The New Republic

December 13, 2003

Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art Edited by Vincent Katz
(MIT, 2002, reprinted 2013) is the English version of the catalogue of a show mounted at the Reina Sofia in Madrid last year, and Vincent Katz, who edited the volume and wrote a good deal of the text, gets at the catalytic complexity of an institution that stands at the crossroads of mid-twentieth century American culture.

Review by Jed Perl


Black Mountain College has the richness of a scrapbook -- a scrapbook devoted to the works and days of the extended family of mid-twentieth-century American experimentation.  The college brought together creative spirits from several different continents and several different generations, and what held everybody together was a belief in elective affinities -- in the freely chosen community of artistic individuals that was an American re-imagining of the revolutionary artistic spirit of romantic Europe in the early nineteenth century.  Among the figures who moved through Black Mountain, either as teachers or students, either during the winter sessions or the summer sessions, were Josef and Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Eric Bentley, Ilya Bolotowsky, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Fielding Dawson, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Lou Harrison, Fannie Hillsmith, Alfred Kazin, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert de Niro, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, Roger Sessions, Aaron Siskind, David Tudor, Cy Twombly, Peter Voulkos, Susan Weil, and Jonathan Williams.  Like any immensely complex family saga, this one bears telling and re-telling, and Katz's book adds colorings and shadings to the excellent accounts that we already have in Martin Duberman's Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, Mary Emma Harris's The Arts of Black Mountain College, and Dawson's resonant memoir, The Black Mountain Book.  Of special value in the new volume are the pages on "Olson and Black Mountain College" by Robert Creeley, the poet whose recollections of the mid-century years, collected in a small group of lyrical essays, are never less than extraordinary.  "What I first saw," Creeley recalls of meeting Olson, "was this very big man, clothed only with a towel, still wet from the shower, saying and gesturing, come in, come in!  In I went and moments later, it seemed, we were altogether engaged with talking of all that our letters had touched on and worked to locate -- writing, magazine, person, history, presence, conjecture."  That was Black Mountain College.

Black Mountain had an incalculable importance for the development of the modern crafts traditions in America.  Anni Albers brought an unsparing formalist vision to the art of the loom, and a revival of Asian poetry techniques that was having an international impact in the second quarter of the century was also felt at the college.  What makes the Black Mountain story so difficult to tell is that it is part of a larger story of how modern art's back-to-the-basics spirit could reinvigorate pre-industrial techniques, with repercussions that were felt from the triumphs of Scandinavian design to the revival by Isamu Noguchi and others of traditional Japanese crafts.