Paul Betts, University of Sussex

Daniel Kane, University of Sussex

“To Open Eyes”: Black Mountain College into the 21st Century


Some eight decades after its founding in 1933, Black Mountain College continues to exert influence across a range of disciplines. For many, the college represents a transatlantic polestar of midcentury avant-garde culture, uniting high-brow European modernism and American experimentalism at a specified locus: the Appalachians. Its star-studded array of teachers and visitors (including Josef and Anni Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley) combined international late modernism and nascent postmodernism, forever enshrining Black Mountain as one of the century’s most radiant sites of artistic energy.


At first glance the rolling foothills of Western North Carolina may seem like an unlikely setting for such a cosmopolitan college of the arts, yet many of the great twentieth century art and design schools, such as Cranbrook, the Weimar Bauhaus, and West Germany’s Ulm Institute of Design, were all situated in small towns as well. Indeed, this geographic remove granted these institutions enduring power as “an exploration in community,” where the conventional distinctions between art and life, teaching and social practice were blurred in numerous ways.[i] Thus, Josef Albers proclaimed Black Mountain College a place “to open eyes.”


Growing out of an interdisciplinary Centre for Modernist Studies symposium at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England on June 3 and 4, 2011, this issue of The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies revisits the College from a variety of perspectives. Featuring younger scholars, the symposium demonstrated Black Mountain College’s continued legacy.[ii] Claire Elisabeth Barratt (Asheville, NC) opened the conference with an improvised multimedia dance performance, Dome Poem, inspired by Black Mountain College instructor and designer Buckminster Fuller. She was accompanied by Brighton-based sound-artist Paul Khimasia Morgan, who collaborated with Barratt, Morgan improvising ethereal soundscapes with the aid of Macintosh computers, copper bells attached to microphones, and other surprising objects and instruments. The performance had a visual and verbal analogue: a poem by New York-based poet Lee Ann Brown and video artist Tony Torn projected onto the walls of the performance space. The next day featured eight academic papers on lesser-known aspects of the Black Mountain College heritage, and this issue contains a representative selection.


Opening the issue, Arabella Stanger addresses how dance reflected many of the tensions behind the school’s democratic principles. Stanger focuses on Black Mountain communitarian ideals and the use of space in Merce Cunningham’s dance ensembles. She explores the relationship between Cunningham’s dance choreography and the John Dewey educational venture that inspired BMC. Dewey visited the school on a number of occasions. Stanger takes the college’s interest in Dewey-esque democracy beyond the world of pedagogy, concentrating on the ideas that found their way into Cunningham’s own dance ideas, specifically Suite by Chance (1952). Here she draws attention to the dance pieces’ ambivalent attitude toward democracy. The struggle to reconcile individuality and community was a constant issue at the college, and Stanger shows that this tension found its way into Cunningham’s dance ensembles.


Emile Bojesen takes up a similar theme, focusing on the innovative pedagogical theories and techniques (‘aesthethics’) championed at the school. His departure point is the school’s founding classicist, John Andrew Rice, whose admiration for Dewey was quite well-known. Yet during his directorship and in his autobiographical reflections, Rice articulated his desire for the school to combine ethics, aesthetics, and democracy. Josef Albers had his own ideas on this subject, attempting to reconcile art and democracy in his teaching philosophy, as did Olson a few years later. Despite their differences in tone and outlook, these three principal figures all grappled with the same problem, what Bojesen calls the “paradox of democratic communitas.”


Juha Virtanenthen focuses onJohn Cage’s legendary 1952 Theater Piece # 1 as a key Black Mountain happening. The College’s first “total theater” event is usually traced to Xanti Schawinsky’s Danse Macabre in 1938. Scholars have written about Cage’s 1952 event; however, Virtanen analyzes the piece from Olson’s perspective as participant and critic. Virtanen argues that while Olson had deep reservations about Cage’s work, Olson was ambivalent about this particular piece. But, as Virtanen shows, numerous parallels exist between Olson’s poetics and Cage’s musical interventions, notably kinetics, montage, and the performative field. As such, Virtanen demonstrates a creative tension between Cage and Olson, one that intersects with Stanger’s and Bojesen’s discussions of the college’s common search for a democratic artistic idiom.


Ross Hair concludes with a piece on the Black Mountain poet and editor, Jonathan Williams, one of the few students who actually came from the area and grew up in Asheville. Hair reveals how Williams’ Southern background imbues his work with local color; others tagged Williams the school’s “Johnny Appleseed.” One of the long-forgotten Black Mountain College figures, Williams is known for his editorial work with the San Francisco poets. Hair places Williams at the center of the College’s intellectual life and shows how Williams’ view of the school puts many of these figures (especially Olson) in a different light. Hair also focuses upon Williams as a witness to the sexual politics of the college (motorcycles and mock machismo).


Today Black Mountain College reminds us of the utopian desire to redraw the map of learning. For this reason it became a refuge for those escaping authoritarianism in Europe in the 1930s. Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus founder and American émigré, in an August 1944 talk at the college, remarked that “this college” has “been able to build up a spiritual atmosphere which is so strong that everybody coming near it is magically drawn into the very substance of its new refreshing life.”[iii] Many of the American teachers and students associated with the college have conveyed similar sentiments. Perhaps the college’s greatest legacy is its ability to enchant newcomers long after it shut its doors for good in 1957. In that spirit, we offer eclectic essays by four young scholars committed to exploring Black Mountain College’s creativity.



[i] Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (New York, 1972).

[ii] See the recent Bristol/Cambridge exhibition catalogue, Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957 (London, 2007).

[iii] Quoted In Duberman, 513, footnote 28.