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Black  Mountain

Black Mountain college: Experiment in Art, Vincent Katz (ed.) (2013)
Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press

Reviewed by Marek Wasilewski, University of Arts, Poznan, Poland in The International Journal of Education Through Art

What is a perfect way to educate artists? Is it possible at all? Can we teach art? These are questions we are asking ourselves with ever greater frequency. Christian Boltanski, a self taught artist himself, has answered this question by claiming that while it is not possible to teach how to make art, art schools are nevertheless the only places left where you are free to think and learn how to look and have your eyes truly opened. In the time of the Black Mountain College (BMC), it seemed to be obvious that it is perfectly possible to learn art through training under the guidance of good and competent masters. Art was related to crafts more than it is today and manual skills were considered to be essential to the process of art-making. A young artist had to gain his or her experience via the process of studio practice by following the programme indicated by the master. BMC was probably not so different in that aspect from any other art college of its time. However, it was unique in many other ways.

For a time it created a utopian community, an independent republic of artists, something that was similar to Hakim Bey’s idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone. BMC, based on the tradition of the Bauhaus, was equally international and ambitious but more open and spontaneous. It seems that the central idea behind the college’s pedagogy was very simple, but at the same time difficult to maintain: only an interesting and practicing artist can educate equally interesting and practicing future artists. The list of such artists connected to the history of the BMC is impressive: John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Keneth Noland and others, including the influential critic Clement Greenberg.

BMC existed in North Carolina, USA, from 1933 to 1956. The man who started the school, John Andrew Rice was an innovative educational theorist. He believed in the importance of the learning process, understood as questioning preconceptions and that people should think and exchange ideas together. He also believed that the arts should play an important role in a college education, so he looked for significant artists to lead its art courses. Ironically he didn’t imagine BMC as only an art school.
Another cornerstone of the college was Josef Albers. He was responsible for its initial art programme and its connection not only with the heritage of the Bauhaus movement but also with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. It was Josef Albers and his wife Annie who made the idea of experimentation essential to BMC’s art pedagogy. Through experiments with materials and artistic conventions, students were encouraged to find their own identity and independence.

Albers also believed that it is possible to create an education that could do justice to the visual and manual types who are as important as the intellectual type. Together with the visual arts programme, BMC was also a site of experi- ments in avant-garde theatre, photography, dance and music. It was also a place where literature was taught by such writers as Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin. Seen from today’s perspective it appears to be a place of mythic proportions with dialogues between artists such as Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and others. That open- ness and multiplicity of approaches made BMC the most important art school of its time.

The book, edited by Vincent Katz is a chronicle of BMC. It presents the history of the school and describes in detail the activities of the artists who taught and studied there. It also gives us an image of how the college changed over time, thanks to the range of ideas brought to the College over the years by an array of people. A magnificent collection of illustrations, reproduc- tions of work as well as photos from everyday college activities is a treat on its own. Vincent Katz writes about experiments in visual arts, Martin Brody describes the course of American Modern Music, Kevin Power writes on the BMC review. The book closes with Robert Creeley’s essay and three poems by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and John Wieners. Many artists connected with BMC expressed their ideas on art and teaching in writing; they also published in the BMC Review. This very specific chronicle of the BMC describes in detail the works of its personnel and shows all the interesting connections and inter- actions between them. This panoramic view over BMC people and courses demonstrates in a very clear way its uniqueness and importance. It also shows that it is impossible to underestimate the role of places like art schools for our culture. It is not a gallery or museum that gives the artist the necessary freedom to experiment. It is only the art school that provides a haven for an activity that may not be immediately successful but in future may result in great artworks.