For a scrappy, short-lived little college founded at a Christian summer camp by an outcast professor, Black Mountain College had a mighty impact on American cultural life. Among the artists who taught and studied there: Josef and Anni Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham.
“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957” opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Oct. 10. In addition to more than 200 works of art, the exhibition will feature dance and music performances, including a reconstruction of Cunningham’s “Changeling,” a dance composed using methodologies of chance such as flipped coins and tossed dice, and not seen since 1964.
“In modern and contemporary art, Black Mountain College is a touchstone,” says Helen Molesworth, the ICA’s former chief curator, who organized the exhibit with assistant curator Ruth Erickson. “Some of the most important practitioners of the avant-garde passed through.”
The college’s founder, John Rice, dismissed from his position at Rollins College in Florida in 1933 for his progressive views, moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina to open a non-hierarchical liberal arts school.
Students and faculty shared quarters and upkeep, and decisions were made by consensus. The college thrived, sometimes contentiously, for 24 years, at which point lack of money shut its doors. “John Rice founded a renegade institution after expulsion from another institution,” says Erickson. “It was built into its DNA that it wouldn’t exist forever.”
The arts were primary. “Arts were at the center of education rather than at the periphery,” says Molesworth, “Not because that produces artists, but, I think, the hope was that it produces better citizens.”
Rice cabled Josef Albers, offering the fabled Bauhaus teacher a position after the preeminent German art and design school shuttered rather than accept Nazi faculty. The artist accepted, and he and his wife Anni, a weaver, moved to North Carolina and became pivotal figures at Black Mountain. Other Eastern European refugee intellectuals followed.
The college fostered experimentation, independence, and self-awareness. In teaching color theory — how blue changes when juxtaposed with red or green — Albers demonstrated how perception sways values previously considered absolute. He coached students to make assemblages by placing familiar textures — the grain of wood, a caterpillar tent — out of context, to explode expectations.
Facilitating students’ creativity, faculty theorized, heightened personal agency.
“If you are learning how to draw, every mark you put on the paper matters,” says Molesworth. “In the context of the ’30s, and a refugee population from Europe, the idea of being able to make choices, being deliberate, is deeply linked to core tenets of democracy. People will choose who and how they will be governed.”
Black Mountain College’s spirit of experimentation across disciplines — visual art, music, dance, theater, crafts — played out against the backdrop of world events. The epic horrors of World War II shook artists and intellectuals. Modernism, with its focus on purity of form and its implication of an objective truth, gave way to a more angsty, capricious, and indeed democratic Post-Modernism.
“When all of Western enlightenment leads you to mass genocide that is systematic and ritualized, and scientific knowledge culminates in the dropping of two atom bombs,” says Molesworth, “you begin to think, maybe this thing we’ve got going — this ‘I think, therefore I am’ — is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
In the summer of 1948, composer John Cage publicly rejected the harmonies of Beethoven during a series of lectures at Black Mountain on French composer Erik Satie, whose music explored time and ambient sounds.
In his own work, Cage dwelled in the pauses and in the relationships among sounds, including altered piano notes (Cage famously “prepared” pianos with screws, paper clips, and more), radio noise, or coughs and rustles in the audience. Outcomes be damned, other than waking up to the experience in the moment.
Cage was behind the first-ever Happening, a precursor to performance art, at Black Mountain in 1952. For “Theater Piece No. 1,” he invited Cunningham, Rauschenberg, poet Charles Olson, pianist David Tudor, and more to do what they chose. In her catalog essay about the little-recorded event, Erickson quotes student Francine du Plessix’s account of the performance:
“At 8:30 tonight John Cage mounted a stepladder and until 10:30, he talked of the relation of music to Zen Buddhism, while a movie was shown, dogs barked, Merce danced, a prepared piano was played, whistles blew, babies screamed, coffee was served by four boys dressed in white, and Edith Piaf records were played double-speed on a turn-of-the-century machine.”
If this sounds like cacophony, it also reflects democracy in action.
Collaboration was rampant at the college. Rauschenberg took a dance class with Cunningham in 1952. Two years later, the choreographer invited him to build a set for the dance “Minutiae,” and the painter came up with a freestanding piece in fiery colors (evoking his earlier study with Albers), made of paint, fabric, newspapers, and more. Only later did he coin a term for this revolutionary kind of sculptural painting — “Combine.”
Cunningham, who founded his dance troupe at Black Mountain in 1953, was, like his romantic and creative partner Cage, a practitioner of the random effects of shared authorship and chance.
“With set design, music, lighting, he essentially said ‘you all do what you want and I don’t have to see it before it happens,’ ” Molesworth says. “That is really profound. Not ‘I have a vision.’ More, ‘How do we all have our visions?’ ”
Despite all the juicy collaborations, Black Mountain College was losing money and focus by the 1950s. Faculty members were at odds. The counterculture was taking root elsewhere. Its time was up.
“Leap Before You Look” is the first US exhibition to examine Black Mountain College as a hotbed for the American avant garde. For the contemporary art museum, it’s a rare look back.
“It’s not a period we often cover,” says Erickson. “But in it are the very seeds of everything we’re still dealing with in contemporary art.”
Leap Before You Look : Black Mountain College 1933-1957
At: Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave., Oct. 10-Jan. 24.