It’s where John Cage staged his first Happening, Fridays were often dedicated to art classes, and all faculty, staff, and students participated in the college’s operations from farming to construction. Located in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, Black Mountain College was an experimental school founded upon the idea of “learning by doing.”
We stop by the Hammer Museum’s exhibition Leap Before you Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957, to talk to Helen Molesworth, curator of the exhibition and chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
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Black Mountain College college website
Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957 Hammer exhibition
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
HELEN MOLESWORTH: The ideas come in and the ideas return. And that, for me, is a way of thinking about how ideas and people move that create more complicated networks of cause and effect.
CUNO: In this episode I speak with curator Helen Molesworth about Black Mountain College. Black Mountain College, nestled in the mountains of North Carolina, was founded in 1933 as a liberal arts college with a strong commitment to the study and the practice of the arts. Over the next few years, artists and architects once associated with the experimental art and design school in Dessau, Germany—the Bauhaus—arrived to Black Mountain. First, Josef Albers and his wife Anni Albers, recommended by the influential architect and Museum of Modern Art curator Philip Johnson. Then, Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and in 1939 Heinrich Jalowetz, a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s and a prominent member of the second Viennese school of musical composition. In 1944 Jalowetz and Black Mountain music faculty organized a summer institute in honor of the composer Schoenberg. The institute’s success led to the organization of additional summer institutes featuring such artists as the composer John Cage, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, pianist David Tudor, poets Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, architect Buckminster Fuller, ceramicist and translator Mary Caroline Richards, and painters Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly. I recently discussed Black Mountain with Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and curator of the exhibition, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957, which at the time we spoke was on view at LA’s Hammer Museum. We met at the museum’s galleries.
The music you will hear during our conversation was composed by John Cage and performed by David Tudor, courtesy of Hat Hut Records.
Helen, Black Mountain College was founded, I think, in 1933, in Asheville, North Carolina, with ten faculty and nineteen students. As I read in your catalog, John Rice, a tenured classics professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, was dismissed from that college, and a colleague of his, Theodore Dreier, suggested that they start a new school, using, possibly renting, the buildings at Blue Ridge Assembly, a Christian summer camp in North Carolina. Was it as easy as that, that they just—someone had an idea and said, let’s go do it, and it happened? How complicated was it to get it started?
MOLESWORTH: I don’t know, ’cause the historical record is filled with myth. And that’s one of the endearing qualities of Black Mountain College is its kind of mythic nature. But I don’t think it— I think on the one hand, it was as easy as that. I think they, in fact, did simply decide to do it and a few phone calls were made. But it belies some other idea, some other facts. For instance, Theodore Dreier was an extremely well-connected person from a [sic] affluent family, so that he had access to not only family money, but also his family—
CUNO: ’Cause he was related to Katherine Dreier.
MOLESWORTH: He’s Katherine Dreier’s nephew, exactly. And of course, Katherine Dreier’s the founder of the Société Anonyme, with Duchamp and Man Ray. So he came out of an affluent, cultured family, who was also friends with the Forbeses, another affluent, cultured family. So, on the one hand, it’s easy. This made this decision and they, you know, they went to Asheville—or technically, Black Mountain—and began, but they also had some big guns behind them when they started.
CUNO: Now, why did they choose to go to North Carolina? I mean, where did they first get the idea of that? How was that connection made?
MOLESWORTH: Robert [read: Wesley] Huss, who was the theater faculty, he knew of this Christian camp that was only operative during the summertime, which meant that the buildings stood fallow during what would be the academic year. And North Carolina—I didn’t know this before we worked on the project—is dotted with these Christian camps. They have a kind of vernacular architecture. And that architecture is one big house, and then lots of cabins that surround it. So it’s kind of perfect, in a way, for an academic setting. You have one large hall where people meet and gather and study, and then you have outlying buildings where— you know, dormitory-style situation, where faculty could live and so on and so forth.
CUNO: And in the thirties, in that decade, it was not— It was rather common to—or at least there were other such experimental schools being developed—no doubt because the economy encouraged it. And in fact, my great-grandfather lived his last years in a socialist utopian cooperative colony in Louisiana, and taught at their college, called Commonwealth College, which was founded by a former faculty at another college in Florida, Ruskin College in Florida, as a non-sectarian, self-maintaining residential labor school to educate workers. So the fact that it happened in that decade wasn’t just because of particular personal problems that one faculty member had in being dismissed from the college, but it was a time of utopian visions for education. And I suppose because of the economy, things could happen.
MOLESWORTH: I think that’s exactly right. And I think also in the thirties, what you have is the sort of efflorescence or full evolution of progressive ideas and progressive education.
CUNO: With John Dewey…
MOLESWORTH: With John Dewey and— And so you have a utopian strain around education, coming out of a philosophical discourse; and then you also have FDR, so you have some of those progressive social ideas happening at the highest levels of government. And somewhere in between those coordinates, I think, a lot of experimentation was permitted. And also I think you’re right to point to the economy. Lean times often produce great innovation, because the stakes are somehow lower, because everybody’s equally down and out.
CUNO: Yeah. And the coincidence of that rising as the Bauhaus was falling in Germany and therefore—and the attraction of Albers, Josef and Anni Albers to Black Mountain College, was a coincidence of which they could take great advantage of.
CUNO: And so we’re standing in a gallery that’s dedicated to Albers—that is, Josef and Anni Albers. Josef established the academic curriculum. He had been at the Bauhaus. And he was famous—that Bauhaus in Dessau and then in Weimar—or Weimar, then Dessau—was famous for its radical pedagogy. And it was dissolved because of these— just at the time these social experiments were being created in the US. What were the different kinds of social contexts for these schools, the Bauhaus and Black Mountain? In other words, it wasn’t the same kind of school from which Josef Albers came. But from a very disciplined art school, to something that was not, in fact, an art school, but for which art was a principle part of its pedagogy and curriculum.
MOLESWORTH: Right. I mean, Albers had been a pedagogue even before he taught at the Bauhaus. He had taught art in the elementary school system in Germany. So he comes to teaching with an experience prior to the Bauhaus. You know, Dewey’s translated into German, I think as early as 1916. And so Albers had been reading Dewey, so he knows of American progressive models of education. But at the Bauhaus, the Bauhaus is many things. It is radical, it is utopian; but it’s also a professional school. It has a mandate to take people who are already identified as wanting to be artists or craftspeople, and training them in such a way that can put them back out into the culture as active producers of artwork and design. Black Mountain is very different in that regard. Black Mountain is established as a classic liberal arts college. Except what it does is put the arts at the center of the curriculum, rather than at the periphery.
And so when they hire Albers to come, Albers brings the three core Bauhaus classes to Black Mountain, which are his color theory class, a design class, and matière studies, which is the material studies course. And they decide to offer those classes on Fridays, and not offer any other classes on Fridays, so that this becomes a moment where not only most of the students take Albers’ classes, but also a lot of the faculty and faculty spouses take those classes as well. So you’re really creating a community of people with a deeply shared set of ideas and skills and exercises and practices. But Albers was really explicit about Black Mountain, that he wasn’t training artists, ’cause he didn’t recognize the students as artists. He recognized them only as students, and was interested in teaching them how to think through the problems that art offers. But he was very clear. He didn’t want them signing their work, he did not think they were going to be artists. He modified his teaching, in that regard, from his Bauhaus days.
CUNO: How is his course and that teaching evidenced in the things that we’re looking at?
MOLESWORTH: Well, I think one of the things that is a misnomer about Albers is that he’s extremely rigid and doctrinaire, because what most of us know is the Homage to the Square. But I think in early Albers, what you see is actually a play with optical illusion. So he’s not a classic modernist in that sense, like what you see is what you see. That’s not what Albers is about.
Albers is about like, what you see is actually quite complicated and can trick you, and you should be looking very carefully at how foreground and background are established; you should be looking very carefully at how flat lines on a two-dimensional plane can appear to create three-dimensional space, but are still resolutely flat. I mean, I think he was really interested in, in other words, problems of perception. And perception, of course, becomes a kind of like key working problem for Albers when he moves into the sphere of color theory. So what we see in these early paintings of Albers, where he’s playing with all this sort of wobbling gestalt of foreground and background, is him really working through how honest, on the one hand, can I be about the kind of mark I’m making? So there’s no trick. You can see every move, right? Which is not true in, like, a perspectival painting, where the orthogonals are hidden from the viewer, right, and we’re swept up into a false sense of believing a picture has more room in it than it does. I mean, you can see the flatness, but you can also see how that flatness can be manipulated to create depth.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, they come in ’33?
CUNO: Is that right? So four years later, in ’37, the college purchases some property three miles from the Blue Ridge Assembly, which include cottages and a main building. And they, I guess, hired, or at least asked Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Bauhaus architects, to design a new campus. It was never realized. But what was—what was the connection to Gropius and Breuer? Was it because of the connection through Albers to the Bauhaus. And then was it also the ambition to building something on the scale of the Bauhaus, as a modernist contribution to the architecture?
MOLESWORTH: Completely. I mean, Albers is part of a network of Bauhaus faculty and students that are dispersed throughout the United States. And they’re trying to basically reimagine what the Bauhaus can be in various places across the country—Chicago; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Black Mountain being the three main locales for this. So Gropius and Breuer and invited and they make a plan—
CUNO: Was Gropius at this time already at Harvard? Was he then at Cambridge, or not yet?
MOLESWORTH: I’m not sure exactly the dates when Gropius shows up at Harvard. But Albers and Gropius play a competitive game of footsie back and forth between Black Mountain and Harvard for a long time. Like, Gropius is always dangling the possibility of a job; it never materializes. He gets Albers that commission at Harvard, you know, ’cause Albers does that tile commission in the law building in Cambridge. Gropius is sending Harvard students to Black Mountain, including his own daughter goes to Black Mountain College. But they’re frenemies, you know what I mean? They have artistic rivalry and competition, but they also are part of a shared intellectual diaspora, you know, trying to make it work in the States.
CUNO: And the third part of that—you mentioned Chicago—of course, is Mies van der Rohe and Moholy-Nagy.
MOLESWORTH: And Moholy are there, right.
CUNO: But there’s no presence of Chicago here. In other words, is that true?
MOLESWORTH: The Chicago presence comes through in the photography program, where Harry Callahan, Arthur Siegel, and Aaron Siskind come via Chicago, and they end up at Black Mountain. And they’re the sort of Moholy connection, ’cause Arthur Siegel is the kind of prized Moholy student, at one point.
CUNO: So, why, then, do Gropius and Breuer not get the commission? It was just a matter of money?
MOLESWORTH: Yeah. Basically, as with all named architects everywhere, some of their buildings are too expensive for the institution [chuckles] to complete them.
CUNO: But then a guy name Lawrence Kocher—is that how you pronounce his name?
MOLESWORTH: Yeah, Lawrence Kocher.
CUNO: Editor of the Architectural Record joins the family as a resident architect. Is that the first time architecture is taught at the school, when he is hired to teach it?
MOLESWORTH: Yeah, it’s the first time it’s formally taught at the school, because—I mean, Fuller, of course, comes and is doing his sort of more experimental kinds of architecture. And the work program has been established, so the beginnings of an architecture program are there, inasmuch as the students are working ditch digging and drainage and building—making a farm and all—you know, that kinda stuff. You know, they’re felling trees and gathering timber and stuff like that to sell. So that you have the kind of base of a program that then really develops with Kocher. And Kocher has an extremely pragmatic relationship to architecture. It’s modernist, but it’s not modernist utopia. He is extremely mindful about the idea that America is going to win the war, and the world will need to be rebuilt, and we need to get onboard with rebuilding it. And one of the ways it’s going to need to be rebuilt is all these GIs are going to come back from the war, and they’re going to need housing. And so what kind of quick, affordable, readymade, modern housing can be developed for the returning GIs? And that becomes such an ethos of the college that it’s even an exam question. You know, so a final exam question would include something like, you know, what kind of housing can you imagine for the returning GIs, is a senior class question.
CUNO: When did the outbuildings get designed? The Minimum House and the music house and—
MOLESWORTH: Those buildings are all being designed in the mid- to late forties. And so—
CUNO: As part of, like, student projects or—
MOLESWORTH: They’re absolutely part of student projects. So Kocher shows up and they’re learning how to draw architectural plans, as we can see here. And then they’re building buildings that are very modest in scale. And they’re building them with the material that they can get…
CUNO: On site?
MOLESWORTH: …on site. So it’s a big use of fieldstone. So they’re dragging stones from across the—all over the property. And then timber. It’s a very wooded—the Blue Mountains are filled with beautiful forests, large first-growth trees. And that’s the kind of building style that’s happening. And the kinds of buildings they make other than the study building are—they make music cubicle, you know, a music study room; they make houses for some of the most revered faculty, prime among them Heinrich Jalowetz, who was the music teacher.
CUNO: The Jalowetz house looks like it might come from the legacy of those Case Study Houses or be part of that mentality. Is that the case?
MOLESWORTH: Well, it’s so interesting you say that because Kocher ends up being one of the primary advocates of Case Study housing in southern California. After he leaves Black Mountain, he ends up in southern California, and he’s part of that whole Case Study movement. So that kind of—I always call it like the sort of kinder, gentler modernism, is very much the kind of modernism that is being trafficked in Black Mountain.
CUNO: And so part of the academic curriculum is to learn about architecture by the process of making architecture. And you talked about the work-study program, and we’re standing in front of a big mural showing the students digging trenches, as the kind that you mentioned. When did that become part of the curriculum? And once it became part of the curriculum was always part of the curriculum that one day a week or one part of every day, they’d be working?
MOLESWORTH: The work program begins almost at the beginning of the college, ’cause there are so few of them that they have to do the work themselves. And they also decide, as part of the logic of progressive education, that they will eat together and that they will live together. And that in doing so, they’re going to break down these hierarchies between faculty and student. They also are very, very enamored of Dewey’s idea of learning by doing. And so that means learning by doing not only in architecture, but also in farming, in building, in community making, right? So you learn how to be a part of a community, you learn how to be a citizen, in fact, by doing all of the work that it takes to run an institution. It’s also bound up with the idea that from the very inception of the college, Rice and Dreier decide that there will be no board of regents, there will be no trustees, that the faculty and the students will own the college themselves. And so because they are so cash-strapped, the work program is actually part of the working model of how the college exists. So some students love the work program and some don’t. Students who don’t are given a kind of forbearance and they’re sort of allowed not to participate in ditch digging. If they’re not any good at it or they really hate it, they’re given other things to do. But when Olson shows up after the first group of the faculty—when Charles Olson shows up, he’s sort of famously apocryphally quote as saying, you know, “No more of this community horseshit.” And he’s not interested in the work program. You know, Olson is interested in talking all night. He’s not interested in working all night.
CUNO: Do we know much about these students, the demographics of them, where they come from and what they did after they graduated, and was there an alumni group that perpetuated the college in any kind of way?
MOLESWORTH: Yeah. Yeah, we know more about some than others, obviously. I mean, we know, of course, about all the famous students—the students who end up to be famous artists there.
CUNO: Rauschenberg, Twombly.
MOLESWORTH: Practitioners. Right, all those folks. But your typical Black Mountain College student was young, adventurous—
CUNO: You mean younger than college students? Younger than eighteen, maybe sixteen, whatever.
MOLESWORTH: Well, no. Yes. For instance Jacqueline Gourevitch shows up at Black Mountain College one summer at the age of sixteen. Most of them have read an article in Harper’s Magazine, written by Louis Adamic, that describes the college in very mythic and utopian terms. And many of the students recall showing their parents the article, saying that they wanted to go there, and then their parents saying okay, and then students invariably arrive by bus—alone. So this kind of strappy spirit of the thirties and the forties of young people moving around the country, making their way without their parents, with a kind of bravery that’s really different from today. No one is getting driven to Black Mountain with, like, fresh sheets from Target. Like, that is not the way people arrived at this college.
CUNO: Yeah. So, we’re now in the late forties. Has it become an art school? Has it abandoned its literal arts curriculum in favor of the art school?
MOLESWORTH: In some ways it has, because the summer sessions have become so important. It was Albers’s idea to invite a lot of art faculty to come for the summer to increase enrollment, as an attempt at increasing the finances or solidifying the financial stability of the college. And so by—
CUNO: That would be in addition to the curricular year?
MOLESWORTH: In addition to the curricular year, exactly. And so the college would really swell during the summertime in the forties, and then sort of shrink back to its normal status for—
CUNO: And those summer sessions were—the famous music summer sessions. Did they begin as music and as art and as dance and as—or was it whenever someone could come that it became that part of the—
MOLESWORTH: The first one is very much tied to music, because it was also a kind of Festschrift model, because it was meant to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Schoenberg—seventy-fifth birthday of Arnold Schoenberg. But subsequent to that, they’re just art sessions. I mean, they’re just the art summer sessions. And so you have, you know, you could have Willem de Kooning and Cage being invited the same summer, and there’s not a priority being made between them.
CUNO: Yeah. So we’re actually in a gallery in which we see Willem and Elaine de Kooning’s paintings, and we see other paintings clearly inspired by their work. Did they come as— When did they come as—in summer session? They came as teachers in the summer session.
MOLESWORTH: They come as teachers in the summer of 1948. Willem comes as a teacher, Elaine comes as a faculty spouse, which was the case with many of the spouses were also artists and women, and so they have a somewhat ambiguous role at the college, but Elaine, for instance, was a very full participant in college life. And they spend a very fateful summer in 1948. ’48’s a big summer. A lotta people are there. Cage, Cunningham are there, de Kooning is there, and Buckminster Fuller is there, Olson is there. It’s like a super, super rich event.
CUNO: Was there some one person who was the mind to bring those people all together, it was—
MOLESWORTH: Josef Albers.
CUNO: Albers put them all together?
MOLESWORTH: And that’s another thing, I think, that’s really remarkable about Albers is as single-minded as he was in his own work, he’s extraordinarily catholic when it comes to his invitations to outside faculty, I think. He really established the idea that the robustness of an art school depends on the heterogeneity of the faculty. And the task of the student is actually to make sense of the different things being taught. And this is, of course, very different from the Bauhaus. Right? And this becomes really one of the most enduring legacies of Black Mountain on American art schools, postwar.
CUNO: Well, clearly, when someone, I guess, of great talent and personality as Willem de Kooning comes, he leaves his mark in the work of the students who were emulating him, or at least inspired by him, and making the kind of paintings that you can think he might have made. And we’re looking right now at a painting which I thought to be the greatest surprise to me in the exhibition. I had never heard of Pat Passlof. It’s, I think, an extraordinary picture. And it’s a picture painted in 1948, that fateful, as you described it. What is her biography? And was she a student at that time and did she have a career afterwards?
MOLESWORTH: She was a student. I think this painting is a surprise to everyone who encounters it. Everyone assumes it’s the black and white de Kooning that they haven’t seen. But it isn’t. It’s her picture. She’s an interesting story because she says to de Kooning, “I want to be an artist; what should I do?” And de Kooning says to Passlof, “You should move to New York.” And Pat Passlof, that summer, leaves Black Mountain and moves to New York. And Albers is—
CUNO: In ’48.
MOLESWORTH: In ’48. And Albers is furious.
CUNO: And how old is she in ’48?
MOLESWORTH: She’s a young woman. I don’t know her actual dates, but she’s a young person in 1948.
CUNO: So Albers is furious, why?
MOLESWORTH: Albers is furious ’cause Albers is basically like, dude, don’t take my students to New York. [laughs] You know, like what are you doing? You know, we’re here trying to give people a liberal arts education, and you’re telling them basically to like, not complete college and sign your first year of the draft. You know? I mean, and so Albers is like very upset about this. And it is also, I think—
CUNO: And she leaves then in ’48 and goes away.
MOLESWORTH: And she leaves and she goes and studies with de Kooning in New York.
CUNO: You know, we’re now talking about a generation, which would be a second or third generation of students at Black Mountain College, and a kind of transition from those founding fathers to this new energy that comes by way—in this gallery, we can see it—by way of de Kooning. But we’ll get to it soon, Cage and Cunningham and so forth. And you talked about that moment and that transition in a way that is different than previous interpreters of that change in which was that the earlier might’ve said there was a generational change simply put, but you cast in the light of cosmopolitanism. And you’re raising that right now with the introduction of Buddhism. So, tell us about your view of this change from one generation to the next.
MOLESWORTH: Well, I think the traditional way of talking about Black Mountain is one, that it’s the Americanization of Bauhaus, it’s the birth of the American avant-garde, and that this first wave of faculty, who are German, Jewish, Austrian émigrés, bring modernity and modernism and the German intellectual tradition to America. And then the upstarts, the AbExers show up, and Cage and Cunningham show up, and they have new ideas and they’re kind of French ideas and it becomes, you know, the sort of postmodern avant-garde. But I just don’t quite see it that cleanly. Partly because I’m allergic to stories that reside in American exceptionalism. I mean, it just seems an impossible thing to maintain, post 9/11, you know, for all kinds of reasons.
But what I see is that that shift from modernism to postmodernism is a slow one, and that actually, the seeds of it are in many of the modernists themselves. So, I see that those seeds in Albers’ understanding that perception doesn’t provide you with the truth. Perception, as such, is completely contingent on context. And so that’s the beginning of a way of looking at postmodernism’s refusal of certain master narratives and certain truth claims. But in terms of cosmopolitan, what I see at Black Mountain is an extraordinary mix, where you have this European tradition, you have people coming up and down from Mexico, you have the introduction of Japanese ideas and also Indian ideas. You know, different strains of Buddhism coming through the college. And what you have is a place that’s rural and remote. People come to it, they bring the ideas from where they’ve been; and then they leave and they take the mix of those ideas, as seen through the progressive education framework of Black Mountain, and they take those ideas back out. And so for me, that’s a two-way exchange, right? The ideas come in and the ideas return. And that, for me, is a way of thinking about how ideas and people move that create more complicated networks of cause and effect. And I think that’s a really cosmopolitan way of being in the world. And I think that the cosmopolitanism of the college is sparked by the diasporic conditions created by the war. But then I think it’s sort of taken on, not as like a vice, but rather as a virtue. Like it’s a good thing to be someone who moves around. Right? It’s not only a bad thing to be someone who’s moving around.
CUNO: So, now we’re looking at photographs of Merce Cunningham and his dancers in ’52–53, which is the culmination of their residency in these summers sessions. And I think in ’53, officially, maybe not, and not Black Mountain, but when he goes back to New York, he forms the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Is that the same year?
MOLESWORTH: He actually forms it at the college. In the summer of ’53, even though the college at that point was quite poor and was not nearly as robust as it had been, what it still was for many artists was an opportunity to be away from New York, in a quiet, remote, very physically beautiful place in the summer, to do work. And so what Cunningham was able to do was, he was able to bring, I believe it’s six or seven of the dancers that would form the original troupe with him to Black Mountain for the summer. And they spent the summer working on dances that Merce Cunningham was choreographing at the time.
CUNO: With students?
MOLESWORTH: Well, there’s a mix. He’s got his dancers with him that summer, in ’53. In the summer of ’48, you can see pictures of students, like this one here. This is Robert Rauschenberg and Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn dancing, you know, as students, in a Merce Cunningham dance class. But in the summer of ’53, he actually has—you know, Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber are with him, and he is working on that first group of dancers that will become the sort of bedrock of the Cunningham oeuvre.
CUNO: And David Tudor is already with him, because David Tudor comes as a teacher, independent of Cage and Cunningham, is that right?
MOLESWORTH: Yes, because Cage and Tudor develop a very intense relationship. Cage actually arrives at Black Mountain first, as Cunningham’s accompanist. I mean, he’s actually kind of faculty spouse, in a way. But then when Tudor arrives, Cage and Tudor form a very strong relationship. And it’s really Tudor who becomes the primary performer of Cage compositions. And that’s how Tudor ends up so connected with the Cage-Cunningham, you know, situation, so to speak.
CUNO: But that core group of Tudor, Cage, Cunningham, with Brown and Farber as dancers, all forms in ’48, then or—?
MOLESWORTH: No, it forms in ’53. I mean, they’re hanging out, they— they meet, they’re meet in the late forties, they’re doing work; but the troupe itself forms in ’53. And that’s when Cunningham asks Rauschenberg if he’ll do the set design and costume. It’s when he asks Black Mountain student Nick Cernovitch if he would do the scenography and the lighting. It’s when he decides that the music, the dance, and the scenography will not be connected to one another. That’s a sort of fundamental moment in Cunningham’s thinking that those three things are separate but equal, and they will come together, often for the first time on the night of the performance.
CUNO: And is it at this time that Olson is there as a summer session teacher? Or is he on faculty?
MOLESWORTH: No, Olson is there full time at this point. By the time, Olson becomes the rector of the college in 1950. So Olson is there pretty much full time from 1950 to 1957, when the college closes. And Olson takes Merce Cunningham’s dance class. Cunningham describes him, at some point—I can’t quite remember the phrase.
CUNO: He doesn’t have the body of a dancer, as I recall.
MOLESWORTH: No, he does not. He’s a huge man. He’s like six-four and quite burly. And Cunningham describes him as an—like he had the gracefulness of an elephant. It’s a very weird way of thinking about elephants and grace. [laughs]
CUNO: So this is near the end of Black Mountain.
CUNO: And I recall that when Olson comes—or takes on the mantle of rector, he develops an academic plan for the operation of Black Mountain College after 1956. This is like 1954, so I don’t think Black Mountain even makes it to ’56, does it?
MOLESWORTH: No, it doesn’t.
CUNO: And in this plan, he said he saw a— To your point about cosmopolitanism, he said in his plan that he saw a dream picture of a cosmopolitan college of satellite institutions held together by a centripetal force, a myth at its center, Black Mountain College. That was his vision. Was that a vision both, you know, of a kind that he believed in? Or was it of necessity, as a way to help Black Mountain College survive?
MOLESWORTH: I think it had to have been both. I think Olson had the idea of the Chinese scholar. The Chinese scholar goes away, does his work—and it was his work—does his work, comes back, and tells people his findings. So Olson’s actually really different than John Rice. I mean, Olson is not that interested in the Socratic method. Olson is like, I know stuff; you listen. And that’s the model. So I think Olson’s idea that intellectuals, creative people needed to go to places, do their work, and then come back to a place to distribute that work, is something that’s internal to him. And I think that you see that in his idea for how Black Mountain might be able to exist, not as a single place, but rather as a constellation of places.
CUNO: Yeah. So, why does Black Mountain come to an end? Is it the return of a robust economy that allows people to go off to Stanford and Harvard and Yale and Princeton, wherever that is, and they don’t need a Black Mountain College? They don’t need the kind of economic circumstances that it provides them?
MOLESWORTH: I think a couple things happen. In 1950, the terms of the GI Bill change. So prior to 1950, if you got money on the GI Bill, it was given to the student directly, and then the student was able to give it to whatever institution that they were going to, attending, and then spend the money as they needed to, to support their studies. By 1950, the government can no longer afford that largesse around the GI Bill because, of course, we’ve begun our war in Korea. Right? And so it can’t have a war in Asia and do the GI Bill simultaneously. So the GI Bill rules constrict, and the money then has to go directly to the institutions, and it gets much more focused and parsimonious and efficient and bureaucratic. And so basically, through most of the forties, Black Mountain is just swimming. It’s afloat on a sea of GI money. Like, that’s how it survives. So that happens. So the GI Bill changes.
Theodore Dreier leaves in 1949. Dreier’s capacity to pick up the phone and call wealthy people on the East Coast when the college was really strapped for cash cannot be underestimated. So there’d be a deficit in the bank account, there’d be great money woes, and then all of a sudden there’d be like a $5,000 deposit. And that’s Theodore Dreier. So by the time Olson becomes rector in 1950, you have reduced GI Bill, you no longer have someone who can call New York or Boston and get a big check put in the bank, and you also have the rise of New York and San Francisco. You have a New York AbEx thing happening, and you have the Beat scene in San Francisco emerging. So basically, if you’re a kid, if you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty and you’re this kind of person that could end up at Black Mountain, there are also some other places for you to go. And so that centrality of it doesn’t exist anymore.
CUNO: Yeah. Did Black Mountain come to an end suddenly, or did it slowly peter out?
MOLESWORTH: Oh, no, I think it’s a really slow and painful death. I mean, it happens over a four- or five-year period. But I think it’s slow in that there’s attrition. They sell off chunks of the land. Then they close the main dining hall because there’s not enough wood to keep it warm. Then there’s no more communal meals, because there’s not enough food to feed everyone. So it’s a kind of every-man-for-himself model. So things just progressively peel off from that original robust utopian plan of we eat and we work together. That just slowly diminishes over time.
CUNO: And in the end, there’s—you said what—six or seven students?
MOLESWORTH: There’s like six or seven students and a handful of faculty.
CUNO: So then what is the legacy of Black Mountain College?
MOLESWORTH: Well, I think the legacy of Black Mountain College is several fold. In one way, it’s most basic legacy is it remains the template for the American art school to this day. Its combination of disciplines, its commitment to a heterogeneous faculty, and its commitment to a kind of parity between teacher and student—these are all the hallmarks of the American art school as we know them today. That’s a deep legacy, and a refusal of that Beaux-Arts tradition.
The other legacy is, of course, the individual practitioners who emerged. I mean, you have— Many of the names are the foundational names of the avant-garde of the second half of the century. You know, Rauschenberg, Cunningham, Cage, Albers, Voulkos, Twombly, Chamberlain, Ruth Asawa. You know, these are major, major names, major players. You know, Karen Karnes in pottery. And then the poets. You know, you have the Black Mountain School of poetry, which is the sort of defining movement of the second half of the century, for American poetry. So that legacy of experimentation, of a challenge to form within a medium distinction, I think is also part of the legacy of Black Mountain. And then I think for pedagogy, it is the progressive model of education, and what does it mean to put the arts at the center of a liberal arts education?
CUNO: Yeah. Well, we could go on talking for a long time about this exhibition, about Black Mountain College. So Helen, thanks so much for your time. I know it’s not the first time you’ve been asked to talk about this exhibition. It’s a spectacular exhibition and the lasting contribution is the extraordinary catalog that you’ve produced and published.
MOLESWORTH: Thank you very much. I hope to continue to be asked to talk about Black Mountain. It gives me nothing but pleasure.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
HELEN MOLESWORTH: The ideas come in and the ideas return. And that, for me, is a way of thinking abo...