Between October 10, 2015 and now, I have been to see the exhibition on Black Mountain at the ICA maybe half a dozen times. I read a 600-page book on Black Mountain, written by Martin Duberman and published in 1971. I have also studied the catalogue for the show. Aside from learning about the school and the place and the people and the art that made it what it is, I finally found myself asking, What is there about Black Mountain that seems to compel my attention?
Black Mountain is a place (a mountain) in North Carolina, in the Blue Hills range of mountains at the Southern edge of the Appalachian Mountain range. It is in the western portion of North Carolina, near Asheville, not far from where I grew up (in South Carolina), very near where I spent a few summers when I was a kid. The school was founded in 1933 by three progressive academics who had alternative views on education and who in consequence had been thrown out of the colleges where they taught. There is a strain in American history—every so often people come together and build a colony or a school or community whose main purpose is to give the inhabitants escape from the deadening effects of the dominant, capitalist, materialist commercial culture. Brook Farm, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is one such place. Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne were members, and many came to visit, including Henry James Sr. These places—thought of as “utopias”—were attractive to a certain kind of artist, and many of these places were really art colonies. But they all, I think, were attempts on the part of members to find a better way to live—usually with shared property, shared responsibility, no king, no classes, no mention of religion. (Read Shakespeare’s take on this impulse, which is a very old one, in The Tempest, 2.1.156-185. It is a search for the Golden Age.) The ones that were schools were what we called later, in the sixties, “expressions of the counter culture.” My daughter went to one in Massachusetts, a school which didn’t give grades, didn’t give tests, and which emphasized faculty-student relations and new thinking. Very progressive. In 1933, the major event on the world stage was the coming to power of Adolf Hitler, which led to a large emigration from Germany to the west, and men and women originally attached to the Bauhaus now found themselves in a tiny school way back in the mountains of North Carolina. Among these was Josef Albers, the painter. Any student of mid-twentieth century painting, architecture, sculpture, music, writing and publishing knows of Black Mountain because many of the principal players in twentieth century art were students there, or faculty members, or visitors, or participants in its summer institutes. Much of what has happened in twentieth century art in America happened to people who were in some way connected to Black Mountain.
In Boston, the Institute for Contemporary Art, has had an exhibition on Black Mountain since October—running through this Sunday, January 24th, 5:00 PM. Many of the artists are familiar. I was given an Albers print years ago. Merce Cunningham, Anni Albers, John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Paul Goodman, and Willem de Kooning were among the artists at Black Mountain.
These men and women produced incredible work. Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome there. There are photographs of him experimenting with various materials—including the thin metal out of which venetian blinds were made of—to make the dome which became the “geodesic dome.” And John Cage composed—created—the first “happening” in a work called later, “Theatre Piece No 1” for an evening “concert” after dinner one night. Joseph Albers painted squares there, and Anni Albers wove fabric. The Black Mountain Review was published there, and Merce Cunningham choreographed dances.
Black Mountain was focussed on art, but the community was also focussed on the rights of Black Americans, and Duberman gives us many pages of arguments at Black Mountain over just how the school could fulfill its obligations to all students. This was made difficult at the time by the fact that the school was surrounded by a segregated countryside and a segregated state of North Carolina. Homosexuals (this was in the period 1933-1957 and consequently was before the period when the word “gay” began to be used) among the students and faculty received no such (minimal) support and there were no arguments about their place at Black Mountain. Everyone seemed to agree that homosexuals had no place there. There were several “scandals”—one pertaining to the “rector,” or head of the school, Robert Wunsch—about which members felt bad years later when telling Martin Duberman about their lack of support for Wunsch. He was discovered in his car with a Marine and pleaded guilty and left the campus permanently that day.
I think my interest in the exhibition had to do with the fact that the art being created at Black Mountain was experimental. Many of the students at Black Mountain had come straight out of high school, and I admired their ability—many of them as young as eighteen—to be mature enough to see that what they wanted was an experimental school in which they could explore the limits of the art they wanted to create. According to Duberman, many of Black Mountain students later accepted regular jobs at regular, main-stream schools, but they started out, when they were young, way out there. I was fascinated by that because when I was their age, my goal had been to find the heart of my civilization and then to embody it. I was not into experimenting. In graduate school, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on John Donne. I became a teacher. I reversed the pattern formed by the Black Mountain students—experimental youth followed by very solid and stable maturity—and started off conservative and polite and matured into the rebellious shit that I am today. I have been entranced by the freedom of the students at Black Mountain. I was in my forties when I started my rebellion. The subject of my literary work has been to document the lives of LGBTQ people and, secondarily, to change the culture in which we live. This has been a dogged effort, and I think I have been drawn to the ICA exhibition on Black Mountain just because the Black Mountain people skipped all that—went beyond the historical pursuit and the emphasis on people’s lives—and went right to the creation of art. They sought a new art. Since the art of their time, the thirties, forties, and fifties, was mainly abstract, they dominated the whole century. I don’t share a subject with Black Mountain artists, but I admire their courage and personal commitment to what they did, and their willingness to dare.