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Wild Intellectuals and Exotic Folks

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, July/August 2001 | Volume 22, Number 4

A small college in the mountains of North Carolina brought together some of the most innovative artists and thinkers of its time—Robert Motherwell and Buckminster Fuller and John Cage. Plagued by debts, the school sold off its land, cattle, and pianos until it eventually closed its doors in 1957.

The poet Charles Olson called Black Mountain a “little hotbox of education,” saying, “The place is overrun with talent for me to use, and learn by.” A crucible for artistic talent, Black Mountain College was founded in 1933 and for twenty-four years was a magnet for artists in a variety of media: John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Charles Olson, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ben Shahn, among others.

Black Mountain was a progressive liberal arts college founded on the idea of complete academic freedom. But with the traditional parameters of the classroom nearly eradicated, was Black Mountain still an institution of higher learning?

“Most work in 1955-1956 was done in tutorial fashion, one member of the community asking another’s opinion on a painting, a piece of writing, a text, an idea,” Martin Duberman writes in his book, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. “And that might be exactly why so many who were in the community during 1955-1956 insist today that it was a learning environment—an occasional loony bin, a rest camp, a pressure cooker, a refuge, and a welfare agency—but nonetheless a learning environment.”

“Black Mountain is a legendary school in terms of art circles and in North Carolina,” says Dick Lankford, archivist at the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Lankford is directing the department’s effort to preserve Black Mountain College materials. With an NEH grant, sixteen collections of audiotaped interviews, brittle records, and deteriorating photographs are being conserved, archived, and cata-loged in a searchable reference system that will be accessible on the Web. The Department hopes to digitize the materi-als and eventually make them available on the Internet.

Project archivist Barbara Cain says scholars and students are coming from all over the world to consult the collections. “We have a scholar working on neo-Dadaism coming from France, and a German scholar interested in the carry-over from Germany to the United States, particularly in the teaching of art.” Other projects include a book on the teaching methods of Josef Albers, who taught color and design at Black Mountain; a study of the Bauhaus movement in America; and a college course on poet Robert Creeley and other Black Mountain writers.

“There was a period of time when people looked down at Black Mountain as a failure because it closed its doors, but history provides a certain perspective,” Lankford says. “Black Mountain has been a pivotal institution since its founding in 1933 right up until its demise in 1957. Its educational philosophy was way ahead of its time.”

The college was founded by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, and other former faculty members from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. The group envisioned a college that would be run democratically, owned and administered by the faculty and students themselves. No courses would be required, no grades given, and students would be free to direct their course of studies as they pleased. Everyone—students and faculty—would participate in the work program, preparing meals, maintaining the campus, and working on the school farm. And in contrast to the majority of colleges and universities of the time, Black Mountain would be a place where knowledge was put into action and the arts given equal importance with the rest of the curriculum.

“Now we take for granted that every college has an art department,” says Mary Emma Harris, art historian and project consultant. “Then, you could study art history, but not really get a degree in art—and when a degree did exist, it was given through the home economics department.”

Black Mountain’s founders looked to John Dewey, author of Democracy and Education, who wrote that to develop one’s creative abilities was “an inalienable right.” In Harper’s Magazine in May, 1937, Rice explained his theory that the arts ought to be an educational activity rather than simply a subject of study: “What you do with what you know is the important thing. To know is not enough.”

In its first year, the college offered courses in physics, mathematics, chemistry, music, English, psychology, economics, and Romance languages, as well as art classes. To lend credibility to the institution, the founders assembled a distinguished roster of advisers that included John Dewey, Walter Gropius, Carl Jung, Max Lerner, Franz Kline, and Albert Einstein. Despite the hesitation of many parents to send their children to an unaccredited college that would not offer a degree, the college managed to attract a sufficient number of students dissatisfied with traditional education, and in 1933 its doors opened.

“Black Mountain was a community, first and last—a company of people,” says Robert Creeley, poet and former faculty member. Creeley believes artist John Chamberlain put it most aptly: “At Black Mountain one found, as he said, people who were more interested in what they didn’t know than in what they did. It was an extraordinary sense of conduct and thinking, despite its small numbers. It had only faculty and students as its determinants—no overseers, no administration other than those so participating. That was its absolute virtue—the interactive condition of its faculty and students. No one was or could get ‘outside.’”

Students came from all over the U.S. to attend Black Mountain, but the majority con-sisted of northeasterners—many from New York City, according to Jonathan Williams, former Black Mountain student and publisher of Jargon Books. Potential students were most often reached by word of mouth. “M. C. Richards, who was there in the forties mostly as a writer—she became a potter as well—would go out in the spring and try to recruit people,” says Williams. “There wasn’t any money to do much of anything. They would put out the occasional bulletin or advertising brochure once a year, some very attractively designed by the graphic arts people there.”

At its inception, the college had only three rules. The first was formulated by Rice: “The constant admonition of a college should not be ‘Be intellectual’ or ‘Be muscular!’ (in both cases the dividing line is the neck) but ‘Be intelligent!’” The second was that firearms must be deposited with the administration; and the third rule was that women students must not hitchhike in the South. There was also a tacit agreement that a “Do Not Disturb” sign ought to be respected.

“The fact that there were no academic departments—there weren’t enough people for that—meant that the learning was interdisciplinary,” says Harris.

“Everybody was sharing ideas from their field. It wasn’t compartmentalized or departmentalized.” Composer John Cage believed the most important learning at Black Mountain took place at mealtime, because faculty and students sat together in the dining hall.

“The relationships between faculty and students were much less formal,” says Harris. “In the end it was a communal learning situation.”

The founders of the college had no illusions about creating a utopia, however, and focused on building an educational community with an emphasis on the arts. “Black Mountain College combined elements of the progressive schools, farm schools, religious sects, and summer camps,” Harris writes in her book, The Arts at Black Mountain College. “There was a strong sense of pioneering in the American tradition of building a ‘log cabin college’ out of nothing and of providing a good education without tremendous laboratories, expensive buildings, and stadiums.”

The college reaffirmed democratic government, individual freedom, and responsibility in a period of economic instability and rising totalitarianism, says Harris. In the same year the college was founded, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, the Bauhaus movement was closed down by the Nazis, and the persecution of Jews, artists, and intellectuals was beginning in Europe. The Depression held the United States in its grip, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just been elected president.

The addition of European artists to the Black Mountain faculty had a tremendous impact on the atmosphere of the college and the aesthetic taught there. Only a few months after the college opened, Josef and Anni Albers arrived from Germany, fleeing the rise of Nazism. Josef Albers, the first of the Bauhaus teachers to come to the United States, was an advocate of abstract art. “Abstracting is the essential function of the Human Spirit,” he wrote in 1936. He later said he wanted the same right as the composer to create abstract forms that “have life within themselves as music has.” Albers’s philosophy had a palpable impact on artists of all disciplines who studied with him at Black Mountain.

When the United States entered World War II, most young men were drafted or left to join the war effort. The student body remaining at Black Mountain consisted of women, men past the draft age, and European refugees. In 1941 Black Mountain College moved onto its own property at Lake Eden, where students and faculty constructed a number of buildings, expanded their farming activities, and set up a mica mine to prepare the mineral for sale as war material.

After the war, Black Mountain managed to get approved for GI bill benefits even though it was not an accredited college. “If that had not happened, the college would have closed after the war,” says Harris. “Instead, enrollment skyrocketed to more than ninety students.”

A number of as yet unrecognized artists came to Black Mountain in the late 1940s, either as visiting summer faculty or as students, furthering the college’s reigning spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration. Jacob Lawrence taught a course on “creative painting” in 1946, giving him the occasion to meet Josef Albers, who encouraged his newfound interest in abstraction. In the summer of 1948, John Cage gave the first performance of Sonatas and Interludes while Merce Cunningham danced. Both had received some atten-tion, though Cunningham had not yet left the Martha Graham Company to begin his own dance company. Willem de Kooning—who could not manage to sell any work from his first one-person exhibition in New York—came to teach art. Buckminster Fuller, an engineer and architect considered a “delightful nut,” had not yet developed his geo-desic dome, which he would do while at Black Mountain.

By the 1950s, Rice and the Albers had left Black Mountain, and in contrast to the period in which the college had been founded, America was experiencing an era of prosperity and conservatism. The college’s association with liberal causes brought it under suspicion of harboring communist sympathies. “The times then were quite hostile,” says Robert Creeley.

“The FBI had a person come check out Black Mountain College on a regular basis, ‘Frank,’ who was amiable enough, as it happens, and even gave us advice as to how we might have secured government grants.”

In 1951, poet and unorthodox scholar Charles Olson became rector of the college. Under Olson’s guidance, the college metamorphosed into a primarily arts-driven institution and the farmwork aspect of the program was all but terminated. In a letter to Creeley, Olson wrote that the college would focus on “painting, music, dance, writing, architecture, pots, cloth, wood, theatre, printing, sculpture & photography. . . . No academics.”

Olson’s personality and views on writing and art dominated the college during its remaining years. In his 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” published in Poetry New York, Olson had advocated open forms, describing the poem as a “field” and stressing that a line ought to be measured in terms of a person’s breath. These ideas distinguished him from the predominant movement in literature, New Criticism, and its proponents such as Allan Tate, Lionel Trilling, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop.

“Meeting Charles Olson was rather like meeting Ralph Waldo Emerson, I suspect. He was very much in that tradition of New England sages,” says Jonathan Williams. “He was enormous —about 6’9” and 275 pounds—he was a towering sort of person and also as a personality. Like Emerson, he was almost oracular in his writing and would just come bursting out with extraordinary remarks—practically three a minute.”

“My relation to Black Mountain had far more to do with Olson than with any fact of the institution,” says Creeley. “It was he who arranged, in effect, for the publication of the journal, Black Mountain Review, and also set up my being invited there to teach in the spring of 1954.”

Black Mountain floundered financially during Olson’s tenure. The faculty often went without pay, and the college periodically sold off its land, cattle, and pianos to raise funds.

“By the time I got to Black Mountain, its faculty and student body were very small indeed,” says Creeley. “The classes I taught were about six to eight people, period—the entire student body ranged from thirty to twenty as I recall. At that point the structure and operation of the college was all but derelict.”

While its administration was disintegrating, Black Mountain entered a period of flourishing productivity and artistic collaboration that continued to attract talented artists. Ben Shahn, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Fielding Dawson, Joel Oppenheimer, and John Chamberlain taught at the college. In the summer of 1951, students witnessed Shahn debating the relative merits of figurative and abstract art with Motherwell; Shahn painted designs for Nick Cernovich’s dance; and writers who would become known as the “Black Mountain poets” collaborated with artists in magazines such as Black Mountain Review, Cid Corman’s Origin, and Jonathan Williams’s Jargon.

“I began Jargon only a few weeks before going to Black Mountain,” says Williams. “The first thing I did there was Jargon number two, which was a poem by Joel Oppenheimer dedicated to Kathryn Litz—a dancer who was at Black Mountain that summer—and I asked Bob Rauschenberg for a work to put in with the poem.” That summer, Litz had danced in a stage production called The Glyph, with a set designed by Ben Shahn and text by Olson.

Williams went on to publish Olson’s Maximus poems, as well as collections by Creeley, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Duncan, Louis Zukofsky, Michael McClure, Paul Metcalf, Mina Loy, and Lorine Niedecker. Jargon continues to publish new and innovative work and to encourage collaboration between writers and visual artists. “Jargon is very much as it was. I use a lot of photography in the design of the books,” says Williams. “I like the idea of two people working together in a book.”

“The support Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Press gave me was very, very helpful,” says Creeley. “Cid Corman is also an old friend indeed and Origin’s publication of my work as a feature in its second issue again let me take my writing seriously and found me a company I have never lost and forever value. That’s what magazines really are for, as Olson writes, ‘we who live our lives quite properly in print’—or words to that effect.”

Creeley’s endeavor to combine words and imagery, which preceded his association with Black Mountain, continues today. A current traveling exhibition entitled “In Company” showcases Creeley’s affiliation with visual artists, several of whom he worked with while at Black Mountain.

Black Mountain in the mid-fifties was a locus of artistic vitality. Robert Duncan wrote in the 1956 Black Mountain Review that “in American poetry the striding syllables show an aesthetic based on energies.” He also recognized the “bravura brushstroke” in abstract expressionist painting: “the power and movement of the arm itself . . . the involvement of the painter in the act.”

Donald Allen calls Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Williams, and their peers “our avant-garde, the true continuers of the modern movement in American poetry,” in his preface to the 1960 New American Poetry. “These poets have already created their own tradi-tion, their own press, and their public.”

The vision of experimental education delineated by Black Mountain’s founders in the early 1930s was dramatically revised by the time lack of funds caused the school to close its doors in 1957, yet the college continued to draw individuals interested in intellectual and artistic freedom and to nurture ground-breaking artists. One former student said that at any place on the campus, day or night, “there were always people arguing and talking. . . .  All kinds of people with completely different, associated interests and fields.”

“Black Mountain being so small and freewheeling, Olson’s class began after supper,” Jonathan Williams recalls. “It would go on until about 10:30 and then everybody would get in cars and race down to the local beer joint, Ma Peak’s Tavern, until that closed around twelve, and then people would bring cases of beer back to the college. I don’t know what those poor mountain folks thought of all those wild intellectuals and exotic folks from New York. A lot of interesting talk got talked down there— there were big booths, so you could get seven or eight people in one of those booths and jabber away. That’s what Dahlberg said, ‘Literature is the way we ripen ourselves by conversation.’”

“There was one occasion when Olson’s class ran for two days—it got so interesting at dawn of the first day that people said listen, we’re really getting somewhere, let’s just keep going. It went on all that day and all the next night.”