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Why Are We Still Talking About Black Mountain College?

The plight of women at Black Mountain was likewise complicated and less than utopian. On the one hand, it was a realm where women were essentially free: to make art, to perform in the art of others, to dig ditches, to farm — “this was not a finishing school,” Molesworth says. On the other, women still had to deal with the nagging, pervasive sexism of the time: Olson, who walked around campus shirtless in a serape, was known to make inappropriate remarks to — and sometimes even to exclude — his female students; Albers, despite his austere demeanor, had, according to the biographer Charles Darwent, a reputation for not keeping his hands to himself. Black Mountain, for all its progressive ideals, was still trapped in its historical moment.

In the end, the college found itself, like so many institutions, mired in internal disputes and administrative conflicts, and it closed, in 1957, for the reason many do: lack of money. Its influence, though, would long be felt on the arts in this country. Albers, who left the college in 1949, went on to run the Department of Design at Yale, and train many more young artists. Asawa, who is known to most as the creator of striking biomorphic wire sculptures, co-founded the Alvarado Arts workshop in 1968 — an arts education program that at its peak was in more than 50 San Francisco public schools — and helped start the city’s first public arts high school, which now bears her name, in 1982. Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline advanced the spirit of collegiality and collaboration espoused at Black Mountain as founding members of the Club in New York City — a haunt frequented by pretty much the entire pantheon of important midcentury artists and thinkers, everyone from Isamu Noguchi to Hannah Arendt. And on and on. Yet, arguably, even more significant than the individual artists the school dispersed was its overall ethos. It offered a model of experimentation, optimism and freedom, set alongside social responsibility, and it taught a generation of artists to perceive the world with an ethical clarity that’s all too rare now. “In short, our art instruction attempts first to teach the student to see in the widest sense,” Albers wrote in June 1934, “to open his eyes to the phenomena about him and, most important of all, to open to his own living, being and doing.”

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