A Wonderfully Ephemeral College

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957

an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, October 10, 2015–January 24, 2016; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, February 21–May 14, 2016; and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, September 17, 2016–January 1, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition by Helen Molesworth with Ruth Erickson
Institute of Contemporary Art/ Yale University Press, 400 pp., $75.00
Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, circa 1946
Genevieve Naylor/Reznikoff Artistic Partnership
Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, circa 1946

1.

Of the self-styled “progressive” liberal arts colleges founded between the world wars—including Bennington and Sarah Lawrence, Goddard and a reconceived Antioch—Black Mountain College was among the most distinctive, and was also the first to close. A fragile undertaking from the start, rendered more precarious by the Great Depression, the college was established in 1933, with ten faculty members and nineteen students, on a rented estate in the mountains of North Carolina that featured a central building in the antebellum style called (lest students forget they were in the old, still-segregated South) Robert E. Lee Hall. A breakaway faction of faculty from Rollins College in Florida, under the leadership of a renegade classicist named John Rice, was eager to apply John Dewey’s “learn by doing” principles to higher education. Dewey himself visited the college in 1935 and approved of what he saw. “The College exists,” he told Rice, “at the very ‘grass roots’ of a democratic way of life.”

Black Mountain College was always tiny—with around sixty students in its short-lived prime and averaging no more than forty—always poor, and frequently, if democratically, fractious. There was no external board of trustees, no paid administrative staff. Faculty and students lived and worked together, in close quarters, and made decisions by the Quaker practice of achieving consensus rather than voting.

During its final years, before it closed in 1957, Black Mountain could hardly be called a college at all, resembling instead a ramshackle artists’ and writers’ collective assembled around its final rector, the charismatic poet and Melville scholar Charles Olson, who sold off the college’s land and buildings piecemeal to keep the dream—whatever that dream had become—alive, while publishing the influential Black Mountain Review, featuring poetry by “Black Mountain Poets” Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan, to the end. “Why shouldn’t things stop when they’re over?” Olson asked, reasonably enough.

The romance of dying young would seem to extend, in this case, to educational institutions, as a wide-ranging exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston is the latest reminder. Few American schools have attracted the sustained and impassioned attention accorded to Black Mountain College, and especially to the many well-known artists who worked there: Willem de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham among its teachers and, among its students, Robert Rauschenberg, Ruth Asawa, and Cy Twombly. The innovative curriculum at Black Mountain (no grades, no required courses, no standard exams) was always centered around its arts program, run by the German émigré artist Josef Albers from its inception, before he decamped to Yale, amid one of the schisms that periodically roiled the school, in 1950.

Albers had been a master teacher at the Bauhaus, the design academy…



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