How Backwoods North Carolina Became the Frontier of the Avant-Garde

Black Mountain College Lake Eden campus. Source: State Archives of North Carolina.

What do Robert De Niro’s dad, Cy Twombly, and Robert Rauschenberg have in common? If you answered “Black Mountain College,” you’d be correct. They and many other artistic greats of the mid-20th century attended or taught at the progressive institution created by four educators who were dismissed from Rollins College for their unconventional teachings and refusal to take an oath of loyalty. Rector (“President”) John Andrew Rice of the experimental college near Asheville, North Carolina, explained, “….we at Black Mountain College begin with art,” because it epitomized the cycle of learning, by planning, doing, and reflecting on what has been done.*

Original site of Black Mountain College–the Blue Ridge campus. From Wikipedia.

Founded in 1933, the new school populated its faculty and student populations with eminent artists of the time, including famed Bauhaus founder and architect Walter Gropius, and artist Josef Albers. Bauhaus began as an artistic movement and a school in Weimar, Germany–the same city that founded the new post-war German government, oft called the Weimar Republic.

The Bauhaus building in Dessau by Walter Gropius. From Wikipedia.

Though most well-known for its architecture, Bauhaus started with a lofty goal of unifying all the arts in single creative expressions (in German: Gesamtkunstwerk). Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, among others, contributed their skills to teach aspiring artists. As the movement grew, it redefined its intent and looked to the industrial with the slogan: “Art into Industry.”

Auf Weiss II, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923. This painting hung in the Kandinskys’ dining room in Dessau. Source: Centre Pompidou.

1933 spelled the end for Bauhaus in Germany as the new republic crumbled and the Nazis took charge. Gropius insisted throughout the Weimar school’s existence that it was apolitical,** but National Socialists found its ideas too radical and too much like their avowed enemy–“Bolshevism.” So the once thriving “School of Building” broke apart and the artists, architects, and craftsmen–like Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, and Albers–relocated all across the world, though mainly in the United States.

Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe in 1929 for the Barcelona International Exposition. From Wikipedia.

When John Andrew Rice clued into the fact that some of these great artists and accomplished teachers might need new posts, he rang up Albers. Albers accepted and led the art program at Black Mountain College from 1933 until 1949, when he left to head the department of design at Yale. Gropius taught during the summers starting in 1937, as he was a professor at Harvard during the school year along with fellow Bauhaus architect, Marcel Breuer. And so the Bauhaus made its home in the Blue Ridge.

Former Studies Building of the college; now used by Camp Rockmont–a summer camp for boys. From Wikipedia.
Lake Eden campus Studies building under construction by the college’s students, 1940-1941. Source: State Archives of North Carolina.

The college’s brush with fame did not end there. It became a gathering place for the latest and greatest in the arts, boasting students such as: Cy Twombly; Robert Rauschenberg; Ruth Asawa; Susan Weil; Arthur Penn; Robert De Niro, Sr.; and Deborah Sussman. It had equally exceptional faculty, including: Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Buckminster Fuller. The guest lecturers? Albert Einstein and William Carlos Williams, among others.

Robert Rauschenberg adjusting a centaur costume of his design on Svarc Lauterstein, Black Mountain College, 1949. Source: State Archives of North Carolina.
Buckminster Fuller’s Autonomous Dwelling Facility, photographed in 1949. Source: State Archives of North Carolina.
Jonathan Williams, Beauty and the Beast: Joel Oppenheimer and Francine du Plessix Gray, Black Mountain College, 1951. Source: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center Collection.

Black Mountain College started at Lee Hall, previously a private residence and then a YMCA before its use by the school. There the college stayed from 1933 until 1941. In 1941, it moved to “Lake Eden,” where the students’ helped construct their new institution. One year prior to moving sites, founder John Andrew Price left, afraid the school was abandoning its unconventional roots. The college struggled due to a lack of funding during the war years, and ultimately closed sixteen years later. It is possible that an only recently declassified FBI investigation (investigating possible communism, as a result of the Second Red Scare) may have hastened the school’s fate.

Hazel Larsen Archer, Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn and Robert Rauschenberg, 1952, Black Mountain College. Source: Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.
Photography class in a cabbage patch at Black Mountain College, 1944. Photo by Barbara Morgan. Source: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center Collection.

Though around for a mere 24 years, the school holds a lasting legacy on art and shaped many prominent America artists of the mid-century. Some also look to the college as inspiration for an alternative model to post-secondary education, as happened with the Free University of New York (which only lasted a single year before caving due to lack of funds during the Vietnam Era). It’s amazing what a little North Carolina mountain air can do–like maybe make history.

Sources: Black Mountain College — Wikipedia, Bauhaus — Wikipedia, Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, “The Bauhaus, 1919-1933” — The Met,
*John Andrew Rice, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, p. 329. Retrieved from a JSTOR citation.
**Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich, p. 416. Retrieved from a Wikipedia citation.

There is also some interesting information out there on racial integration at the college. Read more here.

If you’re looking for books on the subject, check out Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community; Christopher Benfey’s Red Brick, Black Mountain White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival; or chief curator of the MOCA in LA, Helen Molesworth’s Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 from the exhibition of the same name at the Hammer Museum of UCLA.


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