DURING THE 1930s, as Hitler came to power in Germany, scholarly reformers around the world capitalized on the exile of European humanists to found new academic institutions, among them the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the Warburg Institute in London, and the University of Istanbul. Walter Cook, founding director of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, famously joked, “Hitler is my best friend; he shakes the tree and I collect the apples.”

One school, however, has yet to take its rightful place in the pantheon of 20th-century émigré hubs: Black Mountain College. An experimental institution rooted in John Dewey’s principles of democratic learning, Black Mountain drew on the abundance of German refugees to become an unlikely site of midcentury learning and the arts in the mountains of western North Carolina. Among those who made their home at the College were Bauhauslers Anni and Josef Albers, as well as their colleague Xanti Schawinsky, former student of Oskar Schlemmer, psychoanalyst Fritz Moellenhoff, and director of the Cologne Opera, Heinrich Jalowetz, for whom Arthur Schoenberg sent a letter of recommendation from Los Angeles. (Wives were also in tow, usually as poorly paid as they were highly trained in literature and the arts.) Later, the College became a chrysalis for the American avant-garde, nurturing such artists as Willem de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg. (The journal and blog Black Mountain College Studies is devoted to documenting Black Mountain’s impact on music, poetry, fine arts, and dance.)

The first major exhibition of the College in the United States, mounted last year by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and on display at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through May 2016, is thus long overdue. “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957” is intoxicating for the sheer range of modern art under one roof. One can admire Hazel Larsen Archer’s stunning black-and-white photographs of the dazzling cast of America’s avant-garde, view art that (as Dewey intended) prepares one for civic participation, and experience the excitement of residential living and learning that is all too rare. The artworks on display are nothing short of breathtaking.

Yet, like much of the new literature on the College appearing over the last decade, the exhibition lacks a sense of the wider historical context in which this school emerged. Great art transcends its place of origin, of course, and so it’s not surprising that the exhibition bears a prejudice against context. In a revealing statement in the exhibition catalog, lead curator Helen Molesworth, now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, impatiently observes: “Despite the current vogue in contemporary art and theory for the archive, I must confess I don’t like them [sic].” Having traveled to the quaint Western Regional Archives of North Carolina where the Black Mountain College collection now resides, I can report that the boxes of historical materials are extensive. For Molesworth, however, this background is mere “gossip” that doesn’t “consolidate the facts or the truths” of the artworks themselves.

Plucked out of context, however, the art alone cannot fully address what connected the College to parallel developments in scholarly migration and higher education, and what made it unique. Just when and how did the European masters of Black Mountain give birth to the avant-garde artists of the American Century? What turned this barnlike school in Depression-era North Carolina into a catalyst for some of the critical and cultural turning points of the 20th century? And then why, after two dozen years, did it suddenly disappear?

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One of the first scholars to write about Black Mountain College was the historian and biographer Martin Duberman. In his 400-page memoiristic history, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (1972), Duberman touches on why the place was so essential to the art it enabled:

Black Mountain was the only place at that time, Cunningham stressed when talking to me, where he could have been both welcomed and let alone to the extent that he was. Later as their vision gained vogue and their fame spread, these men had no trouble finding outlets and opportunities. Instead their trouble became the familiar one of preventing the public from caricaturing their aesthetic even while adulating it—and of resisting the temptation that critical ratification always provokes: to freeze an earlier spirit of experimentation into new dogma. Black Mountain’s distinction is that along with providing the free space that no one else would, it offered a reception that managed to be appreciative but not adulatory.

Through interviews with Cunningham and others conducted in the 1960s, Duberman describes a critical symptom of modernism the College persistently suffered: the need to enshrine and express authenticity. As soon as a movement within the school was in danger of becoming institutionalized, a splinter movement would emerge. A charismatic leader often paved the way, leaving the practical and financial concerns to others — or to no one, as was often the case — until that new group suffered a similar fate. This kneejerk impulse toward innovation was crucial to both the College’s allure and, ultimately, its downfall.

An examination of the context in which the Black Mountain artists emerged would also expose the threads that, emanating from Bauhaus’s preoccupation with form, resulted in the experimental abstraction of the midcentury American avant-garde. Three historical features in particular make Black Mountain exceptional: the competitive and cooperative dynamics of its European-American relationships, its peripheral status in the art world, and the dogmatic (and self-destructive) manner in which many of its leaders adhered to the modernist ideology of authenticity.

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Like a number of exile communities in the 1930s and ’40s, Black Mountain College defined its educational mission with reference to the threat of Nazi Germany, while at the same time promoting a German-inspired humanism. As one student commented in 1948, “The only member of the faculty who wasn’t German, or at least European, was Frank Rice — and he taught German.” In this respect, Black Mountain is part of the wider story of how, during the second half of the 20th century, German culture became the foundation for American higher education (already based largely on the model of the German research university).

Among the exiled scholars in the United States were some, like the distinguished art historian Erwin Panofsky, who left Germany and never wrote in German again. When Panofsky spoke at Duke University in 1967 near the end of his life, a former German student of his declared the émigré scholar an American first and foremost: “To hear Panofsky is, therefore, also to be attuned to a significant phase in the history of American cultural thought.” Then there were others, like the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno, who notoriously thought that German was the only language fit for philosophical inquiry and who ultimately returned to his homeland after the war. Perhaps because of their remoteness from questions of language, the arts opened up opportunities for a middle ground between Panofskyan assimilation and Adornian rejection.

The Alberses represent, for some scholars and memoirists, a relatively smooth transatlantic passage from “Bauhaus to Black Mountain.” Yet even their journey is more complex than any straightforward “import.” After surviving their first weeks with the help of Anni as his translator, Josef learned English from his students, starting with an old copy of Alice in Wonderland and advancing to The New Yorker. If, like Panofsky, Albers became immersed in his new milieu, evidence of his “Prussianism” — for which he was both adored and feared — lurked just beneath the surface. At one faculty meeting, Josef spoke of the need for education in order to achieve the proper balance between self-cultivation and the acquisition of facts:

When I came to this country, I found that you had one general term [for education] which included the instruction part of teaching and the purely educational part, which means the development of the will. We have two words: one for the real giving of methods of facts (information), and another for the development of character. I do not know whether the English language has words for these two things.

Albers was drawing here on the twin German concepts of Bildung and Erziehung: the former has to do with character and the latter with knowledge, a distinction that was central to the German research university ideal. Albers aspired to implement this pedagogical model in his new home.

This balance was a critical component of the Bauhaus group at Black Mountain, which was established well before its other, better-known outposts in Chicago and Cambridge. By the time Walter Gropius arrived in the United States in 1937, Albers had already instructed several cohorts at Black Mountain in his Bauhaus-based, three-pronged Preliminary Course (or Vorkurs), in drawing, color, and design. In the same year, Black Mountain College purchased property — known as Lake Eden — a few miles across the valley, and Albers enlisted Gropius and Marcel Breuer to design a complex of buildings, though owing to lack of funds and organization their designs were never implemented.

Nonetheless, Gropius took great interest in the College’s experiment and touted its “teamwork” ethic as an aesthetic and pedagogical innovation. In a letter to Theodore Dreier in 1944, he opined that his “own experiences in the Bauhaus abroad and the results of John Dewey’s philosophy in this country have proved the high educational value of combining manual with intellectual activities continuously.” Gropius and Albers looked to Dewey for pedagogical support as eagerly as American Black Mountaineers saw Gropius and Albers as a link to a nearly lost European culture.

Pinning down the nature and scope of the Europe-America exchange is essential for reasons that extend beyond the artistic. In a crucial vote in 1944 over whether to integrate the College racially, the European refugees had a unique perspective on exclusion, yet surprisingly not all of them favored enrolling African Americans. For his part, Albers urged a more cautious approach and a broader concept of race that also sought out “members of the yellow or other races.” (Ultimately, a compromise was reached in which an African-American student was admitted to the summer institute but not to the College itself.)

With respect to feminism, the College was even more backward, reproducing the division of labor notorious in Germany’s Bauhaus, where women were confined to the “lower” arts, including weaving and crafts, while men worked in the more abstract and theoretical domains. (Anni nonetheless went on to a singular career despite early attempts to sideline her.) Notwithstanding the College’s promotion of community and a tireless work ethic, women were, as art historian Eva Diaz calls them, “stowaways,” often tirelessly compiling and toiling in the background as their husbands were lionized as producers of great art.

In the wider artistic world, however, all the Black Mountain artists, not just its women, were on the periphery. Yet that peripheral status had its advantages. Such emerging American artists as John Cage were drawn by the opportunity to spend time outside the urban centers. As the young and ambitious composer told Josef and Anni, “Being in New York without leaving it for so long had made me believe that only within each one of us singly can what we require come about, but now at Black Mountain […] I see that people can work still together.” Art critic Jed Perl confirms the appeal of the College’s communal process, which differed from the studios in New York where “a master reigned.” Yet despite these artists’ Southern detour, New York was still the centrifugal force. Indeed, as Clement Greenberg later quipped, “Not much art came out of Black Mountain,” only some famous names. After teaching there in 1950 on de Kooning’s recommendation, Greenberg departed, like other students of Expressionism such as Pat Passlof, Joseph Fiore, and Raymond Spillenger, for New York.

One can perceive the tensions between Europe and the United States, between center and periphery, in the schism that resulted when the Alberses left the school in 1949. One can hardly imagine a more illustrious list of summer guests that year: in addition to the Alberses and Cage, there were luminaries such as Buckminster Fuller, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, and poet and critic Charles Olson. For many of these artists, this was an extremely productive time. Fuller, one of the most inventive and influential figures in 20th-century industrial design, entertained students with his experiments on the geodesic dome. De Kooning produced one painting — a 25-and-a-half-by-32 inch piece of cardboard on which he toiled all summer, burning his discarded sketches as he went along. Entitled Asheville, the black-and-white masterpiece was filled with shapes and lines painted from what De Kooning claimed was “a glimpse of something, encountered like a flash.” It became a centerpiece of De Kooning’s oeuvre.

Tensions were inevitable in a community of such large personalities living in what one scholar has called the “bucolic Bauhaus.” In the fall of 1948, Rauschenberg, drawn to Josef Albers’s rigorous curriculum (he regarded Albers as “the greatest disciplinarian in the United States”) enrolled with his future wife, Susan Weil. Rauschenberg would later observe that he was Albers’s “least favorite student.” Cage for his part angered Albers and the German set when he insisted on using French avant-garde composer Erik Satie as the inspiration for his first theatrical event. Then rector Bill Levi proposed to settle the matter thus: “Both sides were to repair to the kitchen, where the Beethovenites would be armed with cold Wiener schnitzel, the supporters of Satie with flaming crêpe suzettes, and a duel to the death ensue.”

That summer, the chief pedagogical issue concerned whether to reorganize the College as an arts school or to situate the arts in a broader curriculum. This question signaled a new direction for art, as Eva Diaz has argued in her compelling 2014 study, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College. No longer would experimentation be confined to the laboratory, but rather, through aesthetic notions of chance and spontaneity, it would be allowed to infuse the curriculum generally. Although the respective sides in this debate did not divide strictly along national lines, there is no doubt that younger American artists such as Cage and Rauschenberg strongly inclined toward a more expansive role for the arts. Meanwhile, exhausted and ready to move on, the Alberses departed first for Harvard and then for Yale, where they would recreate their studios.

In the vacuum left by their departure, new leaders emerged, and the summer institute continued to attract emerging artists to present experimental work. This is the context in which, on one summer night in 1952, Cage held what is widely considered to be the first “Happening”: allegedly conceived earlier that day, the Happening, later dubbed Theater Piece No. 1, was a multilayered, multimedia performance in which Cage persuaded Cunningham and Rauschenberg, along with Charles Olson, pianist and composer David Tudor, dancer Nicholas Cernovich, and potter and poet M. C. Richards, to participate. Duberman’s interviews reconstruct what Cage dubbed the “purposeless purposefulness” of the event. With memories often contradicting, this first Happening has acquired mythic status: in one version, Cunningham was chased by a barking dog; in another, Olson distributed a poem while Cunningham danced; in yet a third, Cage spoke about Buddhism while Rauschenberg’s White Painting was projected on the ceiling. For the way in which it resists historicization, Cage’s Happening is a good metaphor for Black Mountain College itself. Effacing the roots from which the art emerged, the aesthetic event makes the aftermath, rather than the moment itself, the primary object of analysis.

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Yet this decontextualizing approach also leaves unresolved the question of why the College closed. In the exhibition catalog and wall text accompanying the exhibit, explanations are often given in asides: the College was perpetually strapped for cash, organization was haphazard, enrollments declined. As the Yugoslavian-born writer Louis Adamic wrote in Harper’s in 1936: “Some hope that before long an angel will fly over Black Mountain and drop a half-million dollars on them.” But these explanations, while not incorrect, seem insufficient to account for why one of the most important sites of American artistic production simply disappeared.

In fact, the same features that made Black Mountain distinctive also contributed to its downfall: the anti-institutionalism held dear by teachers and students alike was not sustainable. Between 1948 and 1952, the college petered out to 15 students, called the “subsistence dwellers.” In place of a course catalog in these years, Olson, together with Robert Creeley, published the Black Mountain Review, one of the most influential small-press journals of the period. In the early 1950s, the handwriting was on the wall: individual artists and their art — but not the institution that had incubated them — would survive. As the poet (and former student of Creeley’s) Michael Rumaker reflected wistfully,

Perhaps, too, and the most likely, it was that the hour had finally come, unaware to us, that the varied and multiple shapes and ideas and perceptions spawned at Black Mountain over its last years were ready to be scattered out into the world, after a long-protracted and overdue birth. 

Despite its apparent decline during the 1950s, this was also the era of the most famous and productive partnerships that germinated at the College. The list is impressive. In addition to Rauschenburg, those who studied with Albers included Kenneth Noland, Esteban Vicente, V. V. Rankine, and Ray Johnson. In the summer institutes in which Franz Kline and Jack Tworkov taught, the web of influence was even vaster. Rauschenberg left and returned with Cy Twombly for two summers. But the fruits of these connections were to be born elsewhere.

In this respect, a history of Black Mountain is one of artistic exports: Cunningham formed his new dance company in New York; Olson wrote to Creeley while in Mexico. Other communities were also founded in the wake of Black Mountain’s disintegration: the Beatniks in San Francisco; Gate Hill in Stony Point, New York; and of course the Bauhaus in New York and Chicago. “Leap Before You Look,” preoccupied with this legacy, has little to say about the College’s vibrant culture or institutional history.

The erasure of origins allows the pupil to renounce his master. When Rauschenberg says that he was Albers’s least favorite student, his false humility is also an overthrow of the instructor-father. By the end of his life, Albers was no longer European but part of the moment of American experimental modernism — that is, the line between Europe and the United States had blurred. In 1956, an interviewer reported: “Josef Albers thinks Europe is a hard place for an artist to work because of its ‘distracting romanticism.’ He was known to say that Europe was done for as a cultural center for some time to come.” Critics like Perl have argued that Albers’s influence on subsequent developments in abstract expressionism was limited — which is true, if our concern is the direct impact of one artist on another. But viewed historically, the pattern of splintering and reformation of movements tells us something about modernism in general. The College was in fact part of a larger transformation in which the United States became not just a receiver but also a producer of art.

The case to be made for the archive, then, is that it helps account for how the College became more than an evanescent setting in this evolutionary process, placing its epochal achievements among other parallel historical developments. In addition to its ambiguous stance on racial integration and women’s rights, Black Mountain stood in a strange limbo between free love and homophobia, and between an openness to refugees and an unpleasant anti-Semitism. The College has often been described as being a progressive oasis of outsiders in the Jim Crow–era South. But with its troubled yet exuberant atmosphere, the College shared more with its adopted home — and with the postwar United States — than has been previously assumed.

Valorizing the art at the expense of the history, as this exhibition does, leaves holes to be filled only by memory and nostalgia. A historical approach to Black Mountain, on the other hand, tells us something about such artistic communities in this era — that they were inherently transitory and precarious because that is what made them dynamic and engaging. The College’s lack of organization and financial mismanagement were symptoms of the underlying cause of its demise: an anti-institutional ideology that prevented it from establishing itself for the long term. Black Mountain was destined to be a place where great modernists began their careers. Its destiny was, as Greenberg said, to produce big names and not a lot of art. Mired in debt to local merchants and faculty members, the College made a last-ditch effort, in the spring of 1956, to lease its lower campus for use as a camp for Christian boys. In March 1957, the debt issue unresolved, the College was unceremoniously forced to suspend classes for the few students who remained.

Restoring relevant context to artistic achievements shouldn’t just be the concern of the historian. Origins are important for understanding how to recreate the conditions for excellence for which Black Mountain became known. Obscuring origins is a form of fatalism that leaves history to chance. Even if the improvisational work of John Cage appeared serendipitous, it was in fact choreographed, and the choreography is crucial to recreating happening places for art to flourish elsewhere.

Adamic’s 1936 observation about the College’s financial straits suggests that impecunity was strangely part of the school’s ethos. Musing almost to himself, Adamic cautioned:

Some of them know also that too much money might be even worse than their present poverty. Five million dollars, if it could not be laid aside for founding similar colleges in other localities, might ruin them.

Perhaps. But then they might also have become the most successful art institute in the country. Instead, the site of Black Mountain College today houses a Christian summer camp and nature preserve. Must transience be the price to pay for creativity?

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Emily J. Levine teaches European history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School.