Magazine article Art Monthly

Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57

Magazine article Art Monthly

Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57

Article excerpt

Starting At Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57 Arnolfini Bristol November 5 to January 15

Something of the flavour of the Black Mountain College is captured in a photograph labelled, 'Picnic to celebrate the visit of Aldous Huxley': the intellectual pedigree, the nodding terms with the marquee name, the folksy outdoors informality. Over time this tiny American college which during its 24 years oversaw a paltry 1,200 students, many of whom did not complete their courses, has become a kind of magnetic myth--a composite of the Bauhaus, a kibbutz and a proto-fame academy. The romance of the name is underpinned by the roll call of sometime teachers, which included Josef and Anni Albers, Buckminster Fuller, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, Robert Motherwell, Merce Cunningham, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, Clement Greenberg, Charles Olson and a host of others, while students included Robert Rauschenberg, Arthur Penn, Ray Johnson and Edward Dorn.

Sifting the remains of Black Mountain requires a certain steely focus on its antinomic qualities, as the only antidote to total seduction by its popular press. Founded by dissident scholars as a place for a pragmatism-inflected 'progressive education' in 1933, it was a product of New Deal era American politics but its North Carolina base was soon a refuge for European emigres and, in Josef Albers, a Bauhaus veteran for whom teaching was a religion rather than a profession. Its founding spirit was one of thoroughgoing egalitarianism, with democracy extended to every aspect of administration; the distinction between learning and the extra-curricular was dispensed with, and both students and faculty were required to work on its farm. At the same time, scratching beneath the myth, its fees of $1,000 remained a barrier to meaningful social inclusion and, like contemporary mainstream colleges, it continued to impose quotas on black students and Jewish faculty. Nor could its glorious isolation conceal a deeply uneasy relationship with the local community, situated as it was at the eastern end of the Bible belt. While the poet and literary critic MC Richards, who taught literature and learnt pottery at Black Mountain, summed up the ethos as 'ordinary dualisms dissolved', the institution was equally characterised by open antagonisms and unresolved conflicts amongst its various cliques. It was a community in the most internecine sense, with battles over administration and remit punctuating a longer, more subterranean struggle between roots in European Modernism and an emerging, putatively more American expressionism.

The small print of community life is important to stress because this was the genuine backdrop for the college's extraordinary achievements, rather than some Edenic summer camp for geniuses. The same isolation, literal and figurative, which made for a certain amount of cabin fever allowed for a pedagogy of first principles. Elaine de Kooning rapturously recalled Josef Albers challenging his students, 'Here are four different greens. One of them is a green you've been looking at all your life--Coca Cola! Which is it?' Albers stressed the importance of building blocks, and his courses constituted an astonishing phenomenology of visual perception--Rauschenberg called Josef Albers 'the most important teacher I've ever had'. A serious interest in crafts, notably weaving and ceramics, was married to an improvisatory, experimental spirit and an unprescriptive approach to materials: it is no coincidence that both Anni Albers and Buckminster Fuller, two very different artists, are recounted in the exhibition making things from bobby pins. …

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