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Boston Museum Exhibit Celebrates Legacy Of Black Mountain College


The painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jacob Lawrence, the inventor Buckminster Fuller and the filmmaker Arthur Penn - all of these creative and influential people either taught or studied at a small liberal arts school in North Carolina called Black Mountain College. The college's legacy is now the subject of a major museum retrospective, the first devoted to the school, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR reports on the show. It's called "Leap Before You Look."

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: It's pretty mind blowing to take in the who's who list of luminaries who passed through Black Mountain College between 1933 and 1957.

HELEN MOLESWORTH: Cy Twombly, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson, and Robert Motherwell, and Merce Cunningham and John Cage.

SHEA: That's exhibition curator Helen Molesworth. And Cage, for example, premiered work at Black Mountain that later came to be regarded as groundbreaking.


MOLESWORTH: I've really come to see Black Mountain as the wellspring of the American avant-garde.

SHEA: To tell Black Mountain's story, the curator collected 261 objects by about 100 artists from museums and private collections across the country. Molesworth says the college was born in 1933 out of a crisis at another school.

MOLESWORTH: A tenured professor is fired because of his radical ideas.

SHEA: That professor was John Andrew Rice. When he left Rollins College in Florida, a group of his students and fellow faculty members followed. They decided to create their own school on the grounds of a Christian summer camp.

MOLESWORTH: And they decided that the college would be founded on the principles of progressive education.

SHEA: They were inspired by philosopher John Dewey's belief in learning by doing. The students and teachers also decided Black Mountain would have no trustees or board of regents. Instead, they would run every aspect of the school themselves, right down to growing their own food and designing their own buildings, says 86-year-old Ted Dreier.

TED DREIER: The idea was to have, somehow, freedom to choose but to be a community and to share.

SHEA: His father, mathematician Theodore Dreier, was a founding faculty member of Black Mountain. And from age 4, Ted says he grew up surrounded by freethinking doers.

DREIER: And there was really a principle that was soon adopted that art should be given equal priority to the other courses, and that was great.

SHEA: Dreier eventually attended Black Mountain, where he studied everything from poetry with Charles Olson to dance with Merce Cunningham to color studies with German painter Josef Albers, who found a home at Black Mountain after fleeing the Nazis. Dreier went on to become a successful psychiatrist, but he still writes poems. Sitting in his Massachusetts kitchen, he shares one about his dance teacher.

DREIER: (Reading) Merce. Merce Cunningham shows, right arm up, left arm out to the side. Says, shoulders down, Ted. Good. Now, one, two, three, four...

SHEA: Silas Reiner, a former Cunningham Company dancer, is teaching Boston-area conservatory students excerpts from pieces his mentor created at Black Mountain. Cunningham formed his now-famous dance troupe at the school. As part of the Boston exhibition, Reiner is giving the first performance since 1964 of a Cunningham piece that was thought to be lost. Reiner says the work was created with a technique Cunningham and composer John Cage explored at Black Mountain called chance procedures.

SILAS REINER: He would divide the space up into six partitions and he would roll dice to see who would be in what space, or he would flip coins or roll dice to decide what movements a person might do.

SHEA: Black Mountain was like a laboratory where everyone was experimenting. Inventor Buckminster Fuller erected his first large-scale geodesic dome there in the summer of 1948.

MOLESWORTH: It was a huge failure. It didn't stand up.

SHEA: Again, exhibition curator Helen Molesworth.

MOLESWORTH: They ended up calling it the supine dome as a joke. The next summer, in 1949, he came back, and this time they got it right. Failure is something that was cherished, in a way, at Black Mountain.

DOROTHEA ROCKBURNE: Everything that I do relates back to Black Mountain in some way.

SHEA: That's abstract artist Dorothea Rockburne. Her work is in the permanent collections of New York's Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim and Whitney Museums, among others. But she blossomed as a teen at Black Mountain, starting in 1950. Now 83, Rockburne says she focused on math, but her instructors taught more than their subjects.

ROCKBURNE: They certainly gave me the tools to lead my life with excitement and enthusiasm (laughter) because being an artist is a very lonely pursuit. So to have the tools that Black Mountain gave me allowed me to be an individual knowing what to do next.

SHEA: The utopian experiment at Black Mountain eventually came to an end in 1957 over philosophical differences and an empty bank account. But now for a few months, the spirit of Black Mountain College lives on in Boston. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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