REPORT: Black Mountain College

An examination of the mythic Black Mountain College reveals the process of discovery, choice and consequences that comprised its core philosophy.

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Installation view: “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957”
at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Feb 21 – May 15, 2016.
Photo: Brian Forrest, courtesy of the Hammer Museum

Black Mountain College may well be the antidote to the longstanding mythology of a monolithic Modernist narrative. Established in 1933 and running through 1957, the school’s ideology seemed determined to run in the opposite direction of Greenberg’s vision: instead of purity, reduction and refinement, we find plurality, interdisciplinarity and, at times, a total mess. Ironically, over time, the college has acquired a legendary history of its own. Hearing the name “Black Mountain College” instantly conjures the likes of Albers, Rauschenberg, Cage, Cunningham, and the “site of the first happening,” but the story goes much deeper than that.

The story of Black Mountain College begins, not in North Carolina, but farther south in the Sunshine State. In the spring of 1933, John Andrew Rice was fired from his position teaching Classical Literature after only three years at Rollins College in Florida. Rice’s short tenure at the college fortuitously intersected with a visit by the influential philosopher John Dewey, who chaired the “Conference on Curriculum for the College of Liberal Arts.” After his experience in Florida, Rice decided not to seek employment at another university, but rather to start one of his own. And here Dewey’s inspiration would take root. This school would be a liberal arts college, with no administration or trustees, based on the precocious notion to establish the visual, music, plastic, theater and literary arts at the core, instead of the periphery, of its academic program.

The end result is the subject of the powerful traveling exhibition, “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957,” on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through May 15. “I love the Black Mountain myth, I don’t want to give it up,” explains Helen Molesworth, currently chief curator at MOCA in Los Angeles, who curated the show while serving as chief curator of ICA Boston. “But there is also a ton that doesn’t get in that myth. So, this show is part a delicate dance of loving the myth, and wanting the myth, and recognizing it’s also time to unpack the situation.” The exhibition, the first comprehensive survey devoted solely to BMC, does that through an examination of the records, ephemera, and teaching methodologies that took place at the college, as well as the art.

Ruth Erickson, who joined the staff at ICA as a graduate research fellow, worked on the exhibition almost since its inception. “Early on, the diversity of the materials that we were dealing with was a real enigma to us,” she observes. “We were not dealing with a show of masterpieces, but with a real eclectic mix of what was available… Some of those were masterpieces, but many were student exercises, preliminary studies, or very unfinished student work.” This led to the conscious decision to emphasize process over product in the final conception of the exhibition, which ultimately became a reflection of BMC’s philosophy.

After the impetus to found the school, the most consequential choice was made during what Molesworth describes as a fateful meeting between Rice, architect Philip Johnson and philanthropist/collector Ed Warburg, during which Johnson urged, “the person you need to hire to run your art program is Josef Albers.” The former director of the Bauhaus, which had closed the previous year under rising pressure from the Nazi party in Germany, was also familiar with the writing of John Dewey and seemed, for myriad reasons, the perfect fit. However, there was a glitch. In what might have been a deal-breaker, Albers responded to Rice’s offer in a telegram: “I don’t speak any English.” The response? “Come anyway.”

Josef and Anni Albers landed in North Carolina, straight from Berlin, Germany, in the summer of 1933 and traveled to the rural site of the hillside campus, also the site of a yearly Christian summer camp for boys known as the Blue Ridge Assembly. “They needed a ready-made campus, they didn’t have much money, and they didn’t have time,” describes Alice Sebrell, program director of the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center, standing in front of the monumental Robert E. Lee Assembly Hall, the hub of the original campus. “Rice was fired in the spring and they decided to start this new college in the fall… and it almost didn’t happen.” The assembly hall’s porch, now the “Eureka Hall,” with towering Doric-style wooden columns, overlooks an expansive vista of layered mountains cloaked in blue; its interior is cavernous with a large brick fireplace. “If the students suspected the visitor would be a lively speaker, they loaded quiet burning wood into the fire,” Sebrell describes. “If they suspected it was going to be boring, they put the noisy wood in.”

Although intoxicatingly pristine, the Blue Ridge Assembly had its drawbacks, such as the annual disruption of incoming summer campsters and fears of the lease not being renewed. Within a few years, the faculty began looking for a new location, which led to the purchase of a 600-plus-acre property a few miles away. The new site was the former vacation getaway of E.W. Grove, who had built a series of lodges in the “mountain vernacular,” one of which would become the school’s Dining Hall, where that infamous first happening took place. During our visit, the space where Merce Cunningham once performed was filled with the sounds of the youthful Camp Rockmont choir rehearsing songs from “Annie” for the annual play. Upon the school’s closure, the property was acquired by the camp and became, full-circle, a Christian summer camp for boys.

Across the campus is the most iconic part of the BMC campus, the Studies Building, designed by A. Lawrence Kocher and built by the faculty and students, which served as housing for both. Walking the path from the Dining Hall to the Studies Building, escorted by gusts of wind and sand, the topic turned to Albers. Although best known for his rigorous study of the “Interactions of Color,” Albers was also responsible for bringing together a highly diversified faculty, not, in the artist’s words “to create ‘works of art,’ but rather experiments; it is not our ambition to fill museums, we are gathering experience.” The list of resident and visiting artists and professors at BMC is more than impressive. Attendees of the famous summer institutes included painters Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Lyonel Feininger, and Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence; Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, and Buckminster Fuller who made his first attempt to construct his geodesic dome in the summer of ’48.

The aura of creativity at BMC was clearly not hindered by the numerous constraints. Observes Katherine de Vos Devine, executive director of the BMCMA+C: “When choice is so important, constraints are actually very helpful, and imposing that kind of discipline in the creative process can lead one to, if not a better choice, then at least a more precise and considered choice.”

A dedication to preserving the better- and lesser-known stories of Black Mountain led to founding of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in 1993 in nearby Asheville, NC. The museum maintains the school’s records and archives in its permanent collection as well as hosting exhibitions of the better- and lesser-known artists who passed through the storied halls. Currently on view at the BMCM+AC: “Ray Spillenger: Rediscovery of a Black Mountain Painter,” who studied at BMC over the summer of 1948, and was part of the scene in New York, and despite what has been described as a disdain for self-promotion began to achieve recognition when the tides turned away from expressionism in the late 1950s.

“And sometimes they just wander in,” begins de Vos Devine, recounting the story of a student that came in by chance over the past summer. “She said, ‘Hi my name is Sydney and I was there in the summer of 1941…’ We got out the cameras and did an oral history with her right there.” The museum will soon have more space to explore and present these histories in a new building, in addition to the current space, that will open down the block, across the funky shop-lined street. The new space will soon host the eighth edition of the annual symposium, “ReVIEWING,” featuring Helen Molesworth as the keynote speaker, later this year.

“The superficial, somewhat romantic myth is very attractive,” says de Vos Devine, “but once individuals start reading histories there is always an entry point; whatever their own personal attraction is, there is always something that draws them in deeper.” For Molesworth, it began with the work of renowned San Francisco-based sculptor Ruth Asawa, who was brought to her attention by a graduate student/intern at ICA, which prompted the question: “If this extremely amazing artist went there and I don’t know anything about her, what else don’t I know about Black Mountain?” The exhibition now at the Hammer marks a considered reply. In the back room at the BMCM+AC, a single work by Ruth Asawa hangs suspended in a niche encased in glass, as if waiting for someone else to ask that very same question.