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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