left an indelible mark in the rubric of Modern American art.
A fine exhibition at THE CONTEMPORARY JEWISH MUSEUM in San Francisco (April 24 – Oct 6, 2014) anointed Black Mountain College as one of the five ‘influential entities’ of Jewish culture. Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism, is the first major exhibition to explore the role of Jewish architects, designers, and patrons in the formation of a new American domestic landscape during the post WWII decades of the twentieth century. This enthusiastic display of many integrated art forms, including film credits by Saul Bass, illustrates the influence of the fleeing artists from Nazi Germany that infused the United States and Black Mountain College, with creativity.