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#TBT: The history of Black Mountain College

Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, The Studies Building and Lake Eden, 1949. Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center Collection.

Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, The Studies Building and Lake Eden, 1949. Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center Collection.

Table of Contents

Did Black Mountain College make Asheville what it is today?

Have you ever been at LEAF Festival in Black Mountain and wondered about the history of all of those buildings by Lake Eden? That site, now Camp Rockmont (a boys’ summer camp) was formerly Black Mountain College (also known as BMC).

Chances are you’ve heard the name before, or you’ve passed by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center while strolling down Broadway. The legacy left by this now-defunct college, which became a hub for experimental, avant-garde artists, is one reason Asheville is a destination today, 61 years later.

DYK: Students + faculty included composer John Cage, painter Robert Rauschenberg, writer + illustrator Vera Williams, and visionary R. Buckminster Fuller?

For this #TBT, we’re jumping back to the good ol’ college days + learning about the legendary Black Mountain College.

  • The College opened in 1933 with 13 faculty members + 26 students. Its first location was at the Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain – it would move to its Lake Eden site, built by Grove Park Inn founder E.W. Grove at the turn of the century, in 1941. The famous Studies Building was the centerpiece of the Lake Eden campus and was built in 1940–1 by the BMC community.
  • It was founded as an experimental liberal arts college where the arts were central to the curriculum. The College was owned by the faculty + decisions were made through a democratic process. Students + faculty did the maintenance, building + farm work. Kind of like Warren Wilson’s work program.
  • There were no grades, and very little structure. The mission set out by the college upon its founding was to be a place where education could be given + received “in a purely experimental spirit.”
  • BMC more broadly became known for its events, later referred to as “happenings,” which were 45-minute, free-form performances that were often multidisciplinary performance pieces that the entire school could be involved with. The first one was in 1952, and was organized by then-faculty member John Cage. Think immersive theatrical productions, like Sleep No More or our own local emersion (happening this weekend), or the {Re}HAPPENING, the ongoing festival celebrating BMC at its original site.
  • When the college was open from 1933–1957 a total of 1,200 students attended, but only around 60 ever graduated. BMC was also never accredited. However, that didn’t stop its students from going on to be some of the leaders in academia + the arts.

So, what happened? Read on to learn why the college closed, and meet the founders, teachers + students of BMC. Plus, how you can get involved with its local legacy.

Photographer Unknown, The Faculty of the 1946 Black Mountain College Summer Art Institute. Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

Photographer Unknown, The Faculty of the 1946 Black Mountain College Summer Art Institute.
Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

The founder

John A. Rice – First conceived of the idea of the College + founded it. Rice formerly taught at Rollins College (in Winter Park, FL) but was dismissed due to controversy (for encouraging the revolt of his fellow teachers, among other things). He was famous for being a firebrand + a dissident. Several Rollins teachers went with Rice when he left the school to help found BMC.

The Alberses

Anni + Josef Albers – The OG teacher + director duo of BMC fled Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler, at the beginning of the period when artists + intellectuals were beginning to be persecuted by the Third Reich. Josef was a painter and color theorist + Anni was a textile artist.

The students + teachers

This is only a small sampling of some of the influential students and faculty who spent time at the college. Many students were also faculty (+ vice versa) at different times during the college’s history.

John Cage – Avant-garde composer + musician famous for his non-traditional use of instruments, experimental music + indeterminacy in music (which means that the way pieces were performed was left up to the performer or conductor). He was also known for his use of natural elements + chance in his work, and he was influential on modern dance. He taught at BMC in 1948 + 1952 and was in residency there in 1953. He helped organize the first “happening.”

Merce Cunningham – One of the leading choreographers of modern dance, Cunningham worked extensively with John Cage (he was also his lifelong partner). The two created many pieces of experimental music + dance. He choreographed over 150 works over the course of his career, as well as around 800 “Events.” He first came to BMC with Cage in 1948, where he taught + performed.

Robert Rauschenberg Experimental painter who used elements of pop culture + mixed media to create his works. He redefined what was considered proper for painting by including images and objects from daily life. You can see his works at museums like the MOMA in NYC + San Francisco. A student at BMC from 1948–49, he returned in 1951–2, where he began work on his famous “White Paintings.”

Willem de Kooning – Dutch abstract artist who was known for his “Action Paintings,” which rejected artistic norms + styles like Surrealism and Cubism and became known as examples of Abstract Expressionism. He taught at BMC in the late 1940s.

Elaine de Kooning – The wife of Willem was recognized for her figurative, representational paintings (which included portraits). She worked on a series of abstract paintings while at BMC, where she began teaching in 1948, and eventually moved towards more abstract figurative works. In 1962–3, she painted several portraits of President John F. Kennedy.

Hazel Larsen Archer – A photographer whose images of faculty, staff + students of BMC became iconic and included portraits of John Cage, R. Buckminster Fuller, documentation of dances choreographed by Merce Cunningham, and images of the college itself. She came to BMC as a student in 1944 and studied + taught there until 1953.

Buckminster Fuller – The inventor and visionary behind the Geodesic, or “Bucky” Dome, an efficient single-family dwelling that became his trademark. He also designed the fuel-efficient “Dymaxion” vehicle, which was meant to drive and fly (the design was never fully completed, and the car is pretty strange looking + apparently terrifying to drive).

The end of an era

In 1957, BMC closed its doors when it ran out of funds, years after founder John Rice was pushed out. The Alberses had also left years before because of “ideological conflict and differing opinions about the direction of the college,” according to the BMCM+AC. According to a Wall Street Journal article, progress was often halted by conflict among the remaining faculty members.

It was also under investigation by the FBI, who were concerned that it posed a threat to internal security because of its non-traditional programming and far left-leaning faculty members. (One FBI official called it “a very unusual type of school.”). When it was about to close, it came under fire for reportedly using G.I. funds received by its military veteran students to help pay the bills. The investigation was eventually dropped, but it may have been one more factor in why BMC closed when it did.

Although it had almost no students when it shut its doors, today it’s still considered one of the most important influences on contemporary art.

The legacy today

An entire museum is devoted to BMC’s legacy in downtown Asheville (56 Broadway St.), and at least four different organizations/events pay tribute to the school.

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center | 56 Broadway Ave. | The BMCM+AC hosts exhibitions of work from students, teachers, and artists inspired by BMC, as well as special concerts, talks + more. Check their calendar for upcoming events, including a film series and a one-man show about R. Buckminster Fuller. They’ll open a new space at 120 College Street this September during the ReViewing Conference (more on that below).

{Re}HAPPENING | Lake Eden | March 30, 2019 | This event nurtures the spirit of interdisciplinary innovation that flourished at BMC, bringing area artists, musicians + performers to the site of the college over the course of one day in March. In 2017, experimental a cappella group A Roomful of Teeth were the headliners.

ReViewing Conference | UNC Asheville | September 28–30 | Now in its 10th year, this annual academic + arts conference is about the history and legacy of the college. This year’s theme is focused on the former summer institutes of the BMC. This year’s program includes keynote speaker Dr. Leslie King Hammond, Founding Director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

School of the Alternative | Blue Ridge Assembly | 84 Blue Ridge Cir., Black Mountain | May | Wish you’d been a student or teacher at BMC? School of the Alternative offers sessions over one, two, or three weeks on topics like freestyle rap, dream incubation + the short film, and teachers are often also students–just like at the real school (and they’re actually at the first location of the school).

___

When Black Mountain College closed, the story of this larger-than-life institution was in some ways just beginning.

At last March’s {Re}HAPPENING, I experienced the legacy of the school firsthand, by joining immersive performances, listening to experimental choral music, and hearing some of my favorite local writers share their work.

What does Black Mountain College mean to you? Is this the first time you’ve learned about it, or have you been a fan of its teachers + students for years? Let us know by replying to this email, or leave us a comment over on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I’m feeling inspired to go make some experimental art.

– Ali

Big thanks to the team at BMCM+AC and the North Carolina Digital Collection for their help + resources as we created this piece.

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