June 8, 2003
Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art Edited by Vincent Katz
(MIT, 2002, reprinted 2013)
Review by Rob Neufeld
"Reading About Black Mountain College—Starting with the Arts"
Several fascinating books have been published over the years about Black Mountain College, the world-renowned, avant-garde institution that operated in this area from 1933 to 1956. Vincent Katz's new volume, "Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art," should go to the top of our reading list on the subject.
Katz focuses on the creative foment at the college. He illustrates the wealth of original work issued from a mix of adventurous artists engaged in an open-ended curriculum. When learning about Black Mountain College, it's best to start with the arts, as Katz does. That's where the thrill is. Later, you might delve into the thornier aspects, such as educational philosophies, financial woes, and personal politics, documented in other studies.
Xanti Schawinsky, a set designer, wrote about his move there in 1936, (in lower case letters) "realizing that the atmosphere at black mountain was favorable to experimentation, I thought why not get at total experience?" Josef Albers, Black Mountain College's leading force, had lured Schawinsky from his successful commercial art practice in Milan. At the time, Schawinsky was feeling his creative life had slumbered since his days at the Bauhaus, Germany's modernist art school.
One of the most pleasing features of Katz's book is its perfect placement of color illustrations. After the Schawinsky profile, for instance, you turn the page and encounter a full-page image of one of Schawinsky's most famous works, "Poster for Olivetti." It's a stunning example of how the artist combined his client's needs with surrealism. You see a black and white photo of a woman with tinted, red lips gazing past a color insert of an Olivetti typewriter framed on top by two surrealistically large fingers.
A commercial artist at Black Mountain College? Katz corrects the common impression of the institution as a hotbed of purely abstract and random art. Josef Albers, himself stereotyped as a geometricist, labored to hire instructors who represented a wide variety of art forms and techniques. Regarding art-making, Albers said, "We do not begin with a theoretical introduction; we start directly with the material."
Albers' wife, Anni Albers, was a master of materials, establishing a weaving workshop at the college and turning out a dizzyingly creative array of designs, mixed media works and found-art constructions. The plates Katz presents of Anni Albers's artworks are inspiring. They range from a necklace made of a sink drain and paper clips to a weaving that incorporates three fabrics to create ghostly mountains. We are glad to add Anni Albers to our favorites.
Katz tells the tale of Black Mountain College through a chronological succession of encounters with the artists, musicians, dancers and writers who attended, taught at, or led summer sessions there. Sure, this method appeals to the celebrity-minded of us (raise your hand if you are); but, more than that, it reminds us that many of these artists were down and out and desperate for creative outlets at that critical time in history.
Sculptor Richard Lippold's account of his Black Mountain advent is representative. He had recently married his wife, Louise, a dancer, and had heard from two of her colleagues, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, about "tales of wonder and delight from North Carolina."
Lippold wrote Josef Albers, "I have bought an old hearse which I hope will get us to Black Mountain whenever you wish us to come.... I have arranged our old car for sleeping, and in discussing the summer with John and Merce last night, including plans for the collaboration on an opera for the coming year, we agreed that they might lend us their plumbing at Black Mountain while we sleep in the car."
I can picture a "West Wing" kind of drama based on a Black Mountain College-style campus. I think the interest of such a drama would go beyond an art-loving audience. I think the same is true of Katz's book, for he manages to portray, in his cavalcade of genius and self-communion, the aesthetic struggles in which the art world's emerging titans commonly engaged.
Ben Shahn criticizes Robert Motherwell for his retreat from social issues. Motherwell, secure in his preoccupation with abstractions, criticizes certain abstractionists' quest for such qualities as a "pure red," saying that "any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunter's caps and a thousand other concrete phenomena." Black Mountain College becomes the window to a personal understanding of modern art.
To complete the script for a Black Mountain College TV drama, we would need the personal politics material -- more than is provided by Katz, who hardly pays heed to the issues that swirled around Josef Albers' departure in 1949, for instance. Martin Duberman's 1972 history, "Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community," is loaded with inside scoops, but is not completely reliable, many alumni attest.
Mary Emma Harris's "The Arts at Black Mountain College" (1987) is a valuable history, but it is not as pure in its attention to the arts as is Katz's 235-page museum tour de force. Within "Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art," Katz's chronicle is followed by essays by Martin Brody, Kevin Power, and Robert Creeley, which, though equally visual and informative, do not breathe as effortlessly and gracefully as Katz's major piece. Katz gives us a show.
Rob Neufeld writes about books for the Citizen-Times. His "Choice Books" column runs in the Sunday Living section. Contact him at 251-1415 or RNeufeld@charter.net.