Lighting the Touch Paper of American Modern Art at Black Mountain College

Merce Cunningham - Untitled (Rabbit, Onions, Animals). Merce Cunningham - Untitled (Rabbit, Onions, Animals). Sold for $5,250 via Christie's (November 2009).

Disillusioned by traditional academia, a group of intellectuals, educators, and artists spearheaded an innovative approach to education in the hills of North Carolina to produce the experimental, liberal Black Mountain College with a focus on interdisciplinary studies. It quickly became an extraordinary powerhouse of modern culture in America – and even included Albert Einstein on its board of advisors. 

Buckminster Fuller and students assemble a geodesic dome at Black Mountain College, 1948.

Buckminster Fuller and students assemble a geodesic dome at Black Mountain College, 1948. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Elaine de Kooning - Echo Wall (Cave #68). Sold for $325,000 via Christie’s (October 2021)

Elaine de Kooning – Echo Wall (Cave #68). Sold for $325,000 via Christie’s (October 2021)

Black Mountain College was known for an innovative approach to education that left an indelible mark on American modern art. The college was in operation for less than 25 years, but during that time it encouraged creativity and free thinking among students as part of an innovative curriculum that was intended to be more than a simple means of imparting knowledge. And its effects are still felt today.

The college counted among its teachers and students some of the greatest luminaries of modern American culture, including Robert Rauschenberg, Merce CunninghamWillem de KooningCy TwomblyJohn Cage, and Anni Albers. It was founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, who wanted to create a haven for refugee European artists and a new kind of education at a time when the embers of war in Europe were beginning to ignite. It was in the same year that the progressive Bauhaus art school in Germany was closed by the Nazis, with many of the school’s faculty leaving the progressive art institution for Black Mountain. Former Bauhaus teacher, Josef Albers, together with his wife Anni Albers, whose textiles blurred the lines between art and craft, and the founder of the Bauhaus, architect Walter Gropius, were an integral part of the North Carolina college’s appeal.

From 1933 until its closure in 1957, the college’s unconventional approach to teaching and learning proved to be an important incubator for art and in particular the American avant-garde, many of whose proponents contributed to the running the college and even the maintaining of buildings. Buckminster Fuller, for example, led a group of students to assemble a geodesic dome on campus in 1948.

Despite its far reaching influence, Black Mountain was a small college with a diverse student body. It not only espoused an innovative curriculum, but at a time of racial segregation across the US, it also operated a coeducational approach and admitted students of all races. 

College Style

Anni Albers – Untitled.

Anni Albers – Untitled. Sold for $104,500 via Christie’s (November 2009).

With nothing that resembled a traditional curriculum, Black Mountain College instead relied on a tutorial method. Students would work one-on-one with professors to develop individualized course plans. It was a hands-on learning process that encouraged students to participate in various artistic and creative projects. Drama, music, and fine art were given equal status alongside other more traditional academic subjects.

The teaching was informal with a focus on communal living and outdoor activities. It was as much a retreat for devoted artists as it was an educational institution. Wildly different in its approach to college compared to related schools, Black Mountain was almost anarchic in its refusal to recognise traditional hierarchical structures, as the relationship between faculty and students was subverted to instil students with a sense of their relationship to others and to the environment.

There was no one particular style at the centre of teaching at BMC, but the imprint of Josef Albers’ previous teaching at the Bauhaus was a clear influence on the arts in North Carolina. With an emphasis on the handmade process in fine art and crafts, Albers’ training in the fundamental areas of drawing and color promoted discovery and experimentation, and he greatly encouraged controlled trials with color and materials. 

But it was visits by American composer and music theorist John Cage in the summers of 1948 and 1952 that brought about exciting and radical experimentation, with spontaneity and chance methods becoming more popular approaches to art among students. Both of these methods of education had long-lasting influences in post-war art.

Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg - Buffalo II oil and silkscreen ink on canvas. Sold for $88,805,000 via Christie’s (May 2019)

Robert Rauschenberg – Buffalo II. Sold for $88,805,000 via Christie’s (May 2019).

With an approach often referred to as Neo-Dadaist, Rauschenberg famously stated that “painting relates to both art and life,” and that he wanted to work “in the gap between the two.” During his time at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg experimented with a variety of artistic mediums including printmaking, drawing, photography, painting, sculpture, and theatre.

Attracted to Black Mountain by the presence of Josef Albers after reading about him in an August 1948 issue of Time magazine, Rauschenberg enrolled the very same year. Rauschenberg claims to have hoped that Albers’ famously rigorous teaching methods, which didn’t allow for any uninfluenced experimentation, would curb his habitual sloppiness. But it was the arrival of John Cage that allowed Rauschenberg to discover an artistic kindred spirit. Cage had similarly moved away from the disciplinarian teachings of his instructor in favor of a more experimentalist approach to music and this was the support that Rauschenberg needed during his early artistic years. The two would remain friends and collaborators for decades to come.

Rauschenberg’s time in the Black Mountains were productive, and he created the Night Blooming paintings (1951) by pressing pebbles and gravel into black pigment on canvas. In the same year, he made full body blueprints in collaboration with Black Mountain student Susan Weil in his New York apartment. His time at the college even opened avant-garde doors for Rauschenberg, as it was there he was first exposed to avant-garde dance and performance art, and he participated in John Cage’s Theatre Piece No. 1 (1952).  

Josef Albers

It’s hard to understate the influence of Josef Albers on Black Mountain College. After all, he was THE teacher of artists, who brought the beliefs and teachings of European modernism and Bauhaus across the Atlantic and into the mountains of North Carolina. There, they would have a profound influence on the development of modern art during the 1950s and ’60s in the United States.

The Nazis’ ascent to power and their forced closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, as they purged what they deemed to be degenerate art, meant that Albers emigrated to the United States. Europe’s loss was America’s gain as the architect Philip Johnson arranged for Albers to join the Black Mountain College staff, where he remained as head of painting until 1949. In that time, his reputation as a teacher blossomed, alongside his theoretical belief that color, rather than form, is the primary mode of pictorial language.

“When a student asked me what I was going to teach I said: ‘to open eyes’. And this has become the motto of all my teaching” explained Albers in 1970, who provided the theoretical basis for the development of non-objective art during and after the age of Abstract Expressionism. He left Black Mountain for Yale in 1950, before becoming the first living artist to be given a solo show at MoMA, and publishing his influential book Interaction of Color in 1963, which documents an experiential way of studying and teaching color.

Willem and Elaine de Kooning

Willem de Kooning - Untitled XXI. Sold for $24,890,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2015)

Willem de Kooning – Untitled XXI. Sold for $24,890,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2015).

Two of the greatest Abstract Expressionist painters took a break from the New York art scene to join the Black Mountain collective at the request of Josef Albers in the summer of 1948. Their stay in North Carolina was short and the pioneering pair had starkly different reactions to the camp’s informal teaching, communal living, and outdoor activities. Both, however, found their new environment productive in one way or another.

Considered by some to be the voice of Abstract Expressionism, Elaine de Kooning flourished in the independence and isolation of communal living in Black Mountain College. Elaine’s studio process during that period had a significant influence on her career as an Abstract Expressionist painter, even if she was uncertain about the work she created there. It was Buckminster Fuller’s first large scale geodesic dome that really captured her creativity during her short stay and she played a critical role in its attempted construction, alongside a raft of fellow artists and intellectuals. 

Willem on the other hand pined for a return to New York. The rural setting proved too diverting for an action painter from the New York School collective, according to fellow student Gerald van de Wiele, who revealed that Willem covered his windows with newsprint to reduce the “distractions” of the mountains outside. Willem even encouraged students to come to New York during the fall, instead of continuing their education. Unsurprisingly, Willem went back to New York at the end of the summer. Nevertheless, it proved to be a constructive period for him, as he produced one of his first, great all-over paintings, Asheville, which proved to be a defining turning point in his previously penniless career.

Anni Albers

Anni Albers – With Verticals.

Anni Albers – With Verticals. Sold for $125,600 via Phillips (December 2004).

Arriving in Black Mountain in December 1933 via a boat trip to New York after the Nazi closure of Bauhaus, Anni Albers was a key part of the college’s progressive outlook, and most certainly not just the wife of her influential husband. Anni had forever changed the role of textiles in modern art during her life in Germany and established her own workshop at Black Mountain College, which focused on teachings in materiality and had a strong connection with pre-Columbian textiles.

Distinctly modern designs and an innovative use of materials defined her approach to what had been, in the early part of the century, perceived as women’s art. In fact, she intended to study the visual arts at the Bauhaus, but was restricted to the weaving workshop. Anni made the most of this slight though, and established new technologies including light- and sound-proof room dividers at Black Mountain. She even pioneered the use of synthetic and natural fibers, as she created a new vocabulary in textiles in her own image that gained recognition within the world of fine art. 

Through her own devotion, Anni lifted her work out of the realm of craft and helped to establish textiles as a reputable fine art. She established a place for herself – textiles in the process – at the top table of the art world by combining the ancient craft of hand-weaving with the language of modern art. Her talent was rewarded when she became the first textile artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1949. Today, her work achieves six figures at auction and is housed in prestigious collections worldwide.

Lasting legacy 

Cy Twombly – Untitled.

Cy Twombly – Untitled. Sold for $9,695,500 via Christie’s (November 2019).

Black Mountain College was in existence for a mere 23 years, but in that relatively short space of time it left an indelible mark on the American modern art scene. Mounting debts and internal disputes between administrators forced the school to close its doors in 1957, but the school’s innovative approach has ensured that its legacy lives on as a unique and influential institution in the history of American education.

Some of the most influential American artists of the 20th century walked through the doors of Black Mountain College during its brief, but influential time as an incubator of new, exciting and innovative artistic notions. Those years would help to further the ideas of many of the artists in residence and establish their names at the vanguard of modern art. Furthermore the school served as a catalyst for the development of American arts and counterculture in the remainder of the 20th century. 

Its influence even extended beyond art as the Black Mountain model was often adopted by later intentional communities that promoted a cooperative living and art-making. It also foreshadowed the challenges of universities in the 1960s, like the involvement of students and faculty in school administration, the pass/fail system, and an innovative and more flexible curriculum.

The college’s defining legacy could well be a list of influences, it was that impactful. The experiment in community-centered education could be considered one of its most important legacies. Then there’s its model of encouraging creativity and freedom of thought in an open and innovative curriculum of non-hierarchical methodologies. You won’t find that level of devotion to the arts on any university prospectus today. It was truly unique to America in its philosophy that intended to be more than just a means of imparting knowledge and it proved to be an important incubator for art and the American avant-garde; the effects of which are still felt today. 

The school has been closed for well over 60 years, but its legacy lives on thanks to The Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center through talks, exhibitions, performances, and collections that examines the college’s history and impact on modern culture today.