Rain Taxi

Vol. 8 No. 3
Fall 2003

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

Review by Will Clemens


From 1933 to 1956, Black Mountain College was an unaccredited post-secondary school in the Blue Ridge mountains, fifteen miles outside Asheville, North Carolina.  Nowadays, it may be difficult for some Americans to imagine a college with no M.B.A.-class administration, no corporate model manipulating the bottom line into the black.  In stark contrast to this century's American university system, which typically has hired swarms of part-time faculty cheaply and increased tuition annually to compensate for exorbitant administrative spending on campus beautification and life, Black Mountain was run by its teachers with genuine input from students.  This organizational principle, considered visionary then and perhaps utopian now, proved this college on a hill's blessing, difference, and demise.

From 1933, it averaged fifty students a year; in 1956, facing a severe lack of financial base, it had less than ten.  Yet, as Vincent Katz writes in one of the book's essays, "Freedom of structure ... enticed a parade of figures -- student and faculty -- who would play significant roles in the history of twentieth-century art."  Among others, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Clement Greenberg, Franz Kline, and Hilda Morley had teaching stints.  Galway Kinnell, Gwendolyn Knight, and Jacob Lawrence were among the students.

Accompanying a recent exhibition curated by Katz at the Museo Nacional in Madrid, Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art presents text with 470 illustrations over 329 pages.  Of 235 color illustrations of paintings, scores, sculptures, jewelry, and other art and crafts, Josef Albers's Oscillating (A), Kenneth Noland's Untitled, Ben Shahn's Everyman, Xanti Schawinsky's Poster for Olivetti, and Gerald van de Wiele's Zoe are among the most impressive.  About 125 black and white images of students, faculty, and staff at work, play, and rest at Black Mountain complement these illustrations.  Like a movie, these carefully chosen, skillfully placed and sized reprints of art and documentary photography punctuate the book's preface and four essays.

In the preface, Juan Manuel Bonet, Director of the Museo Nacional, gives the first hint of a recurring theme in the essays -- that relations and tensions between European influence and American inspiration at Black Mountain were cause for analysis, creativity, and innovation there and thereafter.  Though passionate, Bonet's writing, perhaps the result of Spanish to English translation, foreshadows the first essay's circuitous meditation.  Katz builds this 220-page "essay" on a chronological frame that almost collapses under heavy references to teachers, students, and illustrations, as well as epigraphs, notes, reprints, and the like.  But with so many gorgeous illustrations and poetic offerings relevant to the book, how could Katz not risk a dizzying collage?

A time line in the book might have steadied Katz's whirlwind tour.  Still, he manages to emphasize the college's significance to art history and American culture.  He points out that John Andrew Rice, the college's South Carolinian founder, advocated a contemporary and classical curriculum:  "Gertrude Stein's Lectures in America [alongside] Aristotle's Poetics."  Furthermore, Katz writes, "Rice was convinced that the arts should play a central role ... and for that reason determined that Black Mountain should find a significant artist to lead its art instruction."

Katz expertly relates the events that led Albers to this role from Germany's renowned Bauhaus school, which closed in 1933 as a result of Nazi hostility.  He avoids a diatribe on how Albers, "father of Op art," gravitated toward geometric abstraction as formal opposition to the representation of German Romanticism that the Nazis favored.  Instead, he focuses on other aspects of Albers's character.  As several photographs demonstrate, Albers was, Katz writes, "entirely devoted to his task as pedagogue" while also "prolific in experimentation and achievement in his own art."  He also notes that the good relations Albers and Robert Motherwell had with the New York art world had pronounced effects on Black Mountain.  Some students and faculty found significant exhibition and job openings in New York.  Others came from the chaos of "the city that never sleeps" to the serenity of the 667-acre space.

Though Ilya Bolotowsky wasn't the only one who found Black Mountain "too isolated," a majority, Katz suggests, found it liberating.  John Cage proposed it as a refuge from New York.  After coming from New York, Willem de Kooning painted Asheville and Aaron Siskind developed his North Carolina series.  The gray photograph of the college is at first off-putting as the jacket design; ultimately, it was the right choice because it signifies the oft-expressed nostalgia for the haven that necessitated a sudden conversion to provincial living.  In this way, the college became a site for personal transformation.  "I am American," Ed Dorn wrote of it, "finding myself in America."

The second essay, more coherent because it has less to cover, develops this idea by focusing on Black Mountain as "a breeding ground" for the American avant-garde."  Written by Wellesley music professor Martin Brody, it brilliantly underscores the idea of a "finishing school" -- a place for faculty fresh out of school to put theories and ideas to work.  (The professor who coined the term developed the first Geodesic Domes while at Black Mountain).  Epochal compositions by Cage, Lou Harrison, and Stefan Wolpe and significant advancements in American musicology and chromatic practice were finished there.

Kevin Powers, Chair of American Literature at the Universidad de Alicante in Spain, provides the penultimate essay.  Through summarizing the history of The Black Mountain Review, excerpting its contents, and reprinting photographs of contributors and covers, Powers ensures that the seven hugely influential issues, one of which heralded Allen Ginsberg's "America" and Jack Kerouac's "Spontaneous Prose," will be virtually preserved and perhaps revisited.  Powers's focus on Robert Creeley's and Charles Olson's involvement sets the stage for the superior last essay, in which Creeley remembers Olson, Black Mountain's last rector.

Unlike Creeley's poems, typically experimental and original, this essay is anecdotal, descriptive, and nostalgic -- yet it is too emotive and strange to be unoriginal.  If the preface and first three essays have the worthy effect of transporting the audience "back to old black mountain," as one of the reprinted poems laments, then Creeley's is the unforgettable final scene.  All told, the book offers a fine and full-bodied tribute to one of our nation's most unique experiments in art.