The Forgotten History of America's Most Creative College

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By William Harrison / Published by Dwell
A comprehensive new exhibit sheds light on the diverse body of work that came out of a short-lived but mythic liberal arts college in North Carolina.

Black Mountain College, a small, highly experimental liberal arts institution founded in Black Mountain, North Carolina, during the height of the Great Depression, has long been considered a unique cultural flashpoint. Now, with the recent opening of Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the long defunct school is receiving its first major retrospective, fully cementing its status.

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"Knot 2," Anni Albers, 1947. Both Anni and Josef Albers pushed students to consider how line, color, and form could communicate ideas to the viewer, and pursued these concepts in their own work.

Because of a distinctive philosophy that made art the nucleus of its curriculum, the college encouraged a collaborative environment between teachers and students, which ended up making it a hotbed for creative talent. Josef Albers, the abstract painter and former Bauhaus teacher who had recently fled Nazi Germany, was hired to head the art department, bringing his wife, the textile artist Anni Albers, along with him. In addition to an international reputation, Albers had a wide-roving appreciation for styles dissimilar from his own, the result being a star-studded and diverse faculty that included architect Walter Gropius, painter Jacob Lawrence, and photographer Harry Callahan. Painter Cy Twombly, sculptor Ruth Asawa, collagist Ray Johnson, poet Robert Creeley, and visual shape-shifter Robert Rauschenberg were all students.

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In 1939, Walter Gropius drafted a radical architectural vision for the campus alongside Marcel Breuer, though it was never built because of cost. By 1941, Black Mountain had raised enough money to build a full campus, employing modernist architect A. Lawrence Kocher as the chief designer. Resting on the shore of Lake Eden, the two-story, 202-foot-long Studies Building formed the campus' epicenter.

Though Albers left Black Mountain College in 1950, by this time the visiting faculty included luminaries such as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Merce Cunningham. It was at Black Mountain that Cage staged his first performance art "happening," and Fuller raised his inaugural geodesic dome.

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Kocher designed the Studies Building and other campus structures so that they could be built by faculty and students. These projects made use of new construction methods and materials without sacrificing modernist simplicity.

Unfortunately, without the support of an endowment or a well-heeled board, the school steadily lost money, and was forced to shutter its doors in 1957 as the country itself entered a post-war boom.

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"Watchmaker," Jacob Lawrence, 1946.

Curated by Helen Molesworth, the exhibit manages to incorporate the sprawling pursuits of nearly 100 artists linked with the college, stringing them together by discipline and a loose chronological progression. Leap Before You Look is on display at the Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art now until January 24, 2016. 

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Elaine de Kooning (center) and students Ray Johnson (right foreground) and Albert Lanier (far right foregound) work on Buckminster Fuller's Supine Dome, as Fuller (background, in glasses) looks on.

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Fuller inside his Geodesic Dome in 1949.

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Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn and Robert Rauschenberg during a dance class.

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A. Lawrence Kocher designed the Jalowetz House for music teacher Heinrich Jalowetz, a former opera director who fled Nazi Germany before coming to Black Mountain. The house combined conventional methods of construction with prefab elements such as plywood walls and steel sash windows.