The Chronicle of Higher Education

March 7, 2003

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

"Doing What No One Else Can Do"

During the 23 years of its existence, from 1933 to 1956, Black Mountain College, in southwestern North Carolina, was a magnet for artists establishing their professional identities.  What was encouraged, what was engaged in at Black Mountain -- both by student and by artist/teacher -- was experimentation.  People felt free there to undertake activities geared toward finding new ways of doing, rather than studying and repeating the past.  For artists who taught there, Black Mountain was a source of great fertility, and like the shaman who travels in quest of experience, these artists derived significant personal strength from artistic voyages.

Upon leaving Black Mountain, this personal power often translated into worldly power in an artist's career.  At Black Mountain College, relationships were forged or strengthened with fruitful and important repercussions.  Artistic work initially dismissed as slight or casual ultimately achieved the support, sometimes verging on apotheosis, of museums, critics, galleries, collectors, and publishers.  The transition from experimentation to power occurs regularly in the arts -- a consequence of an artist discovering a way to do something that no one else has or can.  What is rare is for one academic institution to have attracted such high numbers of students and faculty who effected this transition with such astounding frequency.  It is sobering to reflect that the size of the college at any one time averaged 50 students.  Part of the story reflects the link between Black Mountain and New York City.  Artists exhibiting at the Museum of Modern Art, Petty Guggenheim's Art of This Century, Charles Egan Gallery, Sam Kootz Gallery, and Betty Parsons Gallery were among those who taught at the college, which pursued and attracted artists with ambitious ideals....

[After] Black Mountain shut down in 1956, ... Black Mountain people and ideas continued to thrive in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere....  Even today, ... a new generation of poets arises devoted to Black Mountain writers, and Black Mountain aesthetic issues in the other arts are revived.

This may be the final thought (for now):  the need to set foot there, wherever there now is, the need to be absolutely in the place, thereby knowing now only that place, but all other places.

The images and text are from the book Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, edited by Vincent Katz, a poet, translator, and curator based in New York City.  The book has just been published by MIT Press.