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"Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57"
2006-01-28 until 2006-04-02
Kettle's Yard Gallery, University of Cambridge
Cambridge, , UK United Kingdom

Black Mountain College was one of the most exciting experiments in the arts, education and community of the 20th century. Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57 is the first UK exhibition on this subject. The exhibition traces the emergence and flourishing of avant-garde art in post-war America, when artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning, architectural visionary Buckminster Fuller, and many now well-known artists, composers, dancers and writers gathered at the college.

Founded in North Carolina in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, a dissident Classical academic, it attracted a star-studded cast of teachers and students who forged a dramatic shift from a Eurocentric art world to a distinctly American one. Rice invited Josef and Anni Albers to join the faculty after Hitler had closed the Bauhaus. Josef Albers then became the College’s guiding light for its first fifteen years. Albers and Rice encouraged education through the experience of doing, of discovery and invention, rather than simply absorbing information. Faculty members were asked to teach out of their own enthusiasms and students were encouraged to build their own syllabuses.

The exhibition combines works of art by the major artists with rich documentation of the life of the college. It opens with a section devoted to the paintings of Josef Albers and the weavings of Anni Albers. Their insistence on ‘starting at zero’ struck a chord not only with abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, but also with Buckminster Fuller’s reinvention of architecture, John Cage’s abandonment of harmony for simple duration and rhythm, and Robert Rauschenberg’s first white paintings.

The exhibition highlights the extraordinary coincidences and collaborations of artists. High points include Erik Satie’s The Ruse of the Medusa, directed by Arthur Penn, with music played by John Cage and sets by Willem de Kooning, starring Merce Cunningham, Elaine de Kooning and Buckminster Fuller; Elaine de Kooning and the young Ray Johnson working with Fuller on the abortive construction of a geodesic dome; a pottery workshop led by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada; poet Charles Olson, painters Ben Shahn and Franz Kline, and composer Lou Harrison all exploring the art of the ‘glyph’; and in 1952 the first ‘happening’ with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg as major participants.

Black Mountain College was a utopian dream born out of the Depression and the rise of Fascism. For the Albers as for their successor, Charles Olson, ‘starting at zero’ meant, in part, looking back from the modern world to Pre-Columbian Mexico. But while Albers saw simplicity as a social obligation, in post-war years Buckminster Fuller wanted to encompass ‘everything I know’ and Olson urged students to take on ‘the whole of knowledge’.

The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial catalogue including essays by Christopher Benfey, Eva Diaz, Mary Emma Harris, Jed Perl and Edmund de Waal, and extensive programmes of events.


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