Book Review

The Magic Mountain


“The greatest danger to Black Mountain College now is not that its legacy will be lost but that its truly radical nature will be forgotten,” writes Mary Emma Harris in the preface to the revised edition of her book on one of the most unusual and influential schools in the United States. It was at Black Mountain College that John Cage staged his first Happening, Merce Cunningham formed his dance company, and Buckminster Fuller built his first dome. Among the faculty were Anni and Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning. Albert Einstein and Carl Jung served on the board of advisers. The students included Francine du Plessix Gray, Robert Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson, and Ben Shahn. Anais Nin, Henry Miller, May Sarton, and Aldous Huxley all made visits to the school. Admittedly, the College was ephemeral, operating for less than three decades (1933-1957). It was also off the map, located in sparsely populated, unknown Black Mountain, North Carolina, and small, enrolling fewer than 1,200 students over the entire course of its existence.

Yet despite all this, this progressive, non-traditional institution was the starting point for a remarkable and diverse collection of artists who made up the American avant-garde of the 1960s. In the years since its closing, Black Mountain College is often misremembered as a loosely cobbled together experiment, an ill-conceived venture, an anarchist or Communist enclave with little lasting significance. Even the author, a native of the area, had never heard of the school until she was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 11 years after Black Mountain College closed its doors. Harris decided to investigate further. Years of research and interviews resulted in the original version of the book, published in 1986. Harris continues to serve as principal researcher for the Black Mountain College Project, which seeks to preserve artifacts, release interviews, and publish information about the school for future generations. The revised edition of The Arts at Black Mountain College, with a new foreword, is the definitive history of the artistic component of this enigmatic institution. (With the exception of its final years, Black Mountain College offered a full liberal arts program, but the author focuses on its most notable achievement, bringing the study of fine arts from the fringes to the core of its curriculum.)

Started in reaction to more traditional schools of the time, Black Mountain College was created when classics professor John Andrew Rice lost his position at Rollins College in Florida due to his controversial, anti-administration ideas. With colleagues from Rollins and elsewhere, he wanted to form a college “based on an idea of community among individuals working and learning together.” While searching for a physical home for this venture, they eventually located a collection of buildings owned by the Blue Ridge Assembly of the Protestant Church in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and the college was born.

Black Mountain College was founded rather idealistically as a school that was to be governed equally by students and faculty, with a self-directed course of study that was free of requirements. Its setting was rural, and the artistic work produced at Black Mountain differed wildly from that of the Bauhaus, the seminal 20th century school of design in Germany that sought to create a new social order in its rejection of bourgeois architecture for simpler classical forms. Harris proposes that the school was in many ways the spiritual stepchild of the Bauhaus. The two shared in common an experimental educational philosophy that rebelled against academia, coupled with a belief in the social responsibility of the arts and education. In fact, the Bauhaus ended just as Black Mountain was in its initial planning stages. In 1933, the year Rice was dismissed from Rollins College, the Bauhaus was searched by Hitler’s storm troopers and the Berlin police, and subsequently closed. Rice and Dreier courted Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers, who with his wife Anni, a master weaver, emigrated to the United States, where they became part of the core faculty at Black Mountain.

The college evolved with the times, establishing a mica mine to sell the mineral during World War II, securing GI Bill benefits, and first admitting African-American students in 1944. Its radical nature was often at odds with its surroundings–on off-campus trips, students had to abide by North Carolina’s segregation customs. The residents of nearby Asheville had grown accustomed to sometime residents like Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, but were not prepared for the influx of the art school students who caused stirs when they showed up in town. Although most students and teachers left for larger cities in the late fifties, the lasting influence of the college is still felt in Black Mountain and Asheville, an area with a less innovative but thriving arts community that continually pops up on national lists of desirable, liberal, and gay/lesbian-friendly places to live.

In later years, faculty and student interest in the community farm, and in taking part in school administration and maintenance began to wane. A few efforts to adopt a more traditional structure failed as well, at odds with the school’s core notions of academic and creative freedom. At the same time newly appointed rector-poet and unorthodox scholar Charles Olson had other ideas, completely abandoning academics in favor of a wholly fine arts curriculum. With GI benefits all but disappearing, Olson continued to propose new fundraising schemes even in the college’s darkest days. But the conservative atmosphere of the early fifties made it almost impossible for experimental education to exist financially. Slowly, the school’s assets were sold off, and as faculty and students began to leave for art scenes in San Francisco and New York, Olson was directed to begin the process of closing Black Mountain College forever, with all programs ceasing in March 1957 and a final issue of the Black Mountain Review published in the fall of that year.

As Harris tells it, the story of Black Mountain College encompasses some of the most crucial lifelong issues confronting the working artist: The need for community support and involvement versus the need for solitude in order to create and produce work; the importance of artistic friendships, as well as the cliched “artistic difference;” voluntary poverty versus economic security; isolation versus a metropolitan environment.

Created at a time when Europe was in flux politically and artistically, Black Mountain College helped shape the transition from European to American dominance in the arts. The school differed fundamentally from other American arts schools in its resistance to education based on technique. Although Josef Albers assigned practical drawing exercises, he eschewed traditional methods in favor of experimentation, saying that he did not wish to form a contingent of little Alberses. “Abstraction is the function of the human spirit,” he wrote, later adding that he wanted the visual artist to have the same right as the composer, “to create forms that have life within themselves as music has.” One of the most influential music courses was Rudolf Kolisch’s “Democratic Practices of Ensemble Playing,” a class that approached the orchestra as a cooperative effort, opposing what Kolisch saw as the traditional “dictatorial” role of the conductor. Charles Olson’s writing and literature class, which typically ended up at a bar anyway, once reportedly lasted for two days because it got so interesting that people just wanted to keep going. Marathon classes aside, John Cage believed that the most important learning did take place at the dinner table, where faculty and students ate together.

Part of the Black Mountain process involved experimentation with notions of community living, a venture that was not consistently successful. The students and faculty worked and lived together, growing food and cooking meals. Students from all economic backgrounds found themselves assigned to jobs such as shoveling coal and building the log cabin dormitories. This sort of intimacy proved both enriching and counterproductive. Numerous friendships that made a critical impact or resulted in artistic collaboration were first formed at Black Mountain. Here, Robert Motherwell met artist/social realist Ben Shahn. John Cage began to work with Ray Johnson, the painter who would later become famous for the mail art he produced as part of the New York Correspondence School. Robert Creeley and Charles Olson published the Black Mountain Review, working with connections between writing and visual images.

Personalities clashed at Black Mountain, too. Harris is a documentarian, not a gossip, and her unbiased faithfulness to every detail of the “process” that was Black Mountain can make for tedious reading at times. But she objectively and humorously depicts the various artistic temperaments present at the school. These included characters like Jean Varda, the Greek-born artist who first arrived to teach in a Model A convertible he’d painted magenta and orange and driven cross-country on three spare tires. He tossed packages of loudly colored Rit dye in a washing machine to dye the shirts he wore open to the waist. In contrast to Josef Albers, to whom students “prayed, knelt beseechingly before the great god of capital A-R-T,” Varda was a breath of fresh and flamboyant air. Literature instructor Ed Dahlberg, Harris recounts, fled home to New York after a mere two weeks at the college. John Rice had described him as a “vague” lecturer, and Anni Albers “sensed the seeds of discontent when Dahlberg extolled Ancient Greece and the pastoral life, but could not stand to get up for breakfast.” Printing instructor Winslow Ames described the college as a “massive sandal bed.” While generally pleased with the school, he found it “rather strange” due to the “almost deliberately and programmatically shallow culture of most of the students who seem to be so firmly anchored in the latest thing.” He cited as a primary example the stray Coca-Cola bottles he saw lying about the campus, which the office had affixed with little signs that read: “This bottle has become ubiquitous. Please help keep the campus neat,” and to which the students responded by crossing out the word “bottle” and replacing it with the word “notice.”

Less successful as a communal model, the larger lesson of Black Mountain is about the elusive aspects of art that cannot be taught in a classroom–making necessary decisions and sacrifices in order to work, forming connections and friendships with other artists, and most importantly, actually doing the work once formal education has ended. Black Mountain College removed the mystery of making art, allowing its students to witness the daily, often very mundane struggle to produce work. Of course, this arrangement in many ways made the struggle even harder for artists who were used to their privacy. As Harris notes, the more solitary artists in fact produced their best and most famous works away from Black Mountain: Josef Albers’ Graphic Tectonics and Variations on a Theme series, Olson’s “Special View of History” and “New Sciences of Man,” for instance. Some of the major hallmarks of Black Mountain College–the Merce Cunningham dance company, John Cage’s seminal performance piece that became known as the first “Happening,” and Fuller’s dome–were actually collaborative works.

“It was a unique and vital experiment that occurred at a particular time in American history,” Harris maintains. Following the initial publication of this book, an attempt was made to re-form the Black Mountain College. Although the new college was built from the same elements as the first–a lack of grades, a famous faculty, a farm, a work program–the new school quickly failed. Harris unfortunately does not venture to explain the specifics of the demise of the second college, offering only the detailed story of the first as an example. Perhaps the new founders were impatient with the lack of immediate success, perhaps there were financial or administrative problems that were not foreseen; in any case, the elements did not produce the same vibrant atmosphere of the first school. Black Mountain helped bring about ideals of interdisciplinary learning, the integration of the study of fine arts, farm and work programs that are used in several American colleges today, and even Warren Wilson College in the same area of North Carolina. Yet today’s art schools tend to be more career oriented and it would be difficult to find a group of artists of the same caliber as the Black Mountain faculty who are willing to sacrifice a good deal of their private working lives for the sake of education. Although the original Black Mountain was certainly no educational utopia, it succeeded for as long as it did in large part because of the historical events surrounding its creation–the years following the Great Depression, the onset of World War II–and the way in which the faculty and students responded to these changes in the postwar years. As the author concludes, Black Mountain College was not a formula that can be easily copied; rather it was an ongoing process of decision making and experimentation. Her book is a valuable resource for its record of this process and its perspective on an ephemeral time and place.

Rebecca Bengal grew up near Black Mountain, North Carolina. She currently lives in Austin where she is an MFA candidate at the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin.