Abstract Expressionist School: Black Mountain College
Black Mountain College was an experimental school founded in the middle of the twentieth century on the principles of balancing academics, arts, and manual labor within a democratic, communal society to create "complete" people. The environment was so conducive to interdisciplinary work and experimentation that it proved to be one of the most important settings for twentieth-century artists in their quest to revolutionize modern art.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Through a balanced curriculum of academics, arts, and manual labor in a democratic community, students would become "complete" people.
  • The college fostered extreme experimentation through creativity and interdisciplinary coordination.
  • The work of its faculty and students revolutionized the arts and science scenes in the second half of the twentieth century. Among the best known affiliates were Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, M.C. Richards, Charles Olsen and Jacob Lawrence.
Early Years
John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier and other former faculty members of Rollins College in Florida founded Black Mountain College in 1933. Together, they sought to form a liberal arts college on theorist John Dewey's principles of progressive education - that a student learned better through personal experience than through delivered knowledge. With this in mind, Rice created an environment that placed equal weight on academia, the arts, and manual labor in an egalitarian environment of extreme democracy. In this seemingly unstructured commune in the mountains of western North Carolina avant-garde creativity flourished.

Rice recruited Josef Albers, formerly of the German Bauhaus School, to form the arts curriculum for the College. Albers incorporated the Bauhaus' interdisciplinary approach to the arts, combining fine and decorative arts with craft, architecture, theater and music.

In addition to an emphasis on the arts, the college also strove for self-sufficiency, with both students and faculty laboring on the farm, in the kitchen, or on construction projects.

Mature Period
During World War II many refugee-artists were attracted to Black Mountain College for its reputation as an experimental artistic environment. By the 1940s, the faculty included some of the greatest artists and thinkers of the time, including Josef and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Alfred Kazin, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Goodman. Students were at the locus of such wide-ranging innovations as Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Dome in 1948, Charles Olson's Projective Verse, and some of the first performance art in the U.S.

In 1952, John Cage staged his first "happening" at Black Mountain College. Fellow-classmates would continue to assist him with his performance art many years after leaving North Carolina. Robert Rauschenberg created Cage's set, Merce Cunningham choreographed the movements, and Cage wrote the music. Through the interdisciplinary artistic practice and community values, the three artists created performance art.

By the late 1940s, William Carlos Williams and Albert Einstein joined the staff at Black Mountain College. The success of the experimental school spread throughout the country.

Late Period and Closure
Josef and Anni Albers left Black Mountain College in 1949. The remaining faculty could not agree on the future of the College, creating a fissure within the community. By 1953, most of the students and faculty had moved on to New York City or San Francisco.

In 1951, poet Charles Olson returned to Black Mountain College to teach and became the dominant figure at the College until its closure in 1957. Under his guidance Robert Creeley founded Black Mountain Review. Despite its short lifespan (ceasing publication in the fall of 1957) the radical literary magazine was an important part to the twentieth-century American literary scene, featuring experimental pieces by the future-Beat poet Alan Ginsberg and Olson's own Projected Verse.

Despite all attempts by Olson to resuscitate Black Mountain College, mounting debts and internal disputes among the administrators forced the school to close its doors in 1957.

While Black Mountain College existed for only twenty-three years, it left an indelible mark on the American art scene. Some of the most influential American artists of the twentieth century are counted among its students and faculty including, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Walter Gropius, Josef Albers, John Cage, Charles Olson, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham and Willem de Kooning, among others. The school's unique curriculum with an unusual communal and artistic focus was essential to the development of American arts and counterculture in the second half of the twentieth century.

"It was one of the most engaging, risky, and romantic seed-enterprises in the history of higher education." - Alexander Eliot, former student

". . . it really became kind of recognized [at BMC] that art could be anything, and could be made out of anything, and that it didn't necessarily cross boundaries -- they thought - between theater, the visual arts, dance, music, etc., that you could mix all this up and make a multi-media - or . . . environmental art." - Kenneth Noland, former student

"BMC was a crazy and magical place, and the electricity of all the people seemed to make for a wonderfully charged atmosphere, so that one woke up in the mornings excited and a little anxious, as though a thunderstorm were sweeping in." - Lyle Bonge, former student

Content written by:
  Erika Oman

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