Black Mountain College is one of those places that almost everyone has heard of but few know much about, apart from the fact that Buckminster Fuller built a geodesic dome there, John Cage staged a ‘happening’ and Merce Cunningham did a lot of dancing. Long overdue, ‘Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933–57’ was the first UK exhibition to look into the heart of what happened deep in the countryside of North Carolina, USA.
It all began in 1933, when disgruntled Classics professor John Andrew Rice and his students (whose improvisational approach had seen them all expelled from Rollins College, Florida) set out to form a more multi-disciplinary syllabus, including geometry, dance, pottery and painting. Their desire was to create an altogether more holistic experience, a place to educate heart and soul as well as head. The new college had few rules and no constitution, and seems to have operated more as a fee-paying commune than as a university or art school, with students organizing hikes in the mountains, dances, concerts and plays.
Rice initially invited Joseph and Annie Albers to teach at the college (although neither could speak English). Their shared asceticism had a lasting influence on what was produced: his use of nature as source material, her weavings recalling an urban context left far behind in Europe and embracing Mexico and South America. The influence of the Albers's attracted a number of European artist refugees, among them a former Bauhaus student of Oskar Schlemmer, a director of the Cologne Opera and an eminent psychiatrist. By 1940 there were about 70 students, and the illustrious visitors invited to lecture included Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Aldous Huxley and Fernand Léger.
‘Starting at Zero’ was loosely organized in three sections. The first looked at the gravitas and continuity that the Albers's presence fostered. This was followed by a section on the postwar era of summer schools, the roll-call of which included Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Hans Hofmann and Clement Greenberg. The final chaotic and financially cash-strapped but productive years were under the idealistic leadership of poet Charles Olson, whose ‘glyph’ exchange between a number of artists, including Cage, dancer Katherine Litz and painter Ben Shahn, was one of the more ambiguous but lasting projects at Black Mountain College. An early investment in a printing press lent continuity to the in-house literature announcing drama and music events and produced a plethora of vitrine-housed material to pore over, although the precise nature of the ‘glyph’ (a form of pictogram) remained, perhaps appropriately, aloof.
The heavily interpreted installation lent a museum feel to the show, with quotes from artists stencilled on the walls to stress endeavour and sincerity. It focused on the personalities involved, with photographic portraits by Hazel Larsen Archer and Kenneth Snelson of many of the key players. Classrooms of obediently raised hands and youthful faces showed the reverence in which Joseph Albers was held, while others were proof of historical collaborations between Fuller, Elaine de Kooning and others. These were shown alongside a modest selection of paintings by Kenneth Noland – among the most successful works to emerge from the college, perhaps – Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline and Cy Twombly. Other paintings by lesser-known figures such as Jacob Lawrence and Shahn accompanied ceramics by Shoji Hamada, Karen Karnes and Bernard Leach. The natural laboratory that was Black Mountain seems today like a cont-emporary curatorial wet dream, and though it didn’t produce so many works of great significance at the time, the fact that these artists all spent time working together must certainly have influenced their later solo careers.
In the accompanying catalogue Edmund de Waal summarizes one influential aspect of the college, as a place where ‘much of the radical pedagogy that shaped the teaching of crafts came into being’. While the methodology of making pottery is often hidden in the form, quite how the exchange between, say, Peter Voulkos and Cage was evident or reciprocal in their individual works is hard to say. What is apparent is how the collaborative spirit of shared space, documented in the letters and photographs, has particular resonance with artistic practice today. A partner exhibition in the ground-floor galleries of Arnolfini called ‘Playing John Cage’, curated by David Toop, offered a contemporaneous view. Soundtracks by Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda accompanied Takagi Masakatsu’s photographs from a Zen garden, while Kaffe Matthews provided an opportunity to recline and listen in the middle of an artificial bush of tree branches inspired by Cage’s silent composition 4’ 33” (1952). In the end, however, you inevitably return to the characters of the college, who, often at early stages in their careers, provided the warmest testaments and the partial acc-ounts we probably most wanted to hear.