Art Documentation

Volume 22, Number 2

Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art Edited by Vincent Katz
(MIT, 2002, reprinted 2013)

Reviewed by Janis Ekdahl

"Alternative Education"


Seventy years after its formation, the educational experiment embodied in Black Mountain College still holds fascination for those seeking to discern the wellsprings of American art, music, and literature in the twentieth century.  This generously endowed book accompanied the exhibition Black Mountain College: Una Aventura Americana, curated by Vincent Katz, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid from October 28, 2002 to January 13, 2003.  Katz, a poet and critic, also contributed the book's longest and most substantive essay, profiling sixty-five renowned painters, sculptors, photographers, and fiber artists who passed through Black Mountain College as faculty or students.  Drawing on recent interviews as well as documentary sources, Katz characterizes the College's impact on each artist's development.  he also discusses the innovative artistic interactions during the late 1940s that were generated by the presence of Buckminster Fuller and John Cage on campus.  Although Katz describes the educational and cultural forces that led to the school's founding in North Carolina in 1933, he neither provides a comprehensive history of the college nor does he explore the college's demise in 1956.  For this, researchers need to turn to the definitive monograph The Arts at Black Mountain College by Mary Emma Harris (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987) that has recently been reprinted.  Harris provides the historical and scholarly framework that is lacking in Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art; she includes a roster of faculty and students, a comprehensive bibliography, and scores of documentary photographs.  However, Harris's book reproduces only a handful of art works in color, whereas half of the 470 illustrations in the new book are in color.  Katz has made a concerted effort to include several examples of each artist's work, often selecting unfamiliar pieces that were created during the artist's tenure at Black Mountain, many of which are still in the artist's possession.  Unfortunately, none of the illustrations are referred to in the text.

The book's second essay is by Martin Brody, a composer and music professor at Wellesley College.  Brody takes one event, Black Mountain's 1944 Summer Music Institute celebrating Arnold Schoenberg's eightieth birthday, and traces its impact on the musical and cultural landscape of the United States.

Kevin Power, chair of American Literature at the Universidad de Allocate, contributes the book's third essay, an impressionistic accounting of the short-lived literary journal Black Mountain Review (1953-57).  Under the editorship of poet Robert Creeley, the Black Mountain Review gained a reputation as an experimental forum where the poetics of American experience and language were explored.

The final essay is Robert Creeley's eloquent reminiscence of Charles Olson, the expansive poet who served as Black Mountain's Rector during the College's final years.  Creeley describes Olson's impact on the College and perceptively characterizes his mentor's energy, focus, and intensity.

Three previously unpublished poems by Olson, Creeley and John Wieners complete the book by conveying a bit of the spirit and vitality that characterized Black Mountain.  Regrettably, the poems are not indexed or referenced by name in the Table of Contents.

The book's scholarly apparatus leaves much to be desired.  The two-page bibliography cites only major publications on the College and books by and about the most well known faculty members.  This index, limited to personal names, is similarly inadequate.  Scholars will continue to rely on the extensive bibliographies in Harris's The Arts at Black Mountain College, as well as historian Martin Duberman's Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (New York, NY: Dutton, 1972).

This book is a welcome complement to the available literature on Black Mountain College because it focuses on the creative output of specific influential artists and includes abundant visual documentation.  It is most appropriate for the scholar or graduate student who already has some familiarity with Black Mountain College and with the cultural milieu of the United States in the mid-twentieth century.