BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE was the brainchild of John Andrew Rice, who, in early 1933, was dismissed from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., in large part for having unorthodox ideas about education, among them a belief in “the freedom to learn in one’s own way and according to one’s own timetable,” as Martin Duberman writes in “Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community” (1972), his sweeping and dishy book about the place. Eight faculty members who were also dismissed or who resigned in solidarity with Rice, along with a handful of free-spirited students, urged him to start a college of his own, one that would be a laboratory for the progressive model of education espoused by John Dewey, which was grounded in the principle of “learning by doing.” Furnished buildings were rented from a Protestant summer camp that left them unoccupied in the off-season (in 1941, the campus was moved to nearby Lake Eden), and a $10,000 donation was obtained from the Forbes family. That first fall, there may have been roughly two dozen students and half as many teachers who, as a 1936 Harper’s article noted, “pooled their personal book collections and called the result a college library,” but Black Mountain College had been formed.
It was an unconventional institution from the start. Rice and his fellow dissidents believed that a college should be owned and run by its faculty and students. There would be no board of trustees, no dean, no president and limited administration beyond a secretary, treasurer and the lead role of “rector,” all of whom taught classes, as well. There was also a Board of Fellows, which was composed of several professors and a student representative — this group would primarily make business decisions on the college’s behalf — as well as a “disemboweled” advisory council, to borrow Duberman’s colorful word, that had no real power. As for the curriculum, there wasn’t one, really: neither required courses nor formal grades. Professors taught what they wished, and students graduated when (or if) they wanted — only about 55 of the 1,200 or so students who attended Black Mountain in its 24-year existence attained a formal degree — as long as they passed two sets of exams, one roughly at the halfway point and the other before the end of their tenure, whenever they decided that was. The hierarchy, too, was minimal, with students and most faculty living in the same building and taking their meals together.
Yet, for his idea to succeed, Rice needed a visionary to head the art program. The problem was, he didn’t know many artists himself. He went to meet with a young Philip Johnson, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who suggested Josef Albers, an abstract artist, theorist and popular professor at the celebrated Bauhaus in Germany, arguably the most famous art school of the time. In July 1933, in the face of Nazi harassment, the Bauhaus faculty elected to shut down and refused to comply with requirements for reopening, like hiring Party members to teach. Albers was out of a job, but the more salient issue was that his wife, Anni, a master weaver and former Bauhaus instructor, was Jewish in an increasingly menacing atmosphere. It was at this time that a telegram from Black Mountain College arrived. “I don’t speak English,” Albers replied. Rice, ever the maverick, wrote back: “Come anyway.”
It’s widely agreed that the hiring of Albers, now regarded as one of the most influential visual arts professors of the 20th century, was Rice’s savviest move. A gifted, passionate teacher with a reputation for being somewhat intense, Albers had been an instructor at the Bauhaus for a decade; he took the school’s preliminary design course (the Vorkurs), on which he’d put his own spin, and brought it to Black Mountain, where he taught drawing, basic design and color theory. Albers gave his students uniform assignments, and then critiqued their work in class. His aim was to teach people “to see” without preconceptions or ego: “I want to open eyes,” he said. So many artists took his class over the years — Rauschenberg, Twombly, Johnson and Asawa, to name a few — that it has become an iconic detail in the history of American art: the Museum of Modern Art owns two notebooks (their covers labeled “Colour” and “Design”) belonging to Austrian Australian architect Harry Seidler, who studied under Albers in 1946. Molesworth affirms that Albers’s pedagogical legacy is considerable: “The template of American art school is still the Black Mountain template,” she says, “between the crit, a rotating roster of guest speakers and the interdisciplinarity — that’s literally art school.”
The plight of women at Black Mountain was likewise complicated and less than utopian. On the one hand, it was a realm where women were essentially free: to make art, to perform in the art of others, to dig ditches, to farm — “this was not a finishing school,” Molesworth says. On the other, women still had to deal with the nagging, pervasive sexism of the time: Olson, who walked around campus shirtless in a serape, was known to make inappropriate remarks to — and sometimes even to exclude — his female students; Albers, despite his austere demeanor, had, according to the biographer Charles Darwent, a reputation for not keeping his hands to himself. Black Mountain, for all its progressive ideals, was still trapped in its historical moment.
In the end, the college found itself, like so many institutions, mired in internal disputes and administrative conflicts, and it closed, in 1957, for the reason many do: lack of money. Its influence, though, would long be felt on the arts in this country. Albers, who left the college in 1949, went on to run the Department of Design at Yale, and train many more young artists. Asawa, who is known to most as the creator of striking biomorphic wire sculptures, co-founded the Alvarado Arts workshop in 1968 — an arts education program that at its peak was in more than 50 San Francisco public schools — and helped start the city’s first public arts high school, which now bears her name, in 1982. Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline advanced the spirit of collegiality and collaboration espoused at Black Mountain as founding members of the Club in New York City — a haunt frequented by pretty much the entire pantheon of important midcentury artists and thinkers, everyone from Isamu Noguchi to Hannah Arendt. And on and on. Yet, arguably, even more significant than the individual artists the school dispersed was its overall ethos. It offered a model of experimentation, optimism and freedom, set alongside social responsibility, and it taught a generation of artists to perceive the world with an ethical clarity that’s all too rare now. “In short, our art instruction attempts first to teach the student to see in the widest sense,” Albers wrote in June 1934, “to open his eyes to the phenomena about him and, most important of all, to open to his own living, being and doing.”