The Poetry Project Newsletter

Issue No. 198
Feb./March 2004

Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art Edited by Vincent Katz
(MIT Press and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2003)

Review by Ange Mlinko


Discussions of Black Mountain College always entail a reverent listing of illustrious faculty:  de Kooning, Kline, Twombly, Rauschenberg, Motherwell, Greenberg in painting; Siskind and Callahan in photography; Cage, Harrison, and Wolpe in music; Cunningham in dance; Olson, Creeley, and Wieners in literature.  The comprehensive catalogue of names that comprises Vincent Katz's 200+ page essay functions as a Theogony of American Modernism, rivaling Hesiod in its broad sweep.  A new world was born, and gods usually do come to the mountains for confabulations, and despite the enduring American distaste for them, sometimes great art happens in schools.

BMC embodied enough contradictions to ensure that it remains an occulted bit of history:  it was a school, but one founded expressly to subvert pedagogical hierarchies; it was a magnet for prestigious artists, but always on the verge of financial collapse; it was an outpost of cosmopolitan Modernism in the Appalachian wilderness; it was a collective sometimes overwhelmed by dominating personalities.  Therefore it is appropriate that this gorgeously illustrated book contain essays by four authors -- including a personal recollection by Robert Creeley -- each evoking a multidimensional world from a different angle.

Katz (who curated the Black Mountain exhibition in Madrid's Reina Sofia last year) wrote the grand survey that stands as the centerpiece.  In attempting to do justice to BMC's vitality, he focuses not only on the major deities but allots generous space to minor ones as well.  If Katz runs the risk of TMI (too much information) overload, it's a risk well taken.  There is a force at large, at least in the literary world, that constantly seeks to consolidate consensus and weed out surplus "marginal" figures.  Katz never lets us forget that the focus here is on a social space in which relationships were forged -- what an emphasis on "experimentation" entails, after all.

Subsequent essays narrow the scope and capture the essence of the music and literature programs, respectively.  Kevin Power's essay "In, Around and About The Black Mountain Review: Robert Creeley and Company" contains a useful summary of the contents of all seven issues of Black Mountain Review and gives us a glimpse of what was at stake:  William Carlos Williams' legacy, "American" diction, elective affinities, Olsonian "archeology" versus San Francisco "wisdom."  Creeley also contributes a short memoir of Olson.  These previously unpublished poems by Olson, Creeley, and the sublime Wieners close the book.

The memoir and poems are powerful testimony to the quality of the affection that existed among and between the personalities at play.  What a rare privilege to have one's most important friendships forged alongside events that just happened to become cultural milestones:  Buckminster Fuller erecting a Dymaxion Dome with Venetian blinds; the staging of the first Happening, Cage's "Theater Piece #1"; the performance of a Satie play with direction by Arthur Penn, stage sets by de Kooning, dance by Cunningham and music by Cage.  The names and lists keep recurring because they are our litany; it's our religion.

Ange Mlinko edited The Poetry Project Newsletter from 2000-02.