Spotlight on Groundbreaking Modernist Design - TribPapers
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Spotlight on Groundbreaking Modernist Design

The Mary “Molly” Grgory, Lazy-J Chair, circa 1945 with the Mary “Molly Gregory stool © Mary Gregory, image David Dietrich and courtesy of Asheville Art Museum.

Asheville – Until January 24, 2022, the Asheville Art Museum is hosting an informative exhibit that sheds light on  Black Mountain College’s many creative contributions throughout the United States. It is uncertain as to how many people in this area are even aware of what a trailblazer this school was.   Twenty minutes from Asheville a legendary college existed. For its small size, it had a long lasting, powerful impact on many areas of the United States’ architecture, painting, poetry, sculpture, textiles, pottery, furniture and film, among numerous other fields. 

Famous Alumni

Many artists who attended the school are now well known and highly respected.  Buckminster Fuller, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Francine de Plessix-Gray, Arthur Penn, Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Olson and Walter Gropius are just a few who participated either by attending or teaching. The college was a major incubator for the avant-garde movement of the 20th century. It allowed creativity to flourish in their students and faculty. From 1933 to 1941, the campus of the Black Mountain College was originally located at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. Its Lake Eden campus was used by the college from 1941 to 1957, and is now Camp Rockmont for Boys, where the Lake Eden Arts Festival is held twice a year since 1995.

Hazel Larsen Archer, Minimum House, Black Mountain College, circa 1948, gelatin silver print on paper.
© Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer and courtesy of Asheville Art Museum.

Exhibition

The Asheville Art Museum currently has a significant exhibit on the third floor, which allows one to have a better understanding of the development of this experimental college. The simplicity of the exhibition is in keeping with the modernist design of the pieces shown.  Those who enjoy beautiful simplistic styling of modern furniture will certainly recognize the grace and beauty of the pieces on exhibit. The style can be seen today in one’s daily life. Perhaps one does not realize that the simple design came from the Bauhaus and is a dramatic change from the more ornate traditional designs of the past.    

The exhibit also presents wonderful black and white photos, as well as written statements about the teachers, students and  school buildings as the college was formed. There are classic examples of beautifully made furniture, pottery and weaving taken from Asheville Art Museum’s collection of the Black Mountain College designs: a Marcel Breuer chair, a Molly Gregory stool, a Ruth Asawa copper wire basket, and a Robert Chapman Turner glazed stoneware pitcher.   

In a room nearby, one will find a companion exhibit with colorful abstract paintings by artists who were teachers and students at the college. A quote on the wall from the legendary Helen Frankenthaler says: “There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture . . . that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about.” In many ways, this could sum up the philosophy of learning at Black Mountain College.

To be seen are paintings by Jo Sandman, who studied with Robert Motherwell at Black Mountain College, and Jorge Fick, who studied under Franz Kline and many other large and small abstract artists’ paintings.   The exhibit states, “Gestures, drawn from the Museum’s Collection with select loans from regional collectors and institutions, highlights works in a variety of media that speak to the vibrant abstract experiments in American visual culture that emerged after World War II. The artworks shown here explore some of the many approaches to abstraction. Aesthetic ideas emanating from institutions such as Black Mountain College in Black Mountain, NC, and Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts in New York City are visible in the works of those who studied there.”

Many artists today continue to develop these aesthetic principles when creating their artistic pieces.

Black Mountain College

Black Mountain College (BMC) was founded in 1933 in North Carolina’s rural Swannanoa Valley, near Asheville by a band of academic dissidents. Led by John Andrew Rice, a disgruntled college professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida,  their goal was to create a liberal arts college where democratic principles governed how the college was structured. Its progressive ideals put the practice of the arts at the center of the curriculum and made students responsible for their own education. No courses were required, but students were expected to play a part in the school community by working on the farm, working in the kitchen, even building the school buildings and furniture at times. There were no published grades and no structured four-year tenure. The college was not accredited. Of the 1,200 students known to have been admitted over the years, estimates point to only 60 or so who graduated. Black Mountain College faculty, with liberal input from the students, ran the entire operation. 

In 1933, the Nazi’s shut down the Bauhaus, an art based progressive school. Many of the faculty left Germany for the United States. Josef and Anni Albers became faculty leaders at Black Mountain College; Josef headed the arts program while Anni taught textiles and weaving. The school attracted some of the greatest minds of the time, including Buckminster Fuller, who in the summer of 1948 constructed his first geodesic dome there. Albert Einstein was even said to have visited the college. The roster of incredibly talented individuals who were part of the experimental school is impossible to enumerate. All fields of artistic endeavors have been influenced by this amazing college. Black Mountain College ceased all academic programs in 1957. The college sadly had no endowment. In the end, it was unable to recruit enough students for it to remain solvent.  

The current exhibit at the Asheville Art Museum is a wonderful introduction to learn about the innovative school. For more specific information go to www.ashevilleart.org. In addition, there is the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center at 120 College Street in Asheville, which strives to preserve and continue the legacy of the college. Founded in 1993 by Mary Holden, it explores the extraordinary impact on modern and contemporary art, dance, theater, music and performance by the Black Mountain College.  Programs and presentations are continually held. 

For more information on this museum, go to blackmountaincollege.org.

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