The New York Times Book Review

December 7, 2003


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


"To open eyes" -- that was Josef Albers's stated aim when he arrived in New York City in 1933, in flight from Hitler's clampdown on the Bauhaus.  Albers and his wife, the textile artist Anni Albers, were drawn into the plans for another experimental school, the now legendary Black Mountain College in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina.  The barely financed, unaccredited and sketchily planned Black Mountain lasted from 1933 to 1956, and averaged 50 students a year, but its impact on American art and culture has been overwhelming.  Albers, a "beautiful teacher and an impossible person," according to his Black Mountain student Robert Rauschenberg, ran the art program and briefly the college; he showed an unusual openness to work by artists quite different from his own clean-lined abstractions.  Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Jacob Lawrence taught at Black Mountain; Kenneth Noland, Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson and Cy Twombly studied there.  And those are just the visual artists; John Cage and Merce Cunningham were there, and so was Buckminster Fuller.  When the Black Mountain poet Charles Olson, all 6 feet 8 of him, took a dance class with Cunningham, he resembled "a very serious elephant."  Vincent Katz, a poet and critic who curated an exhibition in Spain on Black Mountain, methodically examines the personnel and draws connections among them:  a shared interest in such "primitive" cultures as the Mayans; a tendency to break down distinctions between high and low, art and craft; and a dazzling willingness (as recorded in many unfamiliar art works reproduced here) to just do it.  After all, as Olson once wrote, "Art is the only twin life has."