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While the Blue Ridge Mountains, Winter Park, Berlin, San Francisco, London, and New York are geographically distant, a recent exhibition at Berlin’s Museum für Gegenwart, “Black Mountain. Ein interdisziplinäres Experiment 1933-1957,” illuminated just how closely art and education intertwine global destinations. The exhibit in the former Hamburger Bahnhof train-station-turned-art-museum featured Black Mountain College, a radical university that operated from 1933 to 1957 outside of Black Mountain just outside of Asheville, NC.

Black Mountain College Lake Eden campus, now used as a summer camp

Black Mountain College Lake Eden campus, now used as a summer camp

Black Mountain College began as an experiment led by John Andrew Rice, a former professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, after he was fired for criticizing the teaching style of the school. Rice, along with like-minded colleagues and students, attempted to create a democratic and progressive institution for the study of the liberal arts and sciences. As the exhibition outlined, European émigrés heavily influenced Black Mountain College in its early stages, from the instruction of mathematics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and physics to dance, literature, art and design. However, émigrés influenced arts instruction at the college most heavily, challenging definitions of art and students’ relationships with the artistic process.

A large part of this influence came from members of the Bauhaus movement, who fled Germany in the 1930s as Nazism took root. Prominent figures like Josef and Anni Albers, Alexander “Xanti” Schawinsky and Walter Gropius found themselves working with the college and starting new lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Bauhaus emphasized experiential and collective learning, which flourished at Black Mountain College. Students were allowed to design their own interdisciplinary curricula with the belief that their practical, personal and creative skills would flourish.

The philosophy of Black Mountain College mirrors the personal journey of traveling as both emphasize the importance of experiences. Travelers learn the most from exploration and observation. Travelers seek interdisciplinary experiences and, in the process of finding them, must often come to terms with things that are different, strange or uncomfortable. The shared mindfulness of travel and the school’s education philosophy help explain both why the college was considered radical in its time and why its legacy continues to be a force for new understandings of what it means to really learn.

Black Mountain College’s history is short, spanning only 24 years, due to the school’s limited finances and suspicions about left-leaning members during the Cold War, but its influence is long lasting, and its artists’ works can be found around the world where you might least expect it. This happened for me as I visited the Tate Modern in London and truly felt the impact of the school for the first time. There, visitors can see various works by Cy Twombly, a Black Mountain College alumnus, including his abstract expressionist paintings and smaller bronze cast sculptures of found items.

Lepanto, by Cy Twombly

Lepanto, by Cy Twombly
Photo credit: Jos, Flickr

In 1952, Twombly traveled to Europe and North Africa with Robert Rauschenberg, yet another influential Black Mountain alum, who created a series of collages on the trip. Rauschenberg’s works were housed in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City before being put on exhibition and traveling throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Similarly, Anni Albers’ work has graced the halls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Hyatt on Union Square Fountain

Hyatt on Union Square Fountain by Ruth Asawa in San Francisco

In San Francisco, alumna Ruth Asawa crafted wire sculptures and created various public art works before her death in 2013. One piece, “Hyatt on Union Square Fountain” was constructed with the help of around 250 friends and school children, who contributed personal items that they felt symbolized San Francisco’s most famous landmarks.

The Museum für Gegenwart’s exhibition itself exemplifies the lasting influence of Black Mountain College’s philosophy. While a continent separates Berlin and Black Mountain, there’s a deep-seated interest and appreciation for the school here. The exhibition, the first of its kind in Germany, was created with the help of students and faculty from universities around the city of Berlin, embodying the school’s spirit. A studio inside the museum provides a space for these students and faculty members to work on both personal projects and prepare for various re-enactments of Black Mountain College performances and readings. The exhibition differed from typical museum exhibitions in this way and suggests an enduring desire to question standards and craft new experiences.

While the Blue Ridge Mountains, Winter Park, Berlin, San Francisco, London, and New York are physically far apart, culturally, the stories of each place are connected through Black Mountain College. “Black Mountain. Ein interdisziplinäres Experiment 1933-1957” stands testament to the idea that the world is a lot smaller than we often think, and that the experience of exploring our shared connections is a beautiful journey within itself.

Megan Whitcomb

Writing Intern, Fall 2015

Megan is a student at UNC Chapel Hill studying abroad in Berlin, Germany this fall. She loves exploring new places and ideas, and is excited to learn about the lifestyles and mindsets of those living in Berlin and beyond.

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