Return to Black Mountain

For nearly a quarter century beginning in 1933, scores of painters, writers, musicians, and other artists gravitated toward Black Mountain College in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and gave birth to a tradition-be-damned aesthetic that forever altered America’s idea of art. It was, as Coleman Hough writes in American Theatre (Jan. 1996), “the birthplace of the American avant-garde.”

The school’s original director, Josef Albers, imagined Black Mountain as a place to practice “dangerous” art, a vision that found expression in the early works of artists-in-residence Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Charles Olson. By the time the college closed for financial reasons in 1957, it had fostered a nationwide movement in the experimental arts: abstract expressionism, atonal music, beat verse, and modern dance. Among its alumni were choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, poet Gary Snyder, visionary engineer and author R. Buckminster Fuller, and painter Robert Rauschenberg.

With this legacy in mind, a contingent of Black Mountain alumni have been working during the past several months to raise money to fund an on-site archive for the permanent display of musical scores, manuscripts, films, and photographs by alumni. As Tom Patterson reports in Art Papers (Jan-Feb 1996), the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center aims to rekindle Black Mountain’s flame by creating a place for impromptu performances, retreats, and workshops–an incubator for dissident art. Backers have scheduled a fall fund-raiser at Christie’s auction house in New York, featuring artwork by Fuller and another alumnus, painter Kenneth Noland. A traveling exhibition is also in the works.

It is this communal vision, says Anne Waldman, that inspired her to cofound the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “My sense of the utopia,” she explains in the literary magazine Heaven Bone (#12), “was very much like that first Charles Olson reading in Berkeley when I saw a gathering of writers interacting together, saw the edge, the rawness of friendship and competition.” An artist’s duty, she adds, “is to keep things lucid and vibrant and going on all sorts of fronts.” And that spirit, Black Mountain revivalists agree, may be just what’s needed to refresh art and culture today. 

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