Black Mountain college was a place of lived utopia, a vanishing point of modernity, which has remained a projection screen for creative and social ideas to this day. Founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, and others, the college differed greatly in many respects from the schools of its time. The intention was that experiences with art should facilitate learning in all subjects. One’s own experimentation and self-administration were assigned just as much importance as joint undertakings outside the immediate area of teaching. Among the important teachers who felt drawn by these unusual ideas were numerous immigrants from Europe who had fled from terror and war. Textile designer Anni Albers, painter Josef Albers, and stage designer Xanti Schawinsky brought teaching concepts from the Bauhaus with them to North Carolina. Starting in 1941, the summer courses—each of which were given by guest teachers—became a second mainstay of the college. Increasingly, a productive kind of tension emerged between object- and event-based aspects: together with his students, R. Buckminster Fuller developed his geodesic domes, John Cage presented his first happenings, and Merce Cunningham founded his dance company. The film director Arthur Penn or the painters Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg attended school here. When the Albers couple left for Yale in 1950 and the poet Charles Olson became director of the college, its profile changed. A decline in student numbers led to the further worsening of the college’s financial situation, finally leading to its closure in 1957.
Town / Country
The impulse for the founding of Black Mountain college was provided by the dismissal of the classicist John Andrew Rice, the engineer Theodore Dreier, and two other teachers from a school in Florida. In the woods of North Carolina they found an affordable campus for their vision of a liberal and democratic school that would offer a high share of design subjects. Although far removed from the intellectual centers in New York or San Francisco, the college was nevertheless connected with urban life and thought: the teachers and students came from the cities, as did the funds from private patrons, which provided the support on which this residential college was dependent.
Everyday Life / Experimentation
Experimentation and experience were key terms at Black Mountain College. Initially, the teaching methods of Anni Albers and Josef Albers, which were based on materials and perception, had a formative influence. From 1948, composer John Cage and architect R. Buckminster Fuller shifted the focus to performative experiments, which accepted the possibility of failure. Under Charles Olson this tendency continued in the 1950s: the faculty increasingly consisted of writers, artists, and composers whose experimental methods differed strongly from those employed by European academics in earlier years.
Individual / Community
The periods between the lectures given at Black Mountain College were just as important as the teaching itself. Students and teachers lived together on campus; the dining hall was a meeting point for the midday meal that was taken together and in the evening often served as a venue for performances or dance events. The voluntary farming work was intended to encourage resourcefulness, pragmatism, and contact among students and teachers, but it was also economically necessary in order to secure the existence of the college and its financial independence. The erection of the studies building was a paradigm of the meaningfulness of such communal activities on two levels.
Object / Event
Black Mountain College was an important catalyst for one of the decisive developments in art during the second half of the twentieth century—the move away from the object and the traditional Western understanding of form and toward the dematerialization of art, toward the event-based, and the dissolution of boundaries between different media. This development was already indicated by Schawinsky’s “spectodrama,” which was more animated sculpture than drama. In 1951, John Cage initiated the first happening here, in which accident and simultaneity became important. In an offshoot of the college known as the Gate Hill Cooperative, Stan VanDerBeek developed these approaches further in his “Movie-Drome,” a multimedia spectacle.
Andres Janser is lecturer in the MA in Art Education, specialization exhibition & mediation, at the ZHdK and exhibition curator at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich.