On Black Mountain

From 1933-57, a little-known but enormously significant arts institution, which would come to greatly influence American art history, was positioned in the tiny town of Black Mountain, North Carolina. A confluence of cultural and political factors led to the founding of Black Mountain College, bringing together some of the world’s most innovative artistic thinkers of the time. Founder John A. Rice was dissatisfied with the prevailing approach to higher education, and set out to create a new manner of school for artists with expansive notions of creativity, education, and practice. This was just as the Nazis were shutting down the legendary Bauhaus school of craft and design, and fascist regimes more widely were driving artists out of Europe. While many Bauhaus artists and designers expatriated to New York, some, with the legacy of the Bauhaus ideology in mind, were drawn to Black Mountain College and the educational haven that Rice was establishing there.

In the arts-immersive model at Black Mountain College, subject matter divisions were seen as inhibiting a student’s natural inclination to personally integrate and assimilate what was being learned. Life and creativity were to be treated as symbiotic. A student of the college said, “We were not learning a style or technique or a [particular] way of doing art. We were learning how to develop what we had, as individuals.” Creative efforts at the college included exercises in making for process’s sake as much as for completion of finished works, and also expanded to the construction and customization of the building and the grounds themselves. In this era of modern art history, physical proximity of artists to each other was crucial to the advancement of their ideas and processes. Beyond proximity, a sense of community was furthered by common efforts, maintenance of the school, and the absence of competitive grading and ranking.

The founding faculty of Black Mountain College brought groundbreaking ideas about process, learning, practice, and collaboration to their influence on the next generation of forward-thinking artists, and those students went on to develop and spread new notions of the purpose and exercise of art. An all-encompassing, practice-centered educational program helped to legitimize a manner of creating that could be focused on process, and this turned out to be essential to the evolution of abstraction in the mid-twentieth-century. Despite its relatively short 24-year existence, the radical vision at Black Mountain College sent ripples throughout the art world for decades to follow. Former students would go on to treat traditionally craft- and design-oriented methods, found materials, even their surroundings, as artistic media to be manipulated for use in conceptual and expressive fine art. Its most notable faculty and alumni are also some of the major names in recent art history because of this innovative openness fostered at the pioneering institution. The inclusion in this exhibit of artwork spanning the long careers of these artists is meant to give a sense of the expansive influence of Black Mountain College on artists, during and following their time at the school.