In the wake of Black Mountain College’s dissolution in 1954, two former students Paul and Vera Williams, left North Carolina and founded Gate Hill Artists’ Cooperative about an hour’s drive outside of New York City. “The Land,” as the Coop was often called by the artists, composers, filmmakers, choreographers, poets, and potters who built their homes and studios in this rural setting, evinced many of the pedagogical lessons of the Bauhaus translated through the American educational experiment in combining art and life that was Black Mountain College. Still in existence, Gate Hill Coop is the manifestation of an intentional community within the visual arts. In practical terms, organized and run as a cooperative—not a commune or other counterculture or alternative space—Gate Hill fostered the types of interdisciplinary art practices that have come to define post war American experimental art in which the logic of architecture, painting, dance, filmmaking, ceramics, and musical composition informed and influenced the aesthetic properties of one another. Revisiting the afterlives of the Bauhaus, Gate Hill Coop can be framed as a mid-century node within the school’s creative diaspora, here it is read an informal network of self-organized spaces and artist-driven projects that opened up altogether new pathways for mapping a more transitory history of contemporary art.
By 1953, Black Mountain College had become reliant on the financial gifts and loans of Paul Williams, a student who became a resident architect at the college and his wife Vera Williams who also studied at Black Mountain College.2 The Williams’ commitment to propping up Black Mountain College was eroded by the acrimony and disorganization that characterized the school’s final years. While their financial and emotional investment in Black Mountain College waned, Paul and Vera Williams’ interest in intentional communities intensified. The couple was directly influenced by what Black Mountain College creative writing faculty member Paul Goodman and his architect brother called the “socio-psychological” approach to city planning and community building first outlined in their 1947 book Communitas—Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life. Communitas provided the Williams’ with an intellectual blueprint to form the scaffolding of an intentional community. Reflecting the book’s emphasis on the built environment, the Goodmans’ espoused an edict for individuals “to be agents of their own needs” and to literally create the spaces that would engender the type of lives they wanted to lead. Rather than become complacent, Communitas emphasized the need to “get people to improve what they have, or to find out where they ought to move.”3 To this end, Paul Williams first suggested to Charles Olson that Black Mountain College sell its property in North Carolina and establish a new community in New York in which the demands of its setting—either in a rural location or in “a skyscraper in the center of the city”—would ultimately shape its operations.4 Although Olson, who had returned to North Carolina in 1951 to help in the College’s restructuring, did not heed their advice, Paul and Vera Williams remained undeterred and in 1954 purchased around 100 acres of slopping hillsides outside the town of Stony Point, New York and set up the charter for Gate Hill Artists’ Cooperative. Together a motley grouping of couples including literary scholar M. C. Richards and composer David Tudor, potters Karen Karnes and David Weinrib and composer John Cage who would later be joined by Merce Cunningham, the Williams’s headed to “the Land.” Theirs can be read as an attempt to cultivate not only a physical space for collaboration, but also a non-normative social milieu, a conditional setting akin to what curator Thomas J. Lax writing about the experimental arts in this period has compellingly suggested “that we might today call queer—contingent, emergent, able to be named only in retrospect.”5
Community and Communitas
The pragmatic idea for Gate Hill Coop can actually be traced back earlier to the summer of 1950 when playwright and critic Paul Goodman taught creative writing and criticism at the 1950 Summer Institute. In an unorthodox gesture, Goodman often asked the students to draw on their own feelings using an exercise that combined his research on gestalt theory and relaxation exercises invented by Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Vera Williams already familiar with Goodman’s ideas published in Communitas and introduced to his plays by M. C. Richards, recalled that in Goodman’s classes at Black Mountain College the role of architecture in community building was paramount, “he talked about space in relation to how it’s used, such as the subway and lunch counter and protestant church, having to do with the relation of people vis-à-vis each other and how this related to architecture.”6 Richards’s recollection of Goodman’s teaching underscored the themes advanced by Communitas, which was an attempt to counter the American proclivity for conformity and emulation that drove the break neck speed of urban planning in the postwar economic boom. Gate Hill Coop’s self-initiated community—a network of artists, critics, writers, potters, and thinkers who coalesced around shared ideas and possibilities for the future and who wanted to integrate their art practice with their sense of social, political, economic and environmental ethics blended the types of intentional community prototypes that emerged throughout history and across various cultural and social contexts. Outlined in Communitas, these models included the kibbutz, progressive schools and cooperative farming—which clearly developed in response to distinct pressures, but represented three instances in which land, equipment, skills, ownership, risks and finances were pooled together to maximize a shared benefit. Translated into the field of visual art, Gate-Hill reflected this collective ethos that emphasized collaboration and empathy over autonomy and individual authorship.
Work as Process
Among the faculty at Black Mountain College, M. C. Richards—a double outlier, one of the only faculty with a PhD and one of the only women—was perhaps the most empathetic to the aims of Paul and Vera Williams and for this reason she became a catalyst to launch the Gate Hill Coop.7 By 1951 she had left the Black Mountain College having already become disillusioned by the infighting and egos of its faculty. The Williams’ kept in touch with Richards who was teaching, organizing pottery workshops, and lecturing widely on subjectivity—the topic of her book, Centering In Pottery, Poetry and the Person first published in 1962. Drawn directly from her experiences at Black Mountain College, Richards’ writing throughout the 1950s and 1960s pointed to several transformations within the field of contemporary art. Most urgently, was art’s turn away from object toward process and the traditional notion of a lone artist working in a studio gave way to the artist as an empathetic figure who has a social practice. In a 1968 symposium on “current trends in education” Richards outlined these transformations:
“Work used to mean what you do for wages (…). Work is inner involvement. Work is caring about something and expressing your caring in some way whether you get paid for it or not. Our work may be to learn and to grow and help one another. It does not mean employment necessarily, nor necessarily having something visible to show for how you spend your time.”8
Richards’ poignant lesson about delinking the positivist definition of work towards a more humanistic approach reflected her attempt to use Gate Hill as an opportunity to ameliorate the shortcomings she found during her experience at Black Mountain College. “The life-changing lesson” for Richards was the realization “to experience how shallow our education is in terms of equipping us for self-government, patience, charity, and creative social imagination, nonviolent conflict.”9 Richards’ went on to ask pressingly: “How are we to learn these arts unless we have reciprocal forms in education—collaboration—co/creation,” implored Richards offering the rejoinder: “There is no substitute for experience.”10