Starting at Zero:
Black Mountain College 1933-57 


28 January - 2 April 2006

Black Mountain College began as a utopian dream, born out of the Depression and the rise of Fascism, and became one of the most productive and star-studded episodes in 20th century American arts.

In North Carolina, its founder, a dissident classical academic, John Andrew Rice, was joined by Josef and Anni Albers, straight from the Bauhaus in Germany. Together they developed an approach to interdisciplinary education which encouraged students to learn by experiment - by 'starting at zero' - rather than by simply absorbing information. Their aim was to cultivate imagination, to equip people to deal humanely with a complex and uncertain world.

Over its 24 years Black Mountain College attracted the most remarkable roll-call of teachers and students. In one summer alone Buckminster Fuller first demonstrated his geodesic dome, helped by Elaine de Kooning and the young Ray Johnson. And in the evening they collaborated with composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham on a production of Erik Satie's 'The Ruse of the Medusa', with Willem de Kooning helping on sets and Arthur Penn directing. Four years later, in 1952, Cage and Cunningham were back, creating the first 'happening' with Robert Rauschenberg, and in the same year Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach came together for the first ceramics seminar.

By the early '50s Albers had left and the College found its last lease of life under Charles Olson, who gathered together fellow poets Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, Edward Dorn and others.

Starting with Josef Albers' paintings and Anni Albers' innovative weavings and jewellery the exhibition includes paintings by Robert Motherwell, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Ben Shahn, Kenneth Noland, Joseph Fiore, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, the collages of Ray Johnson, and the pots of Hamada and Leach, interwoven with the photographs of Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Beaumont Newhall, Clemens Kalischer and Hazel Larsen Archer. Through models, scores, photographs and film it explores the experiments of Fuller, Cage and Cunningham, and concludes with the poetry of Olson and his disciples. Rich in contemporary documents, the exhibition explores the evolving vision and reality of this most unlikely community.

The exhibition has been organised by Kettle's Yard and Arnolfini, Bristol, and generously grant-aided by Arts Council England and The Henry Moore Foundation.
The events programme is grant-aided by NESTA.