Black Mountain College and its Artistic Exploration

Located in the bucolic setting of the countryside of North Carolina, Black Mountain College was an institution like no other. Fostering connections, artistic exploration, and expressive freedom; the college is the site of many great moments in modern art’s history. Black Mountain was home to a long list of now renown artists such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Ruth Asawa, Robert Rauschenberg, and so many more. From 1933 to 1957, the experimental institution was an eclectic playground for groundbreaking ideas, philosophies, and techniques - particularly in the arts.

Those who were eager to experiment and push the boundaries of what modern art was came and went assuming titles as student or faculty, and at times both. The boundaries between student and teacher were blurred along with their disciplines; whether art, music, literature, theater, mathematics, and science, the institution had no dividing line. This oscillation of ideas in an open and receptive environment gave way to the synthesis of collaboration and community, allowing multidisciplinary thinking to flourish.

As much as the works from Black Mountain College have an everlasting legacy today, it is no hyperbole to say the Black Mountain heritage lies in the bonds between the artists, thinkers, and makers. The history of Black Mountain College is the history of a community; a community where life and education were intertwined, thus creating a web of connections over the span of its 24 years, stringing together the most innovative minds of the 20th century. The institution was a melting pot where ideas roamed freely beyond classroom walls and into aspects of daily life over a meal at breakfast, a walk on campus, a movie screening, or a dance on the weekends. This continual dialogue allowed paths to cross that may not have otherwise. Having a shared interest in chance events, the intellectual friendship between Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Willem de Kooning is one of many examples. Forming a lifelong bond of artistic collaboration, the trio made great strides in redefining interdisciplinary arts. Cage’s first works experimenting with chance events, multidisciplinary procedures, and audience interaction were conceived in this North Carolina countryside, namely Theater Piece #1. During the summers of 1948 and 1949 when Buckminster Fuller taught at the school, he and Cage sat under the campus trees every morning sharing Bucky’s ideas of a structured universe and Cage’s concepts of indeterminacy over breakfast.

Bucky’s famous “Geodesic Dome” was first attempted in the summer of 1948 with the entire community including Josef Albers, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Richard Lippold, and Kenneth Snelson, participating. Fuller’s visionary approach to form, structure, integrity, and tension captivated fellow artist and student Kenneth Snelson. The synthesis of their relationship gave birth to the term “tensegrity,” a cornerstone in both artists’ works. Known for her suspended knitted wire sculptures, Ruth Asawa also found community and formed friendships among her peers who shared a similar interest like Fuller and Lippold. Fuller, Snelson, Asawa, and Lippold, all shared an affinity to the spatial, sculptural, and structural, furthering their enquiries with BMC as their common ground.

The institution is evidence that the creation of art is not a journey taken on one’s own. In today’s society where communication and information connect our species at an unprecedented scale, the world feels more divided than ever. Stuck in self constructed bubbles perpetuated by algorithms and social media, the opinions of our neighbors seem so distant from our own. Perhaps the role of art and artists have assumed new responsibilities in this novel chapter of human history. As it once did at Black Mountain College, it is the arts we turn to again to seek the power of collaboration and realize the opportunities from sharing ideas and crossing arbitrarily created disciplines lines.

The tiny college tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains was undoubtedly a monumental force catapulting the advanced arts forward. It was an experimental college of artistic expression, human thought, and creation; it was the vanguard of the avant-garde. Black Mountain College teaches us what feats are possible when art becomes a social practice woven into the everyday inspiring artists to search beyond their own ideations, to be challenged and nudged in new directions. Black Mountain College is more about the people in the institution than the institution itself. So, to discuss Black Mountain College is to discuss the relationships between those who stayed, the conversations that sparked creation, and the creations that inspired more conversations; conversations still reverberating to this day.