Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1937

We do not always create ‘works of art,’ but rather experiments; it is not our intention to fill museums: we are gathering experience.”
— Josef Albers

In 1933, John Rice founded Black Mountain College in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountain as an experiment in making artistic experience central to learning. Though it operated for only 24 years, this pioneering school played a significant role in fostering avant-garde art, music, dance, and poetry, and an astonishing number of important artists taught or studied there. Among the instructors were Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Karen Karnes, M. C. Richards, and Willem de Kooning, and students included Ruth Asawa, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly.
 
The book Leap Before You Look is a singular exploration of this legendary school and of the work of the artists who spent time there. Scholars from a variety of fields contribute original essays about diverse aspects of the College—spanning everything from its farm program to the influence of Bauhaus principles—and about the people and ideas that gave it such a lasting impact. In addition, catalogue entries highlight selected works, including writings, musical compositions, visual arts, and crafts. The book’s fresh approach and rich illustration program convey the atmosphere of creativity and experimentation that was unique to Black Mountain College, and that served as an inspiration to so many. This timely volume will be essential reading for anyone interested in the College and its enduring legacy.

 STUDENTS AT BMC, FROM THE BOOK LEAP BEFORE YOU LOOK

STUDENTS AT BMC, FROM THE BOOK LEAP BEFORE YOU LOOK

In February 2016, The Hammer Museum opened the first comprehensive museum exhibition in the United States featuring the artworks produced and the artists nurtured at this renowned experimental college which placed the arts at the center of a liberal arts education in an effort to better educate citizens for participation in a democratic society. Profoundly interdisciplinary with an emphasis on inquiry, discussion, and experimentation, it gave equal attention to the visual arts—painting, sculpture, drawing—and so-called applied arts or crafts like weaving, pottery, and jewelry-making, as well as architecture, poetry, music, and dance.


The educational philosophy was deeply Influenced by the teaching of philosopher John Dewey and the ideals of the progressive education movement ; there were no required courses and free inquiry and learning by doing were encouraged. Students often developed cross-disciplinary independent studies and all members of the college were responsible for its day-to-day operation, including maintenance, farm work, and kitchen duty. Numerous influential artists, poets, musicians, and performers either taught or were students there. This utopian experiment came to an end in 1957, but not before it created the conditions for some of the twentieth century’s most fertile ideas, having an enormous impact on American postwar cultural life. Black Mountain College became a dynamic crossroads for refugees from Europe— several of whom were Jewish and fleeing persecution, including Josef and Anni Albers who were brought to BMC in 1936 from the Bauhaus in Germany—and an emerging generation of American artists. Their education was unlike anything else in the United States, rooted in a belief in art and its capacity to expand one’s internal horizons, and in art as a way of living and being in the world. 

 HAMMER MUSEUM

HAMMER MUSEUM

 MERCE CUNNINGHAM AT BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE

MERCE CUNNINGHAM AT BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 focuses on how, despite its brief existence, BMC became a seminal meeting place for many of the artists, musicians, poets, and thinkers who would become the principal practitioners of the postwar period. Teaching at the college combined the craft principles of Germany’s revolutionary Bauhaus school with interdisciplinary inquiry, discussion, and experimentation, forming the template for American art schools. The methods of teaching developed at the BMC—such as an emphasis on interpretation and dialogue in the form of the student critique (or “crit”)— are still present in many of our most advanced art schools; the language of interdisciplinarity began at BMC and the mixture of disciplines and mediums gave way to what is largely regarded as the first “happening”; and the aspirations of intentional communities, utopian ways of thinking, bridging the gap between art and life, and the creation of a counter-culture that are characteristic of American culture in the 1960s all flourished at the college in the preceding decades. While physically rooted in the rural South, BMC formed an unlikely cosmopolitan meeting place for American, European, Asian, and Latin American art, ideas, and individuals. The exhibition argues that BMC was as an important historical precedent for thinking about relationships between art, democracy, and globalism. It examines the college’s critical role shaping many major concepts, movements, and forms in postwar art and education, including assemblage, modern dance and music, and the American studio craft movement—influences that can still be seen and felt today.