Black Mountain College Museum gives new life for cradle of avant-garde

Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center gallery.
Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center gallery. David Dietrich/Courtesy of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center

In the annals of 20th-century American art, few legends loom quite as large as that of Black Mountain College.

Founded in 1933 by classics scholar John Andrew Rice and engineer Theodore Dreier, it was a progressive institution based in Black Mountain, a town in the North Carolina mountains that aimed to place art making at the heart of a liberal arts education. That same year, the Nazis forced the closing of another grand experiment, Germany’s Bauhaus school, prompting many of its teachers and students to decamp for the United States. Several landed at Black Mountain, most prominently Josef Albers, who was chosen to lead the art program, and his wife, Anni, who taught textile design and weaving.

Under Albers, whose course on materials and form was one of only two requirements (the other was a class on Plato), Black Mountain soon became known as a kind of Shangri-La for avant-garde art.

Former Bauhaus instructors and students – architect Walter Gropius and stage designer Xanti Schawinsky – taught there, alongside American artists Jacob Lawrence and Robert Motherwell, and, at one time or another, the student body included Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg, who later became titans of modern American art. Merce Cunningham’s dance company was founded at the college; Buckminster Fuller, also on the faculty, completed his first large-scale geodesic dome there in 1949; and Black Mountain was the site of what some regard as the first happening, mounted in 1952 by the composer John Cage.

The school closed in 1957, some years after Albers left to direct the first design department at Yale. But since 1993, another experimental institution, the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center, has kept its flame alive. In a storefront in downtown Asheville, a short drive from the old campus, it organizes talks, exhibitions, performances and an annual fall conference in which scholars (and sometimes practicing artists) examine the college’s legacy.

The museum’s expansion will more than double its size, to 2,900 square feet. The original gallery space, remodeled to incorporate a study center, reopened in January with a show covering 30 decades of “poemumbles” (daily poems and drawings) by a Black Mountain alumna, the painter Susan Weil. In June, the museum plans to open a new gallery across the street with a historical exhibition, “Something Else Entirely,” which will examine the making of the 1965 Fluxus mail-art book “Paper Snake,” by Ray Johnson, another student, using films and collages that have never been shown before.

“We try to have one foot in the past, honoring what happened at the college,” said program director Alice Sebrell, who runs the institution with a staff of two and a few interns. “But we also keep one foot very much in the present, looking to the future and what ideas artists are investigating today.”

The larger space will provide easier access to the center’s archives and more shows from the permanent collection. (The collection ranges from correspondence and dance performance programs, to historical gems like a desk designed by Albers for the students, to new artwork made by Black Mountain alumni, “because we don’t want to freeze anyone in time,” as Sebrell put it.) Both spaces were built and designed by Asheville artist Randy Shull, who drew inspiration from Black Mountain’s modernist utilitarian aesthetic, maintaining the old scuffed, paint-stained floors; creating shelves and bookcases from double layers of plywood; and using repurposed Southern yellow pine as a unifying trim.

The idea for the museum arose when its founder, Mary Holden Thompson, who had grown up nearby, moved to Paris and discovered that the name Black Mountain was far more revered there than in North Carolina.

Over the years, as more archival materials have become available and museums have organized more surveys of work by Black Mountain faculty members and students, interest in the college and its legacy has grown (“Black Mountain: An Interdisciplinary Experiment 1933-1957” opens at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin on June 5). But as time passes, the museum strives to maintain a sense of growth and experimentation - central to modernism and the school’s ethos - without cultivating nostalgia.

“We keep trying to find ways to channel that spirit,” said J. Richard Gruber, the chairman of the museum’s board, by asking, “What would Black Mountain and its artists be doing today?”

Want to visit?

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center is in Asheville. Details: blackmountaincollege.org.