Black Mountain College and the crafts

– Edmund de Waal

'Objects. Solids. Speech as Solid. Kinetic. Movement. Honor.’  
– Charles Olson writing on the crafts in a letter to Marguerite Wildenhain [1]

It was geographically remote, it only lasted for 23 years and it never had very many students. By most conventional, institutional, standards the story of Black Mountain College in North Carolina should be deemed a failure. But the story of Black Mountain remains compelling. It is a story of an experiment in radical education, an attempt to create a community that was both socially progressive and also innovative in its teaching methods. The ways in which the students and faculty approached the boundaries of their disciplines was profoundly influential in the practice of teaching art and craft: this was the place where ‘mixed media’ can be said to have started. It is also a story of encounters between some of the greatest and most intriguing figures in literature and the visual arts, a list that inter alia would include Anni Albers, Josef Albers,  Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson, Peter Voulkos and  Robert Rauschenberg. A list this eminent is wonderful (and somewhat misleading as some lasted many years and others only weeks), but it also points out how Black Mountain College, like Dartington Hall in the late 1930s, was a place where émigrés from Hitler were welcomed. It was a place that tried to stand astride America and Europe just as much as across the disciplines.

The little known history of the crafts within the college reveals this generative radicalism.

An invitation to a pottery seminar for the autumn of 1952 at Black Mountain College announced the themes that the two weeks would address. Under the heading of ‘eastern center for interchange of work & ideas east to west’, the announcement card was suitably calligraphic: a wash of black into which were cut strong graphic panels with sketches of pots and the lists of discussions and lectures, demonstrations and faculty. The themes chart the central concerns for the crafts in mid-century. They included 'the development of form ideas' to design for mass production and craft in the machine world. How the crafts were taught ('master & apprentice: in the workshop in the college') and the fraught area of the relation of craft to art were all there. The ‘host potter’ was Marguerite Wildenhain (trained at the Bauhaus and now working in California) who was to lecture and demonstrate as was Bernard Leach from England. Shoji Hamada (simply described as 'the japanese potter’) was to demonstrate.  Soetsu Yanagi, the  philosopher and creator of the Japanese Folkcraft movement was to lecture on Buddhist aesthetics.

And there is Japan, the pragmatic and the philosophical, the intellectual and the practical yoked together. As MC Richards, the poet, literary critic and translator of Artaud, who was appointed to teach literature and who learnt pottery at the College, put it 'ordinary dualisms dissolved: faculty and student, school and society, thought and life, intellect and character, knowledge and inspiration, fine and useful arts, professional and amateur, pass and fail, underclassman and graduate, labour and egghead, work and play, riches and poverty ..' [2] It was to be at Black Mountain College that much of the radical pedagogy that shaped the teaching of the crafts came into being. The crafts –principally weaving and ceramics, though woodworking and printing were intermittently taught- not only shared in the pedagogy of the college that shaped its tumultuous history, but sometimes led it. In its afterlife, after its traumatic close in 1956?, the influence and reach of its alumni and faculty was immense. Not only were the ceramics seminars held in 1952 and 1953 catalytic events in post-war American ceramic history, but all three of the key post-war American texts on the crafts had a strong connection with the College. Anni Albers' magisterial book On Weaving was written there and  Marguerite Wildenhain's Pottery : Form and Expression, the American riposte to Leach's A Potters Book  was written in reply to their encounter at the 1952 seminar. Richards' book Centering  in Pottery, Poetry and the Person ,was her extended, vatic investigation of this ethos. Her call to read poems to potters, to encourage poets to inscribe texts into clay is central to the idea as crafts as experiential and performative. The most significant American potter of the 20th century, Peter Voulkos, met Rauschenberg and Cage and heard his first poetry reading at Black Mountain while attending a ceramics symposium: crafts were part of a new kind of context.

'just as it is possible to go from any place to any other, so also, starting from a refined and specialized field, one can arrive at a realization of ever-extending relationships.'  [3] The stress was not on ‘good craftsmanship’ as an end in itself, but as the crafts as a portal to a revivified sense of the material world, an almost Blakean sense of a cleansing of the doors of perception through the handling of clay or fibre. Above all the crafts were treated with passion. This was the place which 'allow[ed] our views of craft decorum to loosen'.[4]

Black Mountain crafts can be separated into two subject areas. Firstly there is the extended stewardship by Anni Albers of the weaving program from her appointment in 1933 until her resignation in 1947, a time in which the textiles became nationally known. Albers had a breadth of approach that remains inspirational: she used highly experimental materials like cellophane, aluminium and lurex in her  textiles, established contacts with industry as well as encouraging small-scale handwork, and created a significant collection of southern American textiles. Albers teaching style grew out of her experiences at the Bauhaus. She started from a belief that we have grown increasingly insensitive to our tactile sense: 'No wonder  a faculty that is so largely unemployed in our daily plodding and bustling is degenerating. Our materials come to us already ground and chipped and powdered and mixed and sliced, so that only the finale in the long sequence of operations from matter to product is left to us: we merely toast the bread. No need to get our hands into the dough. No need for us, either, to make our implements, to shape our pots or fashion our knives. Unless we are specialized producers, our contact with materials is rarely more than a contact with the finished product. We remove a cellophane wrapping and there it is- the bacon, or the razor blade, or the pair of nylons...' In order to approach the material anew to  activate 'our latent perceptivity of matiere', she encouraged students to 'look around us and pick up this bit of moss, this piece of bark or paper, these stems of flowers, or these shavings of wood or metal. We will group them, cut them, curl them, mix them, finally perhaps paste them, to fix a certain order. We will make a smooth piece of paper appear fibrous by scratching its surface, perforating it, tearing it, twisting it...what we doing can be as absorbing as painting...'   [5]

Albers’ use of the term 'matiere' is significant, as it provided a shared conceptual basis for her practice with that of Josef Albers. For Anni Albers 'the word now usually  understood to mean the surface appearance of material, such as grain, roughness or smoothness, dullness or gloss....[but] there seems to be no common word for the tactile perception of such properties of material, related to inner structure, as pliability, sponginess, brittleness, porousness, etc…’ [6] Only once she had taken her students’ sense of the tactile world and profoundly unsettled it, did she start ‘real weaving'. And when she started this it was with the back loom, a simple, almost archaic piece of equipment, on which they could experience the 'coming into being of an object'.  Albers’ non-hierarchical approach to materiality and her  openness to different kinds of technological approach to the making of textiles were radical. They were also very influential. The intensely experential nature textile-making  (what Albers memorably described as ’the event of a thread’ [7]) became the basis for much of the 1960s revolution in textiles in installation and performance art. This was true of the ceramics too.

Ceramics at Black Mountain College were only taught for a comparatively short time, from 1949 until the closure of the College.

Josef Albers had been resistant to having a ceramics course, believing that clay was too resistant a material for students to handle, but eventually a pottery studio was built under the auspices of Robert Turner. Turner, a young graduate from Alfred University then the premier ceramics course in America, built a 28 by 40 foot studio set in a flat field with wonderful light, good kilns and facilities. After two years two other young Alfred graduates took over Karen Karnes and her husband Daniel Weinrib. Karnes and Werinrib had few serious students though MC Richards was amongst them. For some at the College Karnes’ work was too overtly  concerned with function, others such as Richards praised its spareness:’ …her work is clean, expert, uncluttered, useful, beautiful, restrained but warm, full of a feeling of original plasticity as well as the advantages of stone. A plastic form with beautifully fitted rims. And the shiny glazes of high heat..’ [8]Her very high craft skills could been seen negatively, particularly in comparison with Weinrib’s more overtly experimental work constructed  from slabs of clay.

of a conference on the crafts held earlier in the summer at Dartington Hall, the English experimental college set up by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst. This conference had been initiated by Bernard Leach, to whom the Elmhists had given extended generous patronage. Leach was in his ascendancy, the author of A Potters Book and seen as having an unrivalled knowledge of the East. As such the speakers included many of his friends, pupils and disciples, Yanagi, Hamada, Michael Cardew, Patrick Heron amongst them. The notable exception was that of  Marguerite Wildenhain who Leach invited to talk as ‘The Potter in the New World’ . In 1952 Leach, Hamada and Yanagi set of an American tour, taking in Black Mountain College, California and  the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana where Voulkos first met Hamada.  

Leach had traveled around America two years earlier and written a stinging analysis of  American pottery, published in Craft Horizons in the autumn of 1950. In this he reasserted his ‘thankfulness that I had been born in an old culture. For the first time I realized how much unconscious support it still gives to the modern craftsman. The sap still flows from a tap root deep in the soil of the past, giving the sense of form, pattern and colour below the level of intellectualization. Americans have the disadvantage of having  many roots, but no tap-root, which is almost the equivalent  of no root at all. Hence American pots follow many undigested fashions.’ [9]This critique met with very mixed responses. It was pointed out to Leach  that he diminished the American Indian traditions (they ‘do not proceed on individual choice and the root in their case is the race-root’) as well as ignoring vernavular traditions he didn’t like. Though Leach’s authority as a writer was not in dispute, his pots were described as ’..disappointing: stuffy, heavy and mid-Victorian…His pots show that honest, solid quality which is so ’veddie, veddie’ English; and incredibly dull.’ [10]

It was Leach’s focus on the rootedness of objects that was so incendiary in the context of Black Mountain College, a place where 

Much of the teaching was concerned with the disruption and recontextualisation of the object.  In ‘An Open Letter to Bernard Leach from Marguerite Wildenhain’ published in Crafts Horizons in 1953 she wrote that ‘Roots are, of course, useful to have, but who has the one, single ‘tap-root’ you talked of. That single tap-root no longer exists in our day. It is probable that it never existed.’ She suggested that Leach was unable to see other kinds of pottery: ‘It ought to be clear that American potters cannot possibly grow roots by imitating Sung pottery or by copying the way of life of the rural population of Japan. Conscious copying of the works of a culture unrelated to the mind and soul of our generation would only produce dubious makeshifts and turn our struggling potters into either dilettantes or pure fakes.’ [11] Her sense that there was a credible alternative to Leach ‘s philosophy lay in two areas. Firstly though she shared the idea of rigorous training with Leach, her approach remained true to her Bauhaus experiences. Learning should be collegiate rather than imbued with a  mysterious transmission of energy from master to apprentice. At the end of her book she has ’An Imaginary Dialogue Between A Student and A Potter’, in which she provides a robust and non-mystical riposte to contemporary problems facing potters. The second tension lay in her sense of what were credible models for students to learn from. Her canon matched that of Anni Albers: it included industrial wares as well as pre-industrial pottery. Indeed she included a photograph of a Sung pot only to comment on its weak and degenerate form. For Leach this was an incendiary combination of the Bauhaus and the ‘New World’, his two shibboleths.

Leach had arrived at Black Mountain and announced that as the materials to hand were unknown he was not prepared to demonstrate, but would only lecture. Under pressure he relented. Hamada, by contrast, said he could ‘make do’ with the materials to hand-clays and glazes from the hillside outside the pottery studio, the stems of weeds bunched together to make an impromptu brush. For this audience of potters and students watching Hamada use the wheel, not as exercise in making perfect forms, but as a starting-point for other kinds of manipulation, seemed to show up how academic American pottery had become. The tension between the expected and planned, the centrifugal force of the pot on the wheel, and the spontaneous gesture that disrupts this, is central to many Japanese ceramic traditions. Pots from the Iga and Shigaraki kilns with their gaping rents from the firing, or pots from the Bizen kilns with their dented sides from gestural handling, were known through photographs. In the 1950s not only Hamada, but Toyo Kaneshige and Kitaoji Rosanjin all visited America , and their pots, distorted, textured or inscribed whilst still wet from the wheel, were exciting manifestations of these traditions. Kaneshige trimmed pots with a twig he had broken off an orange tree outside the studio. MC Richards described the sight of Rosanjin throwing a bowl until it collapsed. He made fat coils of clay to prop it up and ‘held this extraordinary flop before his horrified audience of American studio potters for admiration’.[12] This was pottery as an exploratory, improvisational art.

It was in Peter Voulkos that these iconoclastic modes of thinking and acting were to come together, and produce a ceramic movement of great importance. Voulkos, a preternaturally gifted thrower, was soon making a name for himself with his large and precisely thrown vessels with their Miro-like decoration. Voulkos was fiercely eclectic, rapidly absorbing ideas and images from pottery and other arts and translating them into his own work. His meetings with Hamada in 1952 and his encounter with the unstable world of arts at Black Mountain in multimedia and multiple-focus that included readings by Cage and poet Charles Olson, art by Rauschenberg and choregraphy by Merce Cunningham deeply affected him.

In 1954 he accepted an invitation to set up a ceramics department in Los Angeles County Art Institute, later renamed the Otis Art Institute.

At Otis Voulkos began to think of clay as art, not craft, as ‘another way to invent form’,[13] with studios open 24 hours a day, much of the making taking place at night with parties, music and firings adding to the liberating and ambitious atmosphere. Voulkos stressed the primacy of the moment and the effacement of the intellect in making: ‘When you are experimenting on the wheel there a lot of things you cannot explain. You just say to yourself, ‘the form will find its way’-it always does…The minute you begin to feel you understand what you are doing, it loses the searching quality..You finally reach a point when you are no longer concerned with keeping a blob of clay centered on the wheel and up in the air. Your emotions take over and what happens just happens.’ [14]In many ways Otis as the radical campus ceramics studio with a blurring between faculty and students is an inheritance of the Black Mountain, Richards’ plea to ‘take the education of the talented young people, who want to become craftsmen, out of the classroom atmosphere of schools and into the invigorating winds of life.’ [15] 

This way of working, compared by the critic and editor Rose Slivka to the experiential and improvisational quality of jazz music, was valued as a release from anxiety over craftsmanship: ‘the sculptor today places greater emphasis on event rather than occasion, in the force of movement and the stance of the dance rather than in the power of permanence and the weight of immobility, in the metamorphosis of meanings rather than in the eternity of symbols.’ [16] Slivka’s key apprehension was of the ‘presence of these ceramics. Event -the event of a thread, the event of clay-implied action and reaction,the spirit of engagement that was present in happenings. ‘Occasion’ implied stasis, a viewer gazing solemnly-at a perfectly achieved object. This was a shift from ceramics being consolatory and reflective to being confrontational and self-consciously avant-garde.