The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College
by Eva Diaz

Reviewed by Alex Belsey


Published by University Of Chicago Press, 2014   |   256 pages

What does it mean for artists to experiment?  What does truly experimental art look like? When such questions are asked the immediate images that come to mind may involve nude models, soaked from head to toe in Yves Klein blue, hurling themselves at a canvas. Some may think of the provocative and risky performance pieces of the 1960s, of Yoko Ono knelt on a stage inviting audience members to gradually cut away her clothing with a pair of scissors. The notion of artistic experimentation is for many inextricably linked to the pursuit of sexual liberation, to prodigious levels of substance abuse, to violent protest against social and political taboo. A recent BBC television documentary devoted to the salacious question of what precisely happened to Van Gogh’s ear is indicative of widely held assumptions that art-making must happen at the outer limits of reason, safety, even sanity.

It was all seen rather differently by the likes of Josef Albers. He was teaching at Black Mountain College, an unaccredited art school ensconced in rural Appalachia that opened in the same year, 1933, as the Bauhaus closed. On his Basic Design course Albers supplied his students with only a few newspapers and asked them to “try to make something out of them that is more than you have now.” Disregarding such predictable results as cut and glued aeroplanes and animals, he was drawn instead to the efforts of a young architect who had simply folded his newspaper and stood it up as if it were a standing screen. Albers effused to the rest of the class that this particular student had truly understood the nature of the material whilst completely transforming its use; this, his students would quickly learn, was what it meant to see the world in a new way.

Albers was just one tutor amongst a number at Black Mountain who were seeking to reshape how art practice was taught in America and beyond. Across three decades in the mid-twentieth century the College was home to evolving ideas of experimentation in art with their basis in testing and variation, repurposing and refining, chance and design. Teachers and students alike were encouraged to think of their efforts as contributing to a larger altruistic effort to remake a troubled world. This was art-making that challenged accepted social and political realities by interrogating the nature of perception, performance, and productivity. Despite the astounding roster of significant names associated with the College – including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne and Cy Twombly amongst others – its legacy of influence is still somewhat underestimated. In her new book The Experimenters, art historian Eva Díaz focusses on Black Mountain and the innovative pedagogic practices developed there in order to not only redress this, but to also approach the big questions as to what constitutes experimentation in art practice and how differing ideas and interpretations of the ‘experimental’ can make different arguments for the role of art in the modern world.

The experimenters at Black Mountain were conducting their studies and teaching in opposition to prevailing attitudes, particularly in England and America, that art should be the realm of individual expression and intensely subjective, emotional response. In the earlier decades of the twentieth-century, such influential tastemakers as the English critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry had helped cultivate art history as the study of troubled genius with their enthusiastic writings on Paul Cézanne, dwelling on the personality of the artist and on the life journey that could be read in his works. In America, Clement Greenberg was a champion of what would be termed abstract expressionism; in his 1944 essay ‘Abstract Art’ he called for painting to communicate ‘only what goes on inside the self’. Greenberg actually taught briefly at Black Mountain in 1950 but was reputedly underwhelmed by what he encountered there, presumably finding much of its culture at odds with his preference for direct subjective expression detached from social concerns. Yet within the College itself there would be continual friction between the systematic experimenters and those who favoured the antithetical immediacy of expressionism. The College’s final rector, Charles Olson, was a passionate advocate for the Jackson Pollock way of working, believing that velocity and intuition produced art that was more truthful and essential. Against such forces, from within and without, the experimenters aimed to remove the scales of subjective bias from the eyes of their students.

Given that much art history and criticism to this day remains in thrall to privileging the personal and attempting to discern the mysterious inner life of the artist, it is refreshing that Díaz in The Experimenters celebrates instead those who worked systematically to specific ends. Crucially, this is a book about methods in pedagogy and practice and therefore not another group biography. Yet the three key figures whose periods of prominence at Black Mountain give this book its triptych structure – Josef Albers, John Cage, and R. Buckminster Fuller – provide the ideal blend of similarity and difference of approach to keep Díaz’s account of teaching at the College lively and surprising. She certainly succeeds in clearly defining those differences in intention and practice amongst her three protagonists: Albers, in traditional media such as drawing and painting, taught methods of meticulous formal variation as he tested and challenged conditioned perceptual understandings; Cage, in music and performance, created the conditions for the unexpected to occur in pursuit of unknown outcomes; and Buckminster Fuller, in architecturally-informed practice, advocated a holistic system of thinking and design with the aim of discovering empirical truths in an otherwise inefficient society. Accompanying this analysis, Díaz delineates the distinctions between their practices and those of other influential schools of thought such as constructivism and surrealism. In a typical instance, she skilfully contrasts Albers’s focus on experimentation as constant re-/assessment with that of Ilya Bolotowsky, his replacement during sabbatical, who harboured more didactic – and, it is implied, arrogant – convictions about the ‘universal characteristics of representation’ as influenced by the New York City-based abstract painters of his day.

The focus on method gives this book its distinctiveness, but while Díaz admirably avoids an excess of individual characterisation there are some compelling details that further our appreciation of her three key figures. The understated treatment of Albers’s emigré narrative is the most quietly touching, with Díaz’s reading of a newsprint photograph in which he and his wife are ‘posed tensely’, having just arrived in the country after departing fascist Germany, proving concise and evocative. She emphasizes the crucial point that Albers believed America to be the place to teach a radical new way of seeing the world. He once stated, “I want to open eyes”, and Díaz emphasizes how he worked to import and adapt the teaching practices and curricula of the recently-closed Bauhaus to this end. He cleverly made his aims a patriotic appeal to his new home, naming ‘exploration and inventiveness’ as ‘two American virtues’ and urging action against a staid and ‘standardized’ programme of education. While Albers is portrayed as a measured and calculating figure, Buckminster Fuller comes across as more of a roguish charmer. This may be attributable to the endearing implied disparity between the official line from Díaz – that he was participating in ‘a mid-century cultural lexicon emphasizing scientificity in a spirit of American technological optimism and exceptionalism’ – and what transpires to be his somewhat utopian and woolly approximation of design’s role in the near future. His eye for arrangement and his style of visual presentation, illustrated in some of this book’s well-chosen colour plates, seems to have arisen from a belief that producing diagrams and manifests is in itself a societally progressive activity. Perhaps inevitably, Cage remains the most opaque of the three key figures. As there is already a wealth of material on his life and work, from David Revill’s highly personal The Roaring Silence (1993) to David Grubbs’s Records Ruin the Landscape (2014), Díaz instead isolates the distinct aims and parameters of Cage’s practice during his comparatively brief period at the College, which she argues had a lasting impact on his subsequent, better-known work. When introducing his (somewhat paradoxical) desire to devise frameworks that encouraged random activity, she also coins an excellent term, the ‘chance protocol’, for use in future Cage studies.

Further colour is added by brief detours into broader contexts of philosophical or pedagogic thought that are often kept to swift and seamlessly integrated single paragraphs. We are reminded of the lasting influence of John Locke on the widely held belief that the habitual quality of perception helps, benignly, to maintain the social order, Díaz impressing upon the reader the extent of the entrenched attitudes Albers was pushing against. An explication of the Vienna Circle, with a focus on Otto Neurath, sets up an implicit critique of that group’s search for constituent units of knowledge as being reductive when compared to Albers’s drive towards complexity. Most helpfully, considering that Cage’s intentions can so often defy attempts at explication in prose, a neat history of Bauhaus performers’ interests in form, spaciality, and placement of performers and audience, including those which alumnus Xanti Schawinsky had then brought to Black Mountain, precedes an engaging analysis of how Cage used language and notational instructions to foster ambiguity and thus encourage boundless opportunities for performers’ interpretation of his instructions.

In the present cultural moment, in which almost all art practice calls attention to itself as being experimental in origin and execution, it is important to recognise the efforts of those who sought through widely varying means to fundamentally change the way that art is made and perceived. What comes through in this book, reinforced by the clear prose and systematic style of argument, is a thesis on experimentation being neither free-wheeling nor a self-gratifying luxury but instead rigorous, difficult, and all the more positive and liberating for it. Díaz is eminently quotable for students and scholars alike owing to a clarity of phrasing no doubt honed by the long gestation of this book as described in her (admittedly lengthy) acknowledgements. Yet The Experimenters will likely prove highly enjoyable and even inspirational for anyone interested in art practice or simply the power of challenging accepted ways of thinking. One of the greatest accolades that Díaz can be paid is that readers will wish they could take the classes she describes. Like Nigel Llewellyn’s recent The London Art Schools (2015), this account of the work at Black Mountain reminds us that the restless spirit of experimentation is often best fostered in environments that expose the rules governing life and art before pushing us, in a collective effort, to break them.

Dr Alex Belsey is an early career researcher who specialises in the study of life-writing with a particular focus on journals, diaries, and experimental forms of auto/biography. His doctoral thesis, completed at King’s College London and part-funded by the AHRC-LAHP, examined the journal of the British painter Keith Vaughan (1912-77) and its strategies of self-analysis and self-construction of identity. His current research interests include the formation of creative, critical, and intellectual identities within modern culture and against narratives of cultural decline and dereliction. Other interests include the autobiographical fiction of the French-Russian novelist Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) and the decadent author Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907).

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