“To Open Eyes”: Black Mountain College into the 21st Century
This conference took place on June 3rd and 4th 2011, and aimed to explore the enduring legacy of the legendary Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina (1933-1957), taking up Black Mountain instructor and former Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers’s injunction that Black Mountain College was above all a place “to open eyes.” The school was a remarkably fertile blend of European and American avant-garde modernist culture, and the conference contributions all addressed its influence from a range of different perspectives.
Claire Elisabeth Barratt (Asheville, NC) started things off in an appropriate Black Mountain spirit in her multi-media dance performance, Dome Poem, improvised around the forms and ideas of Black Mountain instructor and designer Buckminster Fuller. Claire was accompanied by Brighton-based sound-artist Paul Khimasia Morgan, who collaborated beautifully with Claire by improvising gorgeous soundscapes with the aid of Mac computers, copper bells attached to microphones, and other surprising objects and instruments. The performance had a visual and verbal analogue as well – New York-based poet Lee Ann Brown and video artist Tony Torn created a visual poem that was projected onto the walls of the performance space itself.
The next day featured eight fine academic papers on forgotten aspects of the Black Mountain heritage:
- Emile Bojesen (Winchester) discussed the innovative pedagogical theories and techniques (‘aesthethics’) across the school, ranging from Rice to Albers to Olson
- Arabella Stanger (Goldsmiths) investigated the interface of Black Mountain communitarian ideals and the use of space in Merce Cunningham’s dance ensembles
- Juha Virtanen (Kent) focused on John Cage’s legendary ‘Theater Piece # 1 as a key Black Mountain happening, with specific emphasis on Charles Olson’s influence
- Corin Depper (Kingston) concentrated on the work of Cy Twombly, making a case that Twombly’s interest in myth and the physiological basis of the painterly line was formed not in his self-exile in Italy, as is commonly thought, but in the hothouse atmosphere of Black Mountain College
- Ross Hair (Portsmouth) then turned attention to the Black Mountain poet and editor, Jonathan Williams, showing how his Southern background lent his work and attitude toward the school a distinct and distant inflection
- R.A Bradbury (Open University) addressed Charles Olson’s long-term legacy as both poet and prophet, dwelling on his Maximus poems; Richard Parker (Sussex) looked at the writings and influences of Black Mountain poet Louis Zukofsky, particularly in relation to Charles Olson and Robert Duncan
- Reitha Pattison (Cambridge) explored the British reception of Black Mountain, in particularly addressing Al Alvarez’s reviews of Black Mountain Poetry.
Following the symposium, The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies published a special issue. You can see it by following this link. More information on the journal issue can also be found on the publications section of this website.
[i] Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community(New York, 1972).
[ii] See the recent Bristol/Cambridge exhibition catalogue, Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957 (London, 2007).