The Brooklyn Rail

April 2004

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

Review by Ellen Pearlman

"The Truth about Black Mountain"


Black Mountain College, the experimental art school located in a peaceful hamlet in North Carolina, existed for only 23 years (1933-1956), but it is one of those phantasmagorias of the modern art world:  you've heard about it, read about and maybe even saw a piece or photograph of a work from it, but what, exactly, was it?  Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where each man who touched the creature declared it a different type of animal, it all depends on who you listen to.  Now, thanks to a defining exhibition by the Museo National Centro de Arta Raina Sofia in Madrid, Spain, and to this lavishly illustrated (470 color and black and white pictures) book by Vincent Katz, the world can finally see what all the fuss was about.

The list of teachers and students reads like an academy made in creative heaven and would take up this entire review.  The school was born from the Bauhaus, the art movement that migrated to the United States from pre-war Germany.  The painter Joseph Albers and his wife, the textile designer Anni Albers, moved to North Carolina and founded the school.  The book documents the informal yet personal instruction students received in a plethora of art disciplines:  painting, drawing, art criticism, architecture, sculpture, crafts and textile design, poetry, dance, choreography, and music composition.  Among other products, this cross-meshing helped launch Abstract Expressionism, the very first "Happening" (courtesy of John Cage and Merce Cunningham), as well as original contributions that lasted decades from each field.

Exhaustive in its depth and illuminating especially because of the voluminous examples of photographs that show individuals, their work and their shared life together, the book also contains synopses of the fabled Black Mountain Review, as well as essays and personal reminiscences.  The collection serves as the gold standard in chronicling the development of an idea that became an enduring and influential reality.