Communal living

By Richard Clayton

A design faculty with musicians, a ceramics school that taught dance and a literature course for painters – Black Mountain College in North Carolina was all and none of the above.

Rather, this interdisciplinary education experiment was the original Fame Academy for the creative arts.

Just look at the register. Between 1933 and 1957, the roll-call of staff and students included: the polymath Buckminster Fuller, who made his first geodesic domes here; the composer John Cage, who organised the first ‘happening’ in 1952; artists such as Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning; the choreographer Merce Cunningham; the potter Bernard Leech; the poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson – a veritable Who’s Who of the mid-century American avant-garde.

The ethos, developed early by Josef and Anni Albers (both Bauhaus refugees from Hitler’s Germany), was multimedia at a time when flat screen meant only the infinite possibility of a blank canvas. Educate the whole person – head, heart and hand – by aiming, according to principal John Andrew Rice, ‘to teach method, not content; to emphasise process, not results’.

Of course, like any Utopian scheme (they even had their own farm), everything ended in tears. But, boy, it must have been fun.

Starting At Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57 runs from 28 January to 2 April at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge CB3 0AQ. Tel: 01223 352 124

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