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.
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.
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.
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.
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.