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Black Mountain College

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Experimental liberal arts college at Black Mountain, NC, open from 1933 to 1957. In the 1940s and early 1950s it was a centre for a group of painters, architects, musicians and poets associated particularly with the development of performance and multimedia work, crossing many disciplines. It was founded by John Andrew Rice (1888–1968) and a group of students and staff from Rollins College, Winter Park, FL. It was located in the Blue Ridge Assembly Buildings, c. 29 km east of Asheville, NC, until 1941, when it moved to nearby Lake Eden until its closure. The progressive ideas of John Dewey influenced the interaction of formal education with community life, the absence of conventional grades and credits and the central importance accorded to the arts. The college was owned and administered by the staff. The setting was modest, and fewer than 1200 students attended in 24 years.

In the founding year Josef Albers, the first of many European refugees to teach at Black Mountain, came from Germany to teach art; through his activities the college disseminated Bauhaus teaching methods and ideas into American culture. The visual arts curriculum included courses in design and colour that later became a standard part of art education, as well as workshops in weaving, wood-working, printing, photography and bookbinding. Anni Albers, a former Bauhaus student, developed a weaving course that emphasized designing for industrial production. Xanti Schawinsky (1904–79), who studied with Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus, taught art and stage studies from 1936 to 1938 and directed Spectodrama: Play, Life, Illusion, one of the earliest performances of abstract theatre in the USA.

In 1944 Black Mountain College sponsored its first summer arts programme, which attracted many major artists for intense periods of teaching and participation in concerts, exhibitions, lectures and drama and dance performances. Among the European artists who taught were Lyonel Feininger, Walter Gropius, Leo Lionni (b 1910), Amédée Ozenfant, Bernard Rudofsky (1905–88) and Ossip Zadkine. Other summer staff included Leo Amino (b 1911), John Cage, Mary Callery (1903–77), Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Jacob Lawrence (b 1917), Barbara Morgan (b 1900) and Robert Motherwell. Ilya Bolotowsky taught from 1946 to 1948.

After Josef Albers left in 1949, the central figure in the community was the poet and critic Charles Olson (1910–70), who taught at the college in 1948–9 and returned in 1951. Under his direction the college became a centre for the formulation of a new poetics based on open form and ‘projective verse’. The Black Mountain Review, edited by Robert Creeley (b 1926), was one of the most influential small-press journals of the period, and the college played a formative role in the revival of the small-press movement in the USA. Creeley, Joseph Fiore (b 1925), M. C. Richards (b 1916) and Robert Duncan (1919–88) were among the members of the young American staff. A ceramics course was added to the curriculum and the faculty included Robert Turner (b 1913), Karen Karnes (b 1925) and David Weinrib (b 1924). The summer sessions in the arts brought many artists to the campus, including Harry Callahan, Shōji Hamada, Franz Kline, Bernard Leach, Ben Shahn, Aaron Siskind, Jack Tworkov and Peter Voulkos (b 1924).

Albers and the other European artists brought the spirit of modernism to the progressive, experimental spirit of the founders, and the fusion of these two movements culminated in a creative atmosphere and an intense, intellectual community, receptive to experimental ventures in the arts. It was at Black Mountain College that Buckminster Fuller attempted to raise his first dome in 1948, that John Cage staged his first work of performance art in 1952, and that the Cunningham Dance Company was founded in 1953. Through the work of its students, among them Ruth Asawa (b 1926), John Chamberlain, Ray Johnson, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne (b 1929), Kenneth Snelson, Cy Twombly, Stanley Vanderbeek (1927–84) and Jonathan Williams (b 1929), the college played a formative role in the definition of an American aesthetic and identity in the arts during the 1950s and 1960s.

Mary Emma Harris
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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