In The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, Eva Diaz describes the discordant yet equally hermetic teaching methodologies of Joseph Albers, John Cage, and R. Buckminister Fuller that were developed during the years immediately following World War II at Black Mountain College. The “unaccredited college in rural Appalachia became a vital hub of cultural innovation” and was known primarily for artistic experimentation and its holistic aim “to educate a student as a person and a citizen.” It had a major impact on what would become contemporary artistic practice during and after the mid-1940s and early 1950s. Located in western North Carolina, the college’s history presents a dynamic narrative of radical innovation in terms of educational philosophy. In addition to Albers, Cage, and Fuller, other famous participants include Merce Cunningham, Clement Greenberg, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. Among many prominent students, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Kenneth Noland contributed to the college’s reputation for free experimentation and artistic diversity.
Clemens Kalischer, Buckminster Fuller and Merce Cunningham in “The Ruse of Medusa,” 1948. Gelatin silver print. © Clemens Kalischer. (Courtesy the artist.)
While Diaz is clear in her estimation that this study of “rival methodologies” as practiced by Albers, Cage, and Fuller help to uncover three of the most “clearly articulated positions” of this period at Black Mountain, it remains questionable as to whether or not this clarity has embedded within it a sense of priority. Based on Diaz’s expertly layered representations of the three methodologies, Albers could be thought of as the composite of Cage and Fuller, though Albers is by no means limited in his vision of the “mutability of perception.” There are many similarities among these men, and Diaz’s instinct to place the comparison within the context or theme of experimentation and even process to an extent makes a lot of sense. It is the suggested nuances of approach that challenge the clarity of the three positions. As Diaz points out, all three subjects are invested in new perceptual strategies and their formal implications, progressing culture, exploring the dynamics of habit or pattern in order to break them, ethics, degrees of order and disorder within a clearly defined testing ground, and in some instances, “total thinking.” In spite of this, it is Albers who seemingly holds his institutional role and investment in a codified educational program most sacred. This is reflected in Rauschenberg’s sentiments, included by Diaz, in an interview years after he studied with Albers: “I’m still learning what he taught me, because what he taught me had to do with the entire visual world.”
Masato Nakagawa, Buckminster Fuller with Model. Black Mountain College, summer 1949. (Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.)
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Albers’s response to Rauschenberg’s comments from the interview, which has a lot to say about the striking similarities between Cage and Albers that are far from obvious. Albers responds to the comments in terms of the “combination,” and the changing of surface qualities in Rauschenberg’s work. He admits that the study of the “changing of articulation” was very exciting, and he recognizes this in Rauschenberg’s vocabulary. It validates Albers’s influence on the painter while suggesting a subtle alliance with Cage—if one associates Rauschenberg with Cage. Diaz’s multi-layered analysis allows one to locate a multiplicity of such connections and in turn form a personal relationship with the text is on a level of self-illuminated analysis. This ability to discover counterintuitive connections or hidden alliances, call it a richness, is not obvious in Diaz’s agenda, but is among the author’s greatest gifts to the reader. Secondary to this, her digressions, which in the chapter on Cage seem most interesting and include analysis of Cage’s appropriation of Erik Satie’s The Ruse of Medusa (which signified a major departure from the methodical theatrical events at Black Mountain influenced by the Bauhaus productions of the 1920s) and significant discussion of Antonin Artaud’s influence on Cage in the context of the French dramatist’s seminal collection of essays, The Theater and its Double, are most enticing.
Erik Satie, “The Monkey’s Dance (no. 1).” From The Ruse of Medusa, 1913.
Whether one buys into the surface rivalry between the Albersian project with that of the explorations of Cage and Fuller or locates secret alliances among the hermetic camps that suggest some similarity between Albers’s color studies and Fuller’s geodesic domes, it is clear that the tensions at Black Mountain relate a parallel narrative concerning the Bauhaus and its relationship to experimental art, which in the end, Diaz describes as “porous.” The epilogue, though somewhat brief in comparison to the cultivated chapters on Albers, Cage, and Fuller, describes the trinity’s influence on movements that follow quite succinctly. Though this investigation by Diaz could have benefited by the inclusion of more student work to support the clarity of the three positions, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College presents a nonetheless moving account of an alternative to expressionism that is synonymous with this very exciting period of divergence at the university before its doors closed in 1957.