Sunday, February 19, 2006

Black Mountain

Main Building of the former Black Mountain College 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the Kettle’s Yard exhibition ‘Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57’ yesterday I was struck by how little the landscape of Black Mountain seemed to impinge on the art works created there. Brochures for the college highlight its location: see for example some of the photographs on display at the North Carolina state archives. Outdoor pursuits were part of college life: hiking trips after morning classes, physical activity in farming and architectural projects. However, the only quotation in the exhibition that directly addressed the positive impact of the landscape was from Julia and Lyonel Feininger: “the location of the college was in itself important to us: pretty high up in the mountains, on the shores of a small lake in a wide valley… The mornings especially were fraught with magic. Vapors steaming from the lake, mists enveloping the world around, and when slowly rising revealing the contours of trees and the mountains, the very element of light appearing as something mysterious and new’ (quoted in the catalogue, from Design, 1946 vol. 7 no 48).

The absence of landscape art partly reflects the interests of those associated with the college – Josef Albers, Charles Olson, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning etc. – who were developing different modes of abstraction, expressionism, and interdisciplinary experimentation. The rural location of the college seemed to serve more as a sanctuary and a space for developing ideas with like minded faculty and students. Robert Motherwell, for example, enjoyed teaching the summer schools as “a way of getting a break from New York” but also felt that the college was partly doomed because of its location so far from the centres of avant garde practice, in a place (and time) that viewed the activities at Black Mountain with deep suspicion (see the Smithsonian Archive interview with Motherwell).

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