Vincent Katz with Phong Bui
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of the Brooklyn Rail
It would be difficult to imagine interdisciplinary studies in graduate programs in the last two decades without acknowledging the inventive pedagogy of Black Mountain College. Even though it lasted only 23 years (1933 – 1956) and enrolled fewer than 1,200 students, Black Mountain College is still considered one of the most progressive and experimental institutions in art education. Shortly after the long-awaited second printing of Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art (MIT Press, edited by Vincent Katz with essays by Martin Brody, Robert Creeley, Vincent Katz, and Kevin Power), poet, translator, art critic, editor, and curator Vincent Katz welcomed publisher Phong Bui to his Chelsea loft to talk about the history of the legendary college.
Portrait of Vincent Katz. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Phong Bui As I was reading Chapter III (Biomorphs: Humanism/Surrealism) of Black Mountain College: Experiment In Art, I came across a statement by Jacob Lawrence from a letter he sent to Josef Albers before his arrival at Black Mountain as a teacher for the 1946 summer session, “My belief is that it is most important for an artist to develop an approach and philosophy about life. If he has developed this philosophy he does not put paint on canvas, he puts himself on canvas.” This reminded me of Charlie Parker’s famous remark, “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.” You’ve pointed out this couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Albers’s teaching philosophy. How can you otherwise describe Albers’s inclusive spirit and broad mindedness, yet very concrete teaching method?
Vincent Katz There was a contrast. Albers had his method of teaching, which was very strict and sequential, that the students had to adhere to. But as a pedagogue in a larger sense, he took a much wider approach. He was hired to guide the art program, which was to be central to the whole vision of the school that would stress experimentation and diversity. Students would be able to devise their own curricula and there was no governing board. Working on the farm and physical facilities was required. John Andrew Rice (the first rector) and Ted Dreier reached out and were put in touch with Philip Johnson, then the director of the department of architecture at MoMA, just at the moment when the Bauhaus had been closed down, in July of 1933, so it was perfect timing. The college opened in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Asheville, North Carolina, in September of 1933.
PB Albers and his wife Anni came to the U.S. shortly thereafter.
VK Johnson wrote to Albers informing him that the college wanted to invite him to be the head of the art department. Albers replied that he spoke very little English. Dreier wrote back and convinced him to come. Actually, Anni spoke very good English, so she was able to help him in the beginning. Josef would develop close connections with MoMA and various artists and collectors in NYC, not to mention his Bauhaus colleagues, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who would end up teaching at Harvard. They invited him to join them there, but Albers, once he arrived at Black Mountain and felt the nourishing situation there, became very enamored of it, partly because he knew that, in addition to offering things that were taught at the Bauhaus, he also had the opportunity to open up new experiences for his students and himself.
PB We tend to forget that in 1919 it was the tail end of Expressionism, which the Bauhaus embraced at first as part of its project to create a unity of styles for the new age. People were frustrated after four years of World War One; they wanted a new start, what Max Weber referred to as a “new objectivity.” But as soon as the economy was stabilized by 1921–22, there arose a desire for new technology, trained specialists with cool and rational minds to carry out new tasks. This inspired at the Bauhaus the moral and philosophical conviction that by learning a few basic elements through a systematic method, students would be able to create new order and unity with the use of new technology and usher in a new standard of living. In fact, it was a school for architecture, industrial design, and graphic arts, not for painting and sculpture.
VK Right. Architecture was considered by Gropius to be the crown of the arts, and it was the discipline that everything led up to. It took everything below it into account, because drawing, painting, sculpture, and building with various materials could all be considered elements in a larger architectural picture. The Bauhaus curriculum mixed courses in applied and fine arts, which was radical, but it had a traditional view of the student passing from novice to apprentice to master. In addition, the Bauhaus incorporated the sexist limitation that women were not allowed to study architecture but were instead encouraged to study weaving. Anni Albers was so talented that, in addition to her art works, she was making commercially viable fabrics, which were able at certain points to help support the school.
PB She was ahead of her time. I remember her saying, “If there was a need to connect to the art of the past it would be in the art of other cultures, instead of the old, overly exhausted, and standardized aesthetic of European establishment.”
VK She was very progressive. Other artists, including Picasso and Matisse, had looked towards non-Western cultures, but they were importing the look on the surface in simplicity of forms or certain distortions of images. Whereas Anni was interested in something deeper, and that’s part of the reason the Alberses started to make many trips to Mexico to study Mayan art, which had a big influence on both of their own work. Both Alberses were deeply affected by world events and wrote eloquently about the role of making art in creating moral confidence. “Our world goes to pieces; we have to rebuild our world,” Anni wrote. And, “We learn courage from art work.” While researching Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, I studied the writings and notes of both Alberses in the North Carolina State Archives. Many documents were published for the first time in this book. During my reading, I came across an article Josef had published in a Bauhaus magazine on design in 1928, in which he wrote about exercises devised to make students see materials in new ways. He reintroduced students to the sheet of paper, implying that our minds are used to seeing a piece of paper only as a flat object to be drawn on. Instead, he would emphasize the edge of the paper, instructing students to fold, staple, tie, sew, the paper, changing its entire sense of form. “Our aim is not so much to work differently as to work without copying or repeating others,” he wrote.
PB Similar to how Kandinsky talks about different ways a line can appear in his book Point and Line to Plane: It can float or sit on the paper, and a drawn line is different from an etched line, and so on.
VK Exactly. But at the same time Albers would invite artists like de Kooning, Kline, and Tworkov to teach in the Summer Art Institutes, and their teaching method was essentially to let the students paint and then comment on situations the students themselves developed in their work, which became a standard way to teach but was radical then. There were occasional conflicts. For example, at the end of de Kooning’s stay at Black Mountain in the summer of 1948, Albers came to see de Kooning and he said, “I heard something about a bunch of students quitting the program. You know anything about that?” And de Kooning said, “I know all about it. I told them that if they want to be serious artists they should quit and move to New York.” [Laughs.] It’s a philosophical belief, in a way, that if you want to be a painter, you go to the place where the painters are, and you have that life: you drink with them every night, you paint with them every day, and that’s your community, your whole life.
PB Just like Lawrence’s “[you do not] put paint on canvas, [you put yourself] on canvas.”
VK Yeah, he of course had a very different experience as an African American, which was central to his art and which he wanted to make apparent. That is why he underlined the phrase, “he puts himself on canvas” in the letter. But what interests me is this mutual respect where Lawrence could think, “I know you don’t agree with this, but I’m going to underline it.” And Albers would respond, “Okay, I’m not going to go there.” In addition to allowing differences to coexist, there was a lot of support activity at Black Mountain. There was very little access to images of art in those days, so Albers would borrow glass slides from MoMA and other institutions. They would ship glass slides from New York and other places to North Carolina, and he would project them in his class. He was tireless in his desire and ability to give his students a wide exposure to the arts from ancient to modern and contemporary. He also organized exhibitions of varied artists including works by faculty members at Black Mountain.
PB Anni Albers organized a few exhibitions of pre-Colombian and Mayan art as well.
VK And they amassed a library of significant books and catalogues. Albers wrote a circular in 1943 and mailed it out, asking for donations of books and slides for his popular course “Seeing Art.” The college had no color reproductions and no slides. He went on to explain that, at that time, most faculty members received no salary; they worked for room and board. And he asked for contributions of books. MoMA’s Director, Alfred Barr, responded, sending books on Miró, Klee, and Walker Evans.
PB We forget that Albert Skira didn’t publish beautiful color illustrated art books until the 1950s. But, in particular, what initially compelled you to undertake such an ambitious project? You’ve written a volume that is more comprehensive than any of the previous publications on the same subject, from the early volumes of Fielding Dawson (The Black Mountain Book. E.P. Dutton, 1970; expanded edition North Carolina Wesleyan, 1991) and Martin Duberman (Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community, E.P. Dutton, 1972) to Mary Emma Harris (The Arts at Black Mountain College, MIT Press, 1987; reprinted 2002); Mervin Lane (Black Mountain College: Spouted Seeds, An Anthology of Personal Accounts, University of Tennessee, 1990); and Caroline Collier, Michael Harrison (Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933–57, Arnolfini and Kettles’ Yard, 2005).
VK It began with Juan Manuel Bonet, who was then the Director of the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. He asked me if I would like to curate an exhibition on Black Mountain. I had curated a Rudy Burckhardt retrospective for IVAM (Valencia Institute of Modern Art) where he had previously been the director. Then when he became the director at the Reina Sofía he did an amazing series of exhibitions, which were of multiple sensibilities, partly because he is a poet. He believes in combining literature, music, visual art, and dance in the same exhibition. The first one I saw in Valencia was based on the Spanish critic and poet Cirlot, who championed artists like Miró from the very early days, then continued to write about works by American Abstract Expressionists. When Bonet asked me to do this exhibition he put all his resources behind it.
Charles Olson, Black Mountain College, 1951, Writing The Maximus Poems. Photograph by Jonathan Williams. Collection of Jonathan Williams.
PB How long did it take you to curate?
VK About two years, which was a short time frame, considering that I was in Rome on the Rome Prize at the same time doing a translation of Sextus Propertius. My study had Propertius books on the tables, but on the walls were all these images of Black Mountain artists. It ended up being an exhibition of over 300 objects, from books, manuscripts, to everything else: paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, films, audio, and so on. Since the exhibition didn’t travel, I thought it would be great if there could be an English edition of the catalogue, so we got in touch with MIT Press, and they agreed. In the meantime, I was taking trips to Madrid from Rome, while diving into the research and reaching out to and interviewing those who had studied at Black Mountain as well as reading everything written on the subject. It was almost like doing two projects, because the book is really a book, more extensive than a catalogue would normally be. That is due to Bonet, because he has a passion for the subject, and he has a passion for books; he had the resources available, and he said, “Let’s go for it.” At the American Academy in Rome, I met the composer and musicologist Martin Brody, who was there at the same time, and when I found out he was the president of the Stefan Wolpe Society, it just came together. I said, “Would you want to write about the musical history of Black Mountain?” and he said, “Yes.” Juan Manuel wanted to bring in Kevin Power, and I thought it would be very useful if he could detail the contents of Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review, because that is such a central document in American literature.
The Black Mountain Review is something a lot of people refer to but not many have read, because it hasn’t been reprinted. People don’t easily have access to it. Power gave a synopsis of each issue that I think is very useful. For the final essay I asked Creeley if he would write about Olson, and he wrote a brilliant memoir of his friend, beginning with their marathon correspondence long before they ever met in person. They were colleagues, working together for years, but they met physically for the first time at Black Mountain.
PB And Creeley already had the publication of Divers Press under his belt.
VK Yes, in Mallorca from 1953–55, he published books by Paul Blackburn, Robert Duncan, Larry Eigner, and others. He had access to a very good printer, Mossèn Alcover, who printed Black Mountain Review as well. One of Olson’s legacies was that he encouraged his students to publish their own work, almost like zines but with attention paid to the craft of printing. He was a big champion of that. I found that really inspiring. Jonathan Williams recalled Olson’s saying, “Don’t ever be intimidated by the disdain or the lack of interest of the world. Get yourself some type, get yourself some paper, and print it,” which led to a rich culture of self-publishing, including collaborations between poets and artists, in the 1950s and ’60s. Creeley was more of an outlaw figure. There is a great photo of him taken by Williams at Black Mountain called “Portrait of the Artist as a Spanish Assassin,” where he looks very formidable—you didn’t mess with Creeley. Williams began Jargon Press while still a student at Black Mountain. Also, we shouldn’t forget that Olson was a trained debater at Wesleyan and Harvard, and had additional experience working for the Office of War Information during World War Two. Whereas Creeley was more laconic in those days; later he changed, and became more expansive. Olson was always fluid and forceful. I’m reading this book, Charles Olson at Goddard College (Cuneiform, 2011),that Kyle Schlesinger published, on Olson’s trip to Goddard College and the talks he gave there. Olson was speaking about Melville and you can sense this wave of verbiage, language, and ideas. It doesn’t all hold together as one consistent topic but there are brilliant glints in there. I think that must be how he taught. He was obviously a polymath, he was all over the place, but that is what was exciting. It wasn’t coherent but it also wasn’t rigid. It was a trade-off that was invigorating for that time period. You can sense that both Olson and Albers were intimidating in different ways. Rauschenberg said of Albers many years later, “I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it. Years later, though, I’m still learning what he taught me.” Albers once tore up a piece by Elaine de Kooning, who was really a mature artist, not a student; she was just auditing his class. What happened was, since she had missed a lesson from a previous class she tried to combine two lessons into one work, but Albers decided it did not fulfill the required sequence of exercises, so he just ripped it in half. Pat Passlof told me she left the class because she couldn’t bear to see an artist’s work get destroyed like that. It was just too harsh. Susan Weil said that everybody was in tears at some point in Albers’s class. If you were in his class you might have preconceptions of “I’m going to go in here, express myself, and you’re going to teach me to make form and color and it’s all going to be great.” No, it’s not going to be like that. [Laughs.] Here is step one: a piece of paper. You are not allowed to draw on it. Francine du Plessix Gray said that Olson told her she shouldn’t publish anything for 10 years. Then after 10 years, she should look at what she had written to see how good or bad the writing was, which she thinks was really useful, good advice. Michael Rumaker, in his book Black Mountain Days (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012), speaks similarly about his encounter with Olson. He brought in his first story, which was a conventional, trivial piece. But Olson’s method, instead of saying, this is conventional, let’s work on this, was to demolish the piece in front of everyone. But then, when Rumaker came back to write something that blew Olson away, Olson was mute at first and then told the class this was good, serious work. Rumaker believed that he was like a little child when he arrived there, and Olson cleared out the cobwebs and helped him to see and write reality.
Portrait of the Artist (Robert Creeley) As a Spanish Assassin, Black Mountain College, 1954. Photo: Jonathan Williams. Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, Asheville.
PB Our generation takes for granted the idea of self-publishing.
VK Totally. I’m sure in those days people didn’t feel that they could publish a book on their own.
PB I also think it’s important to note that Olson, with his grand cultural theory trying to synthesize everything from anthropology, psychology, and quantum mechanic theory to art, theater, music, and whatever, didn’t set out a goal to revolutionize Black Mountain. He in fact admired his predecessors and the philosophy and history of the school. Olson often stressed the central aim and consistent support was to teach method, not content; to emphasize process, not product.
VK He definitely was respectful of the tradition of Black Mountain College and he emphasized process as being part of that tradition. He wrote, in a college prospectus, “A good teacher is always more a learner than teacher…Teachers in a place like this…should always bear in mind…that we would provide the students with a liberal education if we merely gave them the privilege of looking on while we educated ourselves.” One of the things that most of those people that were at Black Mountain had in common was that they were running away from traditional academia, which was their other option. I’m thinking of someone like M.C. Richards, who was teaching at the University of Chicago and hating it. Partially, being a woman, being marginalized, she saw academia as a microcosm of the rat race, full of uninteresting competitivity. When she came to teach at Black Mountain, she found the freedom so exhilarating that she stayed, becoming a central fixture there. She edited a literary magazine and translated the Satie play that Cage and Cunningham put on in 1948. Other writers such as Eric Bentley and Alfred Kazin came for shorter periods. Even if it was temporary, they came to find a respite from conventional ways of making and looking at things.
PB You know the way that I learned about Black Mountain was through de Kooning’s painting “Asheville” (1948), which I saw at the Phillips Collection in 1984 on a school trip to Washington D.C. Soon I learned that it was painted while de Kooning was teaching at Black Mountain. As Elaine said, he kept working on this small painting, which reintroduced color and other figural possibilities. It was a big deal.
VK It was a major deal. I tried to write for every artist a focus on one or two works that resulted from their stay at the school or that were done close to that time, and it was an interesting literary exercise. I mean, how are you going to organize all that material, because you can’t just start at day one and go to day x at the end. That’s why I grouped it into categories. Even with that, there is so much overlap. With each artist I tried to give a little bit of his or her history. I tried to focus on what was essential about that period in their life. Why were they at Black Mountain at that precise time? What was happening in their career and in the culture? But also to see if the experience transformed them, if I could identify any change. And I feel that with de Kooning there was a change, as you mentioned. A change from black–and–white to color and to a different use of form, and it happened then.
PB Given that all of those famous artists from Europe and New York would come into the woods of Asheville, North Carolina. I’d be scared. [Laughs.]
VK I know. It wasn’t in genteel New England, romantic California, or charming, scrappy, Chicago. But Albers was invited at a certain point to leave there: Gropius was always trying to get him to come to Harvard. But after a year, once he got it going, he didn’t want to leave. Josef and Anni were excited by the non-traditional program but also the remote environment, not being in the city. You can’t get much more rural than that, even now: it is in the southwest corner of North Carolina.
PB Exactly. It’s in a particular place. Quite amazing. Meanwhile, what sorts of things do you think that de Kooning taught? I can’t help but to think of something Rudy Burckhardt told me: after having brought a bunch of paintings based on buildings based from photographs to show de Kooning, de Kooning just crumbled a piece of paper and put it near the window and said, “Why don’t you paint this?”
VK And Rudy refused, which he later regretted. He said he had to paint something he was interested in. As far as I know, de Kooning’s Black Mountain class was more like a workshop environment, where people would paint, and he would comment on what they did. Elaine de Kooning wrote about it, contrasting Albers’s teaching methods with de Kooning’s. She wrote, “Albers presented his students with the same specific problems, Bill waited until they had evolved their own set of problems on canvas before discussing the range of options open to them.”
PB Was there any time that de Kooning and Albers were in the same class?
VK No, that wouldn’t work. But they were in the same lunchroom, which was considered by many people the key spot of the school. Someone like Olson came from an environment that was very word–oriented. He was a text man. And for him to be at Black Mountain College, taking the helm of an institution that already had this principle of cross-fertilization, I think it was extremely rich and awakened a lot of possibilities in him. It was at Black Mountain that he became much more aware of visual art. There is a quote I use in the book by Cage where he says, “Any experimental musician in the 20th century has had to rely on painters.” And there is a James Schuyler quote that is not about Black Mountain but is very similar: “In New York the art world is a painter’s world; writers and musicians are in the boat, but they don’t steer.” It is a little bit self-deprecating, but you have these cases in which I feel the visual artists were the trailblazers. People like Cy Twombly, who was 23, and Rauschenberg, who was 25, were doing mature work in 1951 at Black Mountain, and Olson was aware of that and it changed his mental picture of the arts. Same with the composers and musicians who were there, people like Lou Harrison and Stefan Wolpe. In fact Wolpe, through his relationship with Kline, developed a concept of abstract expressionist musical compositions. Again, it was in the lunchroom where you heard what you never had heard before. That’s where the first happening—Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1—took place in 1952, and that’s where Erik Satie’s play The Ruse of Medusa was staged in 1948. M.C. Richards translated the text, Buckminster Fuller played the lead role, Elaine and Willem de Kooning made the sets, and Arthur Penn was the director. So it was a physical locus, too. Then you realize the effect of the physical environment out there, the visual aspect of the landscape, that it was far out in the deep country, with the opportunity to live a very simple life. Students were required to work on the farm and on the building project. Fielding Dawson writes about that a lot in the Black Mountain Book, which is exciting because he writes short vignettes that give you sharp pictures of the life the students had at Black Mountain. They had freedom to create their own curricula, and they tried out romantic lifestyles. They were treated like adults basically. In Black Mountain’s last seven years, Olson did take on the mantle of what had gone before, but by virtue of his being a poet the college started on a different path, which eventually led to its closing in 1957.
The Ruse of Medusa, performance at Black Mountain College, 1948: Buckminster Fuller with Merce Cunningham. Photo: Clemens Kalischer. Courtesy of the artist.
PB It’s better to be romantic than bureaucratic and complacent. I remember George Segal told me when he went to Meyer Schapiro and asked whether he knew people who could give $500 to pay the rent for the last year of the sinking Hansa Gallery, Schapiro told him a parable of a flower blooming radiantly and then dying. I must say, when it comes time that it just becomes work instead of fun and different challenges and opportunities for reinvention that keep me on my toes I will talk my colleagues into letting the Rail die rather than let it become just another nonprofit.
VK Well, the other thing about Black Mountain that I am interested in is that they had no board. A board can give you stability but it also imposes its ideas on you. Rice, Dreier, and the others who started the place, renegades from academia, said, we don’t want anyone imposing on us. The last thing they wanted was for someone else to call the shots. For the entire 23 years they often didn’t know if they were going to be able to make it. In the early years people like Dreier and Rice and the Alberses were very motivated about keeping the school functioning. They worked really hard and got funding every year. During Olson’s era, from ’51 to ’56, he expended a lot of energy in other areas, in creating challenging courses, in innovative teaching methods, on his own writing: he started to write the Maximus Poems there, and wrote many essays. In the end, he did live up to his goal of having teaching be partially a case of allowing the students to observe how professionals work.
PB Absolutely. Not that different from what Rice said earlier, “An individual, to be a complete person, must be aware of his relationship to others.” At Black Mountain the whole community became his teacher.
VK Or as Creeley notes in his essay in the book, Olson once said, “I need a college to think with.” When I started studying Black Mountain I thought, “Oh, this is great but it’s just a bunch of different people. There is no real overarching idea.” But the more I study it the more I realize there are consistent beliefs that we are talking about now. One of them that started with Rice was that the school was going to allow student participation in decisionmaking. Rice believed in “cooperative intelligence,” whereby the group, including the teacher, examined topics, as opposed to the teacher being the possessor of the information, which he might or might not impart to the students. Rice also believed theory should be integrated with other forms of knowledge. This connects to what Olson was saying about the student watching the master. You observe the discipline of somebody working.
PB When you began to work on the text were you aware that Rice, like you, studied classics at the University of Chicago?
VK Not at the beginning. I knew the poets very well and most of the artists who had been there, but I didn’t know much about Rice until later.
PB I feel it is very hard to talk about Rice without mentioning John Dewey’s immense influence on education and social reform. Dewey also taught at the University of Chicago from 1894 until 1904, which is where Rice came into contact with his ideas. After 1904 he went to Columbia where he taught until his retirement in 1930. It was at Columbia that the veritable eccentric Albert Barnes went to audit his courses. It is interesting how the application of pragmatism, the advocacy for learning by doing, was put into use at Black Mountain. Did you set out with a list of alumni who were available for interview?
VK Yes. I began with Creeley, whom I knew already. Then continued with John Chamberlain, Joseph Fiore, Basil King, Kenneth Noland, Pat Passlof, Dan Rice, Dorothea Rockburne, Susan Weil, Gerald van der Wiele, John Wieners, and others. Black Mountain College of course was not only about the arts. A lot of other disciplines were studied there and were sometimes integrated and came together in this focal point. Dorothea had already completed the course at the Beaux-Arts in Montreal, so she already knew technical aspects of painting very well by the time she arrived at Black Mountain. She was more fascinated by Max Dehn, the mathematician known for his work in topology and geometric group theory, which had a central influence on her whole conception of art making. Chamberlain set up a studio and worked on sculpture independently while studying poetry with Creeley and Olson. Dawson pursued a hybrid course of visual arts and writing. Dan Rice had been a professional musician before Fiore convinced him to commit to painting. That was in fact a common experience of students at Black Mountain: being able to cross boundaries academically. Almost anything that anybody wanted to study, the college would find a way for it to be taught. It came from the desire of somebody to learn it. I find, again, that’s the opposite of the way most educational institutions are run even today. The standard model is you choose from what they’re offering. At Black Mountain, the student proposed something and the institution found a way to satisfy that desire. Which is pretty revolutionary, if you think about it.
PB I couldn’t agree more. How did you manage to afford all participants equal attention?
VK It wasn’t easy. This was an arts exhibition in an art museum, so that was the focus, and I tried to be as methodical as I could. I can’t say that I gave equal emphasis to everybody, but I tried to locate artists according to my own perception of the time period and their artistic achievements. But at the same time I wanted to highlight people I felt were under-acknowledged, someone like Leo Amino, who was very inventive in using plastic and found materials to create natural forms in his sculpture. He fits into a context there of artists I call biomorphs, but then, of course, those categories have overlaps, because Amino’s work relates to somebody like Richard Lippold, who also has connections to Cage. Then there were a few artists who had mixed allegiances. Ray Johnson started out as a devotee of Albers; he had all his notes in order from day one on. Then when he met John Cage, he fell for Cage’s ideas so much that it was as if the world didn’t exist before Cage. He did this violent thing of burning all his notes from Albers’s class, which is too bad because it would be great to have those notes as a reference. But we know he was all about ephemerality in his art. He would mail work to friends, which we now refer to as mail art, an important contribution in the late 1950s. Another such figure was Fielding Dawson, who was torn between Olson and Kline. I love that image of them at loggerheads, because Olson was a very domineering figure. He was about six foot eight and 240 pounds and very verbal and opinionated, while Kline could be a street fighter. He was laconic and a master of the one-liner. I always imagine Kline with a smile across his face: no matter how intense the situation, he took it in stride. Dawson was in the middle because he loved both of them, even though he did move to New York and stayed with Kline. Dawson was also symptomatic of Black Mountain in the sense that he was always a writer and a visual artist. I think of Basil King the same way. He’s been a painter all his life, and now he has a sizeable following for his writing.
PB Another great example.
VK Absolutely. So this idea of hybridity was definitely fostered there. But that can be dangerous because you can get too unfocused if you don’t know what you’re doing. Being at Black Mountain was always like being in the real world. It was preparation for being in the real world: no one’s telling you what to do. You’re making your own decisions. And that’s how it was there.
PB That’s what Chance Operations (Chapter V) was all about. Again, Cage, like Anni Albers, was connecting to the art of another culture through his deep interest in Zen Buddhism while Merce Cunningham was trying to translate elements from daily life into art. But how about someone like Buckminster Fuller, whose name we associate as much with the world of architectural invention and geodesic domes, as with his connection to Black Mountain where he was exposed to overlapping disciplines?
VK Fuller was like a shooting star, a brilliant light that makes a huge impression and then passes. He was very influential philosophically, and he was influenced by people at Black Mountain like Arthur Penn, a student at the time, who broke through Fuller’s stage fright in his acting role in the Satie play and got him to perform. Fuller came twice: in 1948 he tried unsuccessfully to mount a geodesic dome. In 1949, after working on it for a year in Chicago, he was able to do it successfully at Black Mountain.
PB Lastly, Vincent, do you think that having grown up in an environment of poets, writers, and artists all of your life enables you to have a natural understanding of the philosophy of Black Mountain?
VK That’s a hard question to answer. I like the part in the beginning of Duberman’s book where he recalls interviewing the Alberses, which reminds me now of the beginning of Carlos Castaneda when he meets Don Juan, who says to him, “You stay out on the porch and find your spot. There’s a spot on the porch.” And Castaneda is like, what the hell is he talking about? And he spends all night on the porch and he finally finds the spot and he has this kind of vision there. It’s like that. In other words, Duberman was sort of being, I don’t know if tested is the right word, but maybe it is, by the Alberses. He was thinking, “I don’t know what kind of book I want to write about Black Mountain, but one thing I am sure of is I want to break out of my mode and do something that reflects the experimental attitude of Black Mountain, but I’m afraid it won’t be accepted in academia.” And then finally, after a long time, Josef Albers says Duberman should not simply recite dates and facts but describe the impact Black Mountain has had on him. And then Duberman realizes that he should do it and his book is written in an experimental mode that hopefully reflects the ethos of Black Mountain. So I think on one hand, we have a desire to be “academic” in the best sense, because that means intellectual rigor, research, thoroughness, and awareness of what other people have written and thought on the subject. But on the other hand, Black Mountain by its very nature partially resists that. It’s this kind of liquid mercury substance that can’t be pinned down exactly. So you want to have an approach that’s also open enough. And to get back to your question, maybe yes, growing up around artists and poets I saw a lot of models of people who made their own lives. Not only did they sacrifice for their art, which they did, but they chose how to make their lives around the work, and vice versa. This gets back to Jacob Lawrence’s quote, which really means that the life and the art are almost one.