From almost the start, Black Mountain College has held mythical status as a haven for the greatest minds of the 20th century. Founded in 1933 in the midst of cultural and political upheaval, BMC was a refuge for many and came to be defined by not only the influential faculty and students but also by its progressive approach to education that pushed for student-driven study and interdisciplinary cross-pollination. Even for those students who found their way to BMC’s Lake Eden campus in the mid-1950s, as the school was on the decline, the early years held the aura of an intangible, bygone time. Martha King, who attended BMC in 1955 writes,

This is not the Black Mountain of legend when everyone present was a famous person, glamorous as the fake spread in Vogue magazine that superimposed Jasper Johns’ face over a photo of Lake Eden. (Johns never attended Black Mountain, and to my knowledge never set foot on the property.) I was there the summer before the very last summer. All golden ages have a lot of dross in them.1

The recent resurgence of interest in the college, and the moment in time that it represents mean that the myth has grown and evolved (as all myths do). Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish fact from fiction, the gems from the dross. We’re taking a look at some of the misconceptions that have found their way into BMC history and tracking down where they may have taken root.

Common Misconceptions about Black Mountain College

Left image is of a young Dorothea Rockburne in a sundress, photographed in black and white from the 1950s. To the right is an image of her work Blue Brane which features an upright deep blue rectangle overlaid with a layer of interweaving orbital marks in red ink.

Left: Dorothea Rockburne, photographed at BMC by Marie Stillkind. Right: Dorothea Rockburne, Blue Brane, 2005, color etching and silkscreen. Courtesy of the artist. Rockburne’s studies with mathematician Max Dehn inform her explorations of geometry and astronomy in her art.

Black Mountain College was an art school.

Black Mountain College was a liberal arts college that placed the arts at the center of the curriculum. While students could study anything from Sociology to Mathematics, the school was established such that every student must first take John Andrew Rice’s course on Plato and Josef Albers’ Foundations of Art. The idea was that, for students across any discipline, the ability to see the world through clear eyes would open up new possibilities of learning and developing as an individual within the community. This emphasis on the arts was a draw for highly creative, free-thinking students and faculty who defined the college in many ways. In the same way, studies in mathematics with such professors as Max Dehn opened up the eyes of many artists to new understandings of geometry and the natural world.

 

The exterior of a stone building with the red doors ajar. To the left of the doors is a small photograph of the same building but from the 1940s, photographed with light shining through leaves onto the white doors that were one there. Inside the building, seen through the open door, is a replica of that photograph with white painted wooden doors and projected images of dappled light.

{Re}HAPPENING 9 – Adam Larsen’s installation “Quiet House Doors” recreated the iconic photograph by Hazel-Frieda Larsen Archer inside of the Quiet House itself (now deemed The Grove by Camp Rockmont). Photo by Ken Fitch.

The BMC campuses are long gone and there’s nothing left of BMC in Western North Carolina.

Both the Black Mountain campuses at the Blue Ridge Assembly and at Lake Eden are still standing, to some degree. The first campus at Blue Ridge is very much the same as it was in 1933 when the college was first established at Robert E. Lee Hall (now Eureka Hall). The Lake Eden campus has gone through a more dramatic transformation. In 1957, when the college closed, they sold the land to the Pickering family. The lower campus houses a boy’s summer camp, Camp Rockmont, and the upper campus is home to Lake Eden Events, who host events at the Barn and even rent out dwellings where BMC faculty once lived. Many of the original structures, including the iconic Studies Building, designed by Lawrence Kocher, are still standing and used by the camp.

So, can you go see the campus? The Lake Eden campus is private property, but there are a few opportunities a year to engage with BMC history there. Every spring, BMCM+AC hosts the {Re}HAPPENING at Lake Eden, where we take over the buildings and grounds with dozens of performances and installations by local and international artists. With installations inside of the lodges, dining hall, Quiet House and around the Studies Building, it is a great way to see the campus enlivened by the arts. Another great opportunity to see art and music at the site is to attend the LEAF Festival, held two times every year on the property. BMCM+AC also offers a walking tour of the campus every fall as part of our annual conference where we visit the upper and lower campus and learn more about life as a student, staff, or faculty member.

Our museum serves as the hub for Black Mountain College history and legacy. With our collection of over 3,000 objects and artworks from BMC artists, rotating exhibitions, new commissions, performances, and educational programming, we keep the spirit of BMC alive in the heart of Downtown Asheville.

 

[Image] Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg embrace one another, Ginsberg smokes a cigarette. The two are laughing and the photo is taken from beneath by a fellow party-goer.

Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg, ca 1965.

The Black Mountain Poets were all students and faculty at BMC.

Let’s start off by clearing the air: Allen Ginsberg (just like Jasper Johns) never stepped foot on the Black Mountain College campus. But that doesn’t mean that he, along with the group now referred to as Black Mountain Poets, didn’t play a role in the poetic legacy of the school. 

Ginsberg earned his place as a Black Mountain poet based on his association with the Black Mountain Review. The first several issues of The Black Mountain Review appeared in 1954 and were edited by Robert Creeley. That loosely associated group of poets known as the Black Mountain poets (Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Ginsberg, etc.) appear often in the Review.

The 7th and last issue (held in our permanent collection) is known as the “Beat” issue because of its concentration of artists and poets who were and would become influential within the Beat movement. It was actually published in the fall of 1957, after the College closed. Among the foundational works & writers featured in this unprepossessing little volume: America by Allen Ginsberg; an excerpt from Naked Lunch by William Burroughs; Bottom: On Shakespeare (Part II) by Louis Zukofsky; an excerpt from October in the Railroad Earth by Jack Kerouac and Changes: 3 by Gary Snyder.

 

In this black and white portrait, Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence stand by one another in profile, with the mountains behind them. Gwendolyn is leaning against a stone wall.

Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence, photographed by Nancy Newhall at BMC in 1946.

Josef Albers booked a private train car for Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence to travel from New York to the segregated South.

When Jacob Lawrence was invited by Josef Albers to teach painting at BMC in the summer of 1946, Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced in North Carolina. Though he had visited New Orleans, Florida, and Virginia in the early 1940s, Lawrence had lived in New York for most of his life. He was acutely aware of the risks involved for himself and his wife, fellow painter Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, in the Jim Crow South. The two never left campus once they arrived. A number of sources have stated that in order for Jacob and Gwendolyn to avoid the segregated train cars on their way to Black Mountain, Albers booked them a private car. In fact, there was a less costly, more practical solution. 

Julie Levin Caro, curator of Between Form and Content: Perspectives on Jacob Lawrence and Black Mountain College clarifies in the exhibition catalog, “A letter from Albers to Lawrence, dated May 21, 1946, advised him to purchase a Pullman car ticket, also known as a sleeper compartment or roomette […] According to Federal law the railroads were required to provide equal accommodations to both black and white passengers, including sleeping cars. The separate compartments on the Pullman cars were considered sufficient separation, at least to ticket agents in the North […] However, the return trip from the South to the North presented a different situation entirely. In an unpublished interview with Mary Emma Harris for the Black Mountain College Project, Lawrence described his trip home at the end of the summer as, ‘Something we’ll always remember. We were put into [the] Jim Crow section, the two of us. Well, after the train started up… many of the students from Black Mountain came back to join us, which was some gesture… What they were really saying of course was, We’re supporting you.’”2

 

In this black and white photograph, Joan Stack (wearing a long black coat as a cape and holding a glass in her hand) speaks to Ruth Asawa who is looking down towards the ground in great focus. They are standing in front of one of Asawa's hanging wire sculptures which are 3 to 4 feet long. The light behind them is harsh and creates a halo around them both, making the sculpture hard to distinguish. A group of men stand around them talking.

Ruth Asawa and fellow BMC alumnus Joan Stack at Asawa’s 1955 opening reception at the Peridot Gallery in New York. Stack worked in museums and galleries throughout her life. Asawa was a prolific artist whose work has reached mass acclaim in only the last few years. Image: Black Mountain College Project Papers, gift of Lorna Blaine, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

Everyone who attended Black Mountain College was famous, or interested in becoming famous.

Martha King characterizes the long-standing myth that, in its heyday, everyone who attended BMC was famous, or would go on to become famous. After all, those high profile artists, thinkers, and educators are the reason many people find their way to Black Mountain College and its history. However, many students came to Black Mountain with goals of self-fulfillment outside of the spotlight. There were students who felt out of place (can you imagine the Imposter Syndrome that came with studying at BMC?), students who achieved amazing things on the farm or in the work program but whose names we don’t know, artists who worked steadfastly for years without recognition, and those who left BMC and went on to work behind the scenes as gallerists or start families and live quiet lives. Some of our greatest joys are hearing from alumni family members, many of whom come to visit us at the museum. We’re proud to be able to show them their mother in a photograph from her time as a student, direct them to their father’s student file at the Western Regional Archives, or show them a work done by their grandparents when they were young artists the 1930s. “Famous” is a relative term, and we’ve learned that every contribution to the BMC community played a critical role in its success, from the first Happening to stoking the Studies Building’s furnace during the mountain winters.

 

What common misconceptions do you want to see us debunk in part two? Did we get something wrong? Keep the conversation going in the comments section!

 


  1.  Martha King, Three Months in 1955.
  2. Julie Levin Caro, Between Form and Content: Perspectives on Jacob Lawrence and Black Mountain College.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Keep Reading

Alma Stone Williams Collection

Alma Stone Williams Collection

Within the BMCM+AC Permanent Collection, we house a number of collections specific to alumni and faculty of the school, offering unique insight into what Black Mountain College was like from a wide range of perspectives. In this guest blog post from BMCM+AC Archival...

Elaine and Willem de Kooning + The Summer of 1948

Elaine and Willem de Kooning + The Summer of 1948

When the summer of 1948 rolled around, Elaine and Willem de Kooning were relieved to take a break from the New York art scene which seemed to be taking from them much more than it was giving. On an invitation from Josef Albers, Willem came to Black Mountain College to...

Unsung Women of the Bauhaus

Unsung Women of the Bauhaus

It's a story that is becoming more and more well known: female students, hoping to study art, design, and architecture, flocked to the Bauhaus when it opened its doors in 1933. Walter Gropius, when faced with this influx of female students, made the decision to limit...