claass HAUS is heading to the mountains again this weekend. Time to revisit Black Mountain College.
Black Mountain College, the short-lived educational experiment that revolutionized America’s art scene (not to mention its impact on an array of other disciplines), stood deep in the secluded mountains of Buncombe County, North Carolina. An unlikely site made for a radical institution where art played a central role in the development of well-rounded human beings. The legend of Black Mountain College and its brief existence on the fringes of American culture still fascinates and inspires, and its influence continues to shape artistic innovation, educational experimentation, and social engagement around the world.
If you didn’t take an art history course in college or just don’t remember the day your professor casually referenced this mythic institution in class, I highly recommend reading more about it. It’s an incredible story with an incredible cast and an incredible soundtrack (see John Cage).
In the meantime, here are ten things you should know about Black Mountain College.
1. Opened in 1933 by John Andrew Rice (and his merry band of dissident Rollins College professors). Believing that art was an indispensable part of the learning experience, Rice, a brilliant (if not polarizing) firebrand, established Black Mountain College as an informal educational collaborative based on John Dewey’s principles of progressive education.
2. Visionary artist, teacher, and theorist Josef Albers was hired as the first art professor. After the Bauhaus closed its doors (under pressure from the Nazis) in 1933, Albers accepted an invitation to develop the curriculum for Black Mountain College's art department. Incorporating the Bauhaus' interdisciplinary approach to the arts, Albers and his wife Anni (also a professor and a pioneering designer, weaver, and printmaker) attracted students from all over the country with their daring and innovative work in painting and textiles. The pair remained at the school until 1949.
3. Black Mountain College was owned and operated by the faculty (with substantial input from the students). That meant no boards of regents, directors, or trustees. It also meant an unstructured learning environment, no grades, and a complete devotion to educational and artistic experimentation.
4. Self-sufficiency played a central role. Both students and faculty participated in the school's daily operations. Tasks included farm labor, kitchen duty, and work on construction and maintenance projects.
5. The glittering roster included many of the nation's greatest artists and thinkers.
Anni and Josef Albers, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Paul Goodman, Walter Gropius, Franz Kline, A. Lawrence Kocher, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, M.C. Richards, Cy Twombly- the list goes on and on.
6. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were commissioned to design a complex of buildings for the Lake Eden campus. But due to financial constraints, the plan was scrapped. Architect and managing editor of Architectural Record, A. Lawrence Kocher designed the “Studies Building” (still standing) in line with the Bauhaus aesthetic.
7. It was never accredited. It's true. And out of the roughly 1,200 students who attended the school, few actually earned (the handmade) diplomas.
8. Students were at the center of some of the greatest innovations of the twentieth century. These included Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome, Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, John Cages’ first “Happening,” and Robert Creeley's founding of the Black Mountain Review.
9. The FBI had a file on Black Mountain College. Not really surprising, but J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau had files on a number of faculty members and was reportedly a mainstay on the Lake Eden campus.
10. Closed in 1957. Due to financial difficulties and disagreements about the institution's direction, Black Mountain College closed its doors after only two decades, but its influence on America's counterculture still reverberates today.
You can read more about Black Mountain College here, here, and here.
Image at top: Buckminster Fuller's students at the 1949 Summer Institute, Black Mountain College, demonstrate the lightness of the dome, Black Mountain College Research Project, North Carolina Museum of Art. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.