Finding Black Mountain College in NYC

J.P. Kennedy
Special to Black Mountain News

In the days of Black Mountain College a steady flow of ideas streamed between the Swannanoa Valley and the New York City art world. The famed Summer Sessions, 11 weeks of courses over the summer, offered a rural respite to the oppressive heat of 1950s New York City, and artists flocked to the picturesque land surrounding Lake Eden, producing concerts and art happenings in the cool mountain air.

During the Summer Sessions Buckminster Fuller attempted to build his first large-scale geodesic dome. Artists like Willem de Kooning, John Cage and Merce Cunningham playfully invented their modern art.

So in a reverse migration I headed up toward New York City for the summer, my family with me, spending my days in the city or at a family home on the Connecticut shore.

I lived in New York City for nearly eight years, summer 1994 to spring 2002. I wanted to be an artist, writer, but without a place like Black Mountain for respite I burned out.

My most successful venture was the short-lived independent literary journal called Anonymous. To me, most literary magazines and journals published famous names, not because someone wrote an amazing story. So my future wife, my friends, my older brother, we all started a literary journal where no names were attached.

We raised money by throwing a keg party at The Gas Station, a derelict gas station, junkie hangout, and art-installation performance space in the Lower East Side. We drove the journal to independent bookstores around New England. The journal lasted two issues. Looking back on the experiment, it served as a statement about the barriers the art and literary worlds erect to keep the few chosen artists inside and everyone else outside.

One of the Anonymous writers was Glenn Adamson, a graduate student at Yale University studying art history. He was already getting published in art magazines for his commentary on contemporary folk art. When I moved to Black Mountain, he visited my wife and I. He wanted to see the Studies Building of Black Mountain College at Lake Eden and soak in the remaining atmosphere.

Adamson in now the director of MAD, the Museum of Art and Design, in New York City. He’s a short, bald man, with a prominent nose, and has very infectious energy and a high level of enthusiasm for new ideas.

He is preparing a show for next fall about the Black Mountain College ceramics artist Paul Voulkos. As a ceramics artist, Voulkos was average, Adamson said, until Voulkos visited Black Mountain College. There, he blossomed into one of the first abstract impressionist ceramics artists of the time. He pushed hard at the boundaries of ceramics.

“Everybody was at Black Mountain College,” Adamson enthused. “It was the first fully cross-disciplinary institution. It was going in all directions at once. And it had these large ambitions overnight. They had great people in lots and lots of areas.”

While I was in New York, he led me around MAD. Up on the second floor, the museum showcases a large exhibit of mannequins. These sculpted figures are of different shapes and have different heads, different to the point of abstraction. One section of the museum is recreated to look like the studio of the artist who built these mannequins.

“I’m really interested in being even more open about the world of making, to what is really pushing the discipline (like utilizing the) 3D printing revolution, having pipe fitters and electricians in a show,” Adamson said. “How far can you push the boundaries of art and design?”

The mannequins made me smile, and I posed before them.

It was an interesting, creative, challenging summer, and the influence of Black Mountain College seemed to be part of the ether. My older brother now lives in Berlin, and he visited the Hamburger Banhoff museum to see a show on Black Mountain College called “Black Mountain – An Interdisciplinary Experiment, 1933-1955.” My brother reported that the show was too respectful, not in the free and fun nature of the actual college.

This is the latest in a series of stories by local resident and documentary filmmaker J.P. Kennedy about his ongoing search for expressions of Black Mountain College.