Q&A with Vincent Katz about Black Mountain College

Happy Wednesday! Here’s our Q&A with Vincent Katz, editor of  Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art. Unavailable for several years, this generously illustrated book documents the most successful experiment in the history of American arts education. Vincent Katz is a poet, translator, and curator based in New York City.


What inspired you to edit a book about Black Mountain College?

I was asked by Juan Manuel Bonet, the Director of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, if I would be interested in curating an exhibition on Black Mountainfor the museum. I had curated the first museum retrospective of Rudy Burckhardt’s work for the Institute of Modern Art in Valencia, when Bonet had been the Director there. I said yes to the Black Mountain idea instantly, though I must admit that my knowledge of the school then was much less than it has become. With Bonet’s support, we put on an exhibition of more than 300 objects, including paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, artist’s books, manuscripts, films, and audio. MIT published the English version of the catalogue, and it is on a scale commensurate with the exhibition, including four essays by specialists and over 500 illustrations, many in color.


Has your perception of Black Mountain College’s influence changed in the years since the first edition of this book came out in 2003?

I have found that Black Mountain infiltrates itself into almost any discussion of modern and contemporary art, from the early history of the Bauhaus to the work of contemporary artists today. I have noticed many people referring to Black Mountain in recent years. This is especially true in the poetry world, where the influence of poets such as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and others continues to be central to the most innovative practices in poetry. In the world of visual arts, the wide range of artists who taught and studied at Black Mountain—from Josef and Anni Albers to Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, Dorothea Rockburne, and a multitude of others—is such that one constantly finds references to people who either studied with these artists, knew them, or were influenced by their work.


Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly, among several others, were all connected to Black Mountain College. How did such a small school (fewer than 1,200 students in 23 years) attract such a high caliber of artistic talent?

The school had a unique approach to education, and the arts program was central from the beginning. There was no governing board, so the teachers, with input from the students, had entire decision-making powers. Students would create their own curricula, based on the availability of teachers in their chosen areas. There were ample opportunities for collaborative work and cross-fertilization. Dorothea Rockburne went to study art but found some of her most fruitful studies at Black Mountain in mathematics. Sculptors studied poetry, poets were involved in dance and pottery. The printing press played a central role, with teachers like M.C. Richards and Charles Olson encouraging students to take the reins and publish their own work. Jonathan Williams, who came to study with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, ended up being, in addition to an excellent portrait photographer, one of the most important poetry publishers of his time. Word somehow got out, and the most adventurous students were attracted to the place.


Why was this school so successful and, alternatively, unsuccessful?

The success of the school was based on its freedom from conventional supervision—artists had a significant say in how the curriculum was designed and implemented. This was true from the school’s very first years, when Josef Albers was instrumental in establishing its pedagogical basis, and it was true in the school’s final years, when Charles Olson took the lead in offering as challenging a curriculum as he could devise. The perils were financial and organizational. Without a governing board, the school was always strapped for cash and often did not know if it could continue. Teachers often worked for room and board, an indication of their willingness to sacrifice for the educational ideals the school embodied.  Finally, the organizational challenges become too great, as the numbers of students dwindled. The school started selling off pieces of the farm that had always given it part of its identity, and ultimately it had to close.


Do you think this level of experimental art still happens today?

I believe that the same level of experimental art does happen today, though it is rare. Rarer still is an educational institution that will sacrifice everything for its ideals, thus bringing students into the creative nexus of experimentation and collaboration.