Black Mountain College: “The Grass-Roots of Democracy”

In 1933, a group of freethinking American educators and academics took a look at their fresh, interwar world — and set about trying to remake it.

They set up a campus in idyllic countryside outside Asheville, North Carolina, and Black Mountain College was born.


Our guest, the literary historian Louis Menand, explains that B.M.C. was a philosophical experiment intent on putting the progressive philosopher John Dewey‘s ideas to work in higher education. The college curriculum was unbelievably permissive — but it did ask that students undertake their own formation as citizens of the world by means of creative expression, and hard work, in a community of likeminded people.

The college may not have lived up to its utopian self-image — the scene was frequently riven by interpersonal conflict — but it did serve as a stage-set to some of modern culture’s most interesting personalities and partnerships.


Josef Albers — he of “Homage to the Square” — served as the head of the painting department and the school’s nerve center from 1933 to 1949. He and his wife Anni — whose beautiful weaving stands out at the ICA/Boston’s B.M.C. exhibition — fled Hitler’s rise and brought the Bauhaus School with them to America. Albers would go on to influence the great names of modern American art in his role at B.M.C., including Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Jacob Lawrence, whose 1946 painting, “The Watchmaker” leaps off the wall.


Meanwhile, the summers saw visitors like architect Buckminster Fuller — who threw together his first, flimsy geodesic dome at B.M.C. — and the dance-and-music pairing of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. All that talent could sometimes converge, as in “Theatre Piece No. 1,” an fabled, but undocumented, mixed-media happening starring Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, David Tudor and Franz Kline.

Or, again, during the college’s cash-strapped final six years, while the voluble poet Charles Olson served as rector — and built a trailblazing poetic scene feeding into and drawing on the burgeoning Beat generation. Our guest, Globe art critic, Sebastian Smee, told the story of Olson grumpily fishing a delirious Rauschenberg out of icy Lake Eden.

So we’re looking behind B.M.C.’s famous products — the all-white canvases, the silent 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the domes and the poems  — to the effervescent human world beneath it, and for the much it tells us about vision, education, and human growth.

Guest List
Ruth Erickson
assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, home of the exhibit "Leap Before You Look, Black Mountain College 1933-1957"
Louis Menand
New Yorker writer and professor of English at Harvard
Ted Dreier
student and son of Theodore Dreier, who was a founding faculty member of Black Mountain College
Sebastian Smee
journalist and art critic for Boston Globe
Taylor Davis
wood sculptor and teacher at Mass College of Art
William Davis
draughtsman and drawing teacher at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

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  • Painters Painting (1973)
    Director: Emile de Antonio
    116 min

    Gets into to a historically fascinating interview with a drunken Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Both the progeny of the abstract expressionists, in league with Leo Castelli, bring on the beginning of the end of art about art in favor of art about ideas which is a currency with more liquidity (Cha-Ching!)- their progeny being Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons in league with Charles Saatchi.

    Not sure what Rauschenberg felt about POP art, but Johns and he were usually on the same page. Johns disses POP art thus:

    “…the things that interested me are the things that can’t be located or are things that turn into something else while you’re looking, or are located so nicely that you know they can’t survive.
    Pop art is territory where you are sure things are what they are.”

    Kinda conflicts with what Chris’ first guest said – but hey!

    • Luke Menand

      Just for the record, I explicitly said that I would not call Rauschenberg a Pop artist. But his success did to a lot to make Pop an international style, whether that’s what he thought he was doing or not.

      I second the recommendation of de Antonio’s documentary, which is on DVD.


  • Pete Crangle

    “Imagination is the highest kite one can fly.” – Lauren Bacall

    A thousand halos for this one. Thank you Chris, guests, and team ROS.

    BMC was an excellent incubator. Zen, wabi sabi, bricolage, repurposed found objects and materials, improvisation, craft, intellectual honesty and openness, etc. These were obviously important parts of this institution and its instruction. I live in this part of the world, and was fascinated to discover this school’s history when I came here. I wish I could have met up with you Chris and team ROS. Perhaps, another time?

    The U.S. has an excellent history of incubators: early manifestations of Wall St., Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, Silicon Valley, Bell Labs, Disney, Motown, Chitlin circuit, Juke dives, Brothels (e.g. Storyville), Montessori, Civil Rights Organizations, Environmental Advocacy, Religious institutions, Venture Capital, and various governmental and industrial locations whose ghostly carcasses litter the U.S. scene. Our university system has been an excellent incubator of talent as well.

    It has been a brewed up mix of private, public, and governmental organizing. With a variety of agendas, motivations, eccentricities, and vanities. This is unlike lobbying groups and think tanks, which are generally, not excellent examples of incubators, IMO. They, tend to corrupt and be corrupted, and do not cultivate talent interested in illuminating aspects of reality or human culture. They wish to shape the context upon narrow self-interests; which in and of itself isn’t detrimental. But, their narrow interests tend to have to be internalized by the larger culture as a constraint.

    I should mention that capitalism is an incubator, but the results have been to be charitable, mixed. Of course, the greatest incubator of all is democracy itself. One should never forget this. Not all of its aspects are pretty.

    There is a lifecycle to these institutions, and atrophy and morbidity eventually sets in. The context changes for their original purpose. Adaptation can only go so far; most institutions wither for this reason, as the original mission can no longer be honored if it is to move into a new context. Religion and myths can suffer from this, but have been interestingly resilient over the long haul.

    Capitalism, as an incubator, is suffering from just such a problem. And it is having global impact. One of the problems with speculative capitalism is the long curve legacy systems must enjoy to pay-off for their development. This is a problem across a broad spectrum of society. We suffer the problem of not only over-consumption, but from finding ourselves locked into legacy systems, and unable to transition within a consumer infrastructure. This is an acute problem with the energy extraction and refinement sector. Our homes, businesses, facilities, and transportation have integrated a now outdated model, and cannot move away without tremendous pain, and loss of capital investment. Legacy demands are always severe in the face of transition.

    There are a variety of reasons for this dynamic, investment of money and intellectual training are chief among them. More cynically, territory that creates fiefdoms of power. One the pressing issues that capitalism in general must always deal with is training and its ugly step-cousin, retraining. Labor supply that has been developed for specialized tasks, will eventually reach peak market saturation or outsourcing imperatives. This is the primary reason for the repetition of retooling a skill set over the course of a career. It is to be clear, a gross inefficiency. In human terms, it is a violence upon labor.

    These are core issues for a political-economy that has seen great heights, but has been dithering with atrophy. This is the very area that new institutions, on their own or within older institutions, must develop around. Incubation fuels the innovative dynamic which train the larger world to follow. Cooperation is a key component, because it always is. As is heart and soul, wit and brain power, and wisdom and historical understanding.

    There needs to be a resetting of expectation. The crazed, sweet tooth for innovative, shiny objects itself is part of the problem. We need to live better within constraints of reality, with what has already been abundantly supplied for us … anathema to market speculation, as well as, a fetishized commercial art and entertainment complex. The tech sector is part of this as well, it’s products considered pathologically obsolete upon Version One launch. We observe consumer cycles which enjoy a seasonal length more akin to fashion cycles.

    When I suggest we live within constraints, I’m not suggesting a shutdown of discovery, investigation, and invention. Or a brutal, centrally controlled model for emergent organization. On the contrary, I’m merely suggesting a reduced consumer dependency. A rebalancing of infinite desire against finite supply (a classic economic description). I believe it to be the necessity of a post-economic world. An update to a BMC inspired model would be helpful. Institutions that encourage novel thinking, without the imperative for results and outcomes, is one of the things missing from mass culture. Schools function around knowledge appropriation and testing. BMC somewhat demonstrated an imperative to develop one’s facility and integrate it into the world, but most importantly, how to take risks without concern for reward. Risk taking is often punished out of children, or adults trying to learn new trades, crafts, and arts.

    It’s been mentioned on the thread by Mr. Peabody, and Mr. Menand, the film “Painter’s painting.” I recommend this film too. It’s focus is not on BMC, but east coast, NYC oriented art-doings in its yesteryear’s. I found the passages with Mr. de Kooning, a monster great painter and quirky communicator, and Mr. Motherwell to be very good. The passage with Ms.Frankenthaler triggered for me an intuitive understanding of Cubism and color field painting’s relationship with a larger context. I did find the editing a bit uneven, but by-and-large, an excellent film. As is much of Mr. de Antonio’s work; a brave and risk-taking filmmaker.

    Thank you Chris & team ROS for this. Much appreciated, amigos.

  • malsperanza

    Cool. My grandmother was a summer student there in 1945. She had some amusing stories about Albers’s classes.

  • Potter

    I never knew about BMC nor Anni Albers, though the others yes, especially Jacob Lawrence. She was something- her work, as you say Chris, inspiring.

    Art without money in mind! What a concept! I missed this first time round and the ICA show. Thank you for bringing it back!