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Communitas … After Black Mountain College

In 1933, the same year that Hitler rose to the rank of Chancellor of the Third Reich and the Bauhaus faculty voted to dissolve the institute in Berlin, Black Mountain College opened its modest facility in the mountains of western North Carolina providing a distinctly American context to test not only the translatability, but also the viability of Bauhaus pedagogy and its politically utopian aim to fully integrate modernist aesthetic disciplines with modern social structures and institutions.

Fleeing persecution by the Nazi regime, a decade later former Bauhauslers Anni and Josef Albers, Trude Guermonprez, and Xanti Schawinsky—all Jewish refuges—found an equivocal reception among the American south and Black Mountain College’s still fledgling student body, transient faculty, and acrimonious organizers who found themselves improbably living, working, farming, learning and experimenting together on the lake-side grounds of a former Christian summer camp that served as the school’s campus. Despite Walter Gropius’s frequent visits from Harvard University to lecture in support of the propagation of “Bauhaus in America” and the centrality of Josef Albers’ instructional methods that he adapted from his Bauhaus Preliminary Course which presented design as an active process contingent on the variability of materials, Black Mountain College never achieved the fiscal or organizational stability it needed to sustain itself.1

In an effort to schematize how the college may exist despite its lack of funds, the school’s last rector, Charles Olson typed out a diagram situating the college in the center from which four nodal points radiate outward: a theater, an academy, a magazine, a publishing house with corresponding geographic centers (Cambridge, MA; New York; Berkeley, CA; Philadelphia and San Francisco). The diagram points to a strategy of survival by diffusion both in formats as well as geography and like the way the Bauhaus has remained intensely present, Black Mountain College persists in constantly being evoked in the discourse on arts education and experimental arts. Yet none of Olson’s strategies could stave off the inevitability of the school’s shuttering once funding dried up.

Charles Olson, Original diagram for proposed reorganization of Black Mountain College, c. 1954, Charles Olson Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries. Reprinted in Helen Molesworth: “Imaginary Landscape,” in: Leap Before You Look, Yale University Press, New Haven 2016, p. 50.

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

MC Richards from On Centering.

Collaboration and Co-Creation

Designed to facilitate the flow between work and family life, Gate Hill Coop’s intimate arrangement of buildings engendered Richards’ ideas of collaboration by default. Beyond the initial group who established Gate Hill Coop, a growing number of people moved to the Land including other BMC alums artists Ray Johnson and Stan VanDerBeek. In addition, Gate Hill attracted a range of collaborators and frequent visitors including choreographer and dancers Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown and her husband the composer Earle Brown.11 As the resident architect and financier, Paul Williams designed most of the structures and according to Carolyn Brown, his “dream was to build a quasi-Italian hillside village with houses build around square and most of the land left free and wild for all to enjoy,” reflecting a point made by Communitas that hillside construction with open squares facilitated closer personal interactions.12 The modest homes, customized for each resident, were arranged on the stepped hillside with open spaces between the structures. But a year before any construction began, M. C. Richards and David Tudor, Karen Karnes and David Weinrib and John Cage all lived in an existing cottage on the property what Carolyn Brown characterized as a “derelict shanty” that had four small rooms and “the five of them lived in this cramped and awkwardly intimate proximity while Paul set to work designing their houses.”13 The first to be built was the pottery studio for Karen Karnes and David Weinrib because their functional wares provided the community with a key source of income. Karnes worked relentlessly in this studio for the next twenty-five years keeping the showroom stocked with her popular pots and vessels as well as the hand-built planters, stools, and fireplaces that she also made and exhibited.14 Only David Tudor who stayed until 1995, surpassed Karnes’ time at Gate Hill Coop.

Social Networks

Though decidedly rural and rustic, Gate Hill was not culturally isolated and in fact, its activities were intrinsically linked to the experimental arts that exploded throughout New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s including the events associated with Fluxus, Happenings, Judson Dance Theater, Expanded Cinema, intermedia and other progenitors of what would become contemporary visual art’s insistence on the social, the durational and the experiential. This interconnected link between a remote dilapidated outpost and the epicenter of radical visual art production is exemplified by the critical reception given to VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, a conceptual theater/studio made from repurposing the top of a grain silo. (All following figures can be found in the resource attachment beneath this article. It is a compilation of images made by Gloria Sutton for a lecture on Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, published with Courtesy of the Stan VanDerBeek Estate; Fig. 1) Mail ordered from a midwestern farm supply company, the pre-fabricated aluminum edges were adapted and pieced together via an epistolary exchange with the manufacturer. (Fig. 30–32) A rotating group of volunteers repeated the pattern of piecing individual panels together on the ground and then hoisting and connecting the groups of panels to the already secured sections until the dome was a little more than halfway completed. (Fig. 2–4) The pace of construction slowed down long enough to allow an American flag to remain draped from the central mast. (Fig. 5) A sequence of black-and-white images shows how this continued until almost all of the dome’s panels were conjoined and reached the furthest edge of the Movie-Drome’s wooden platform base. (Fig. 6–10) The area underneath the platform, visible in figure 14, was littered with the various scraps of wood and plastic sheeting covering the dome between working phases and conveying the ad hoc construction process, which relied on Gate Hill Coop neighbors and contributing their time, tools, scrap materials, and labor to the project.

As I have detailed in my book, The Experience Machine, VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome combined the aesthetic logic of painting, film, video, photography, dance, television, computer programming and architecture to anticipate the current ways contemporary art operates under the pressure of digital networks. Part home, part studio (Fig. 11), the, thirty-one-foot-high metal dome VanDerBeek built on The Land between 1965–67 was a prototype for a communications system VanDerBeek imagined, in which several dromes would be positioned throughout the world, each linked to an orbiting satellite that would store and transmit images among the various sites. In his manifesto which became the source for his various grant applications and artist statements, (Fig. 33–39) VanDerBeek sought a model for a real-time, programmable communications system. He referred to the thousands of found and hand-made 35mm slides and film strips projected onto the curved interior of the Movie-Drome interchangeably as “image libraries, newsreels, and feedback” presaging today’s Internet networks for sharing and distributing art and information15 (Fig. 15–27) In a 1965 interview he explained the telecommunication aspects of the project: In the future similar Movie-Dromes could receive images by satellite from a worldwide library source, store them, and program a feedback presentation to the local community. Dialogs with other centers would be likely, and instant reference material via transmission television and telephone could be called for and received at 186,000 miles-per-second from anywhere in the world.”16 I argue that Movie-Drome’s distinct domed-screening space was less about a cinematic dispositif and instead reflected visual art’s adoption of the semantic codes and modalities ushered in by cybernetics and systems theory. The satellite and fiber-optic cable telecommunications system that VanDerBeek outlined in his “Culture: Intercom” manifesto which he intended to use in order to connect audiences in an effort to “share art” and perform “cultural transmissions” relied on the decentralized ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) which was developed by the United States military to safeguard the government’s ability to control its military under a possible nuclear attack.26 In this way, VanDerBeek presciently pointed to the paradoxical rhetoric of the Internet as an instrument contingent on both connectivity and control and underscored the complexity of adapting artistic models of collective authorship, anonymity, agency and mobility.

The Movie-Drome’s public unveiling at Gate Hill Coop in the fall of 1966 was covered in Newsweek, Film Culture and the Village Voice and drew the attendance of esteemed experimental filmmakers, including Shirley Clarke, Ed Emshwiller, Agnes Varda, Andy Warhol and critic Annette Michelson who all made the drive up from New York City. (Fig. 39–44) A hand-sketched map circulated by VanDerBeek indicated Gate Hill’s relatively remote location, with the northern most tip of Manhattan being the last discernable signpost. (Fig. 29) This more formal tour was augmented by the stream of casual visits by a range of collaborators and friends of those living at Gate Hill throughout the 1960s including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Morton Feldman; artists, Jasper Johns, Richard Lippold, Robert Rauschenberg, potter, Peter Voulkos, The Living Theater’s Judith Malina and Julian Beck among others.

Pond Farm, 2015. Photo by Cheri Owen-Sorkin. Courtesy of Cheri Owen-Sorkin and Jenni Sorkin.

Pond Farm: A Way of Life

The informal atmosphere at Gate Hill Coop, propagated by the ad hoc screenings, family picnics, studio visits and coordinated clean up days and other forms of community organization in which children were always part of the action was in direct contrast to another intentional community that developed in reaction if not rejection of Black Mountain College. A peer of Anni and Josef Albers at the Weimar Bauhaus and fellow refuge, potter Marguerite Wildenhain (the only woman to achieve the Master Potter designation in Germany at the time as well as the Bauhaus) participated in the Crafts Institute in the fall of 1952, however, ­­she declined the offer by Olson to join Black Mountain College’s faculty. Instead she returned to Pond Farm, the intentional community she ran outside of Guerneville, California in the Russian River Valley about seventy miles north of San Francisco.17 Between 1949 and 1952 she led the Pond Farm Workshops like she did the ceramics workshop of the Bauhaus which was actually located in Dornburg, a provincial village eighteen miles outside of Weimar. By choice and by default, the isolation of both Dornburg and Pond Farm shaped Wildenhain’s operational ethos. Yet, it was not an anti-social position. Wildenhain invited other women with ties to the Bauhaus including Trude Guermonprez who taught weaving both at Pond Farm and at Black Mountain College where she was Anni Albers’ colleague. From 1952 to her death in 1985 Wildenhain shaped all aspects of Pond Farm’s activities to reflect her own rigorous methods including rejecting beginners and having the students destroy all of the pots and forms that they had created over the span of their time at Pond Farm “as an act of submission, in which the objects and their makers were broken down—only to be rebuilt more robustly.”18 Labor intensive and ascetic, Pond Farm was in the words of Wildenhain, purposefully “not a school” but “a way of life.”19 Her insistence on treating ceramics, as a “live form” –the term Jenni Sorkin ascribes to the methodology of ceramics which embodies the “vibrancy of performance, teaching, and object making through communal practice and collective skill,” Wildenhain’s Pond Farm was her defiant corrective to the gender and media hierarchy of the Bauhaus which despite Gropius’s advocacy of interdisciplinarity and the eradication of hierarchy “still reinforced both the low status and the feminine associations of craft, appropriating it as a service discipline laboring on behalf of architecture, its masculine superior.”20

Transitoriness

In the second edition of Communitas published in 1960, the Goodmans updated the section on intentional communities to address their eventual and usually inevitable dissolution. They evoke the moment that Paul Williams tried to restart the experiment at Gate Hill:

“(T)he democratic and convivial intermingling of faculty and studied, leads inevitably to violent dissentions, sexual rivalries, threatened families. It is at this point, as we have said, that the community could become a psychotherapeutic group and try by its travails to hammer out a new ideal for us all in these difficult areas where obviously our modern society is in transition. Instead the community itself tends to break up.”21

By “disintegrating,” intentional communities “irradiate society with people who have been profoundly touched by the excitement of community life, who do not forget the advantages but try to realize them in new ways.”22 The Goodmans make the connection to Gate Hill Coop (“people trained at defunct Black Mountain, North Carolina, now make a remarkable little village of craftsmen in (…) N.Y. (that houses some famous names in contemporary art)”). They suggest, “perhaps these communities are like those ‘little magazines’ and ‘little theaters’ that do not outlive their first few performances, yet from them comes all the vitality of the next generation of everyone’s literature.”23 What is compelling about the Goodman’s assessment is that the break-up of intentional communities is characterized not as a loss, or failure but as a type of “transitoriness” which remains “part of the perfection” of “the most intensely motivated intentional communities.”24 In this way, we can register the closing of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College not as an ending point but as a conditional state, a generative type of transitoriness that complicates the histories of institutions. In particular, the communitas of Pond Farm, Gate Hill Co-op by its very nature turns not on the aims of institutions, agencies, or organizations but on a coalition of the willing—on the bodies of people who traversed both politics and travel and the politics of travel. Revisiting these communities in 2019 underscores the conditional and co-dependent nature of the of the movement of bodies demanded by the construction of western economies of culture reminding us of that the distinctions between visitor, tourist, émigré, immigrant, refuge, resident, host and alien are never fixed, but remain relative.

●Footnotes
  • 1 “Bauhaus in America” is the title of a text contributed by Jeffrey Saletnik to Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 edited by Helen Molesworth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016): 102-105. The book served as a catalogue for the exhibition organized by Molesworth and Ruth Erickson for the ICA Boston and subsequently traveled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Wexner Center in Columbus Ohio and served as the impetus for the conference After Black Mountain College organized at Northeastern University on October 30, 2015 by me and Jenni Sorkin, Associate Professor of Art History, University of California Santa Barbara. My text for Bauhaus Imaginista.org draws on research from those occasions as well as my contribution to the ICA Boston catalogue. I want to thank Jenni Sorkin and Cheri Owen as well as the VanDerBeek Estate for their support and for granting permission to use select images.
  • 2 Paul Williams had inherited his money from his mother in 1952 and according to Martin Duberman’s research, Williams had personally donated $6,500 and taken out a $25,000 first mortgage on the farm in 1953 alone. Martin Duberman: Black Mountain An Exploration in Community, W.W. Norton, New York 1993, p. 427.
  • 3 Paul and Percival Goodman: Communitas—Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life, Vintage Books, New York 1947 reprinted 1960, pp. 6 and 19.
  • 4 According to Mary Emma Harris, “although the faculty went so far as to obtain a legal opinion on the sale of the land, Olson was less than enthusiastic about the New York venture.” Mary Emma Harris: The Arts at Black Mountain College, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1987 reprinted 2002, p. 177. Harris suggests that it was Olson’s disdain and competitiveness with Paul Goodman that ultimately sank the college’s relocation to New York. In another section of her book, Harris described how Goodman’s own open bisexuality made him a polarizing figure at Black Mountain College which no doubt influenced Olson as well. See Harris, p. 169.
  • 5 Thomas J. Lax, “Allow me to begin again,” in: Thomas J. Lax & Ana Janevski: Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2018, p. 23.
  • 6 Vera Williams quoted in Mary Emma Harris: The Arts at Black Mountain College, 2002, p. 215.
  • 7 Richards’s influence has been eclipsed by that of John Cage. For a corrective to this interpretation see Jenni Sorkin’s rigorous account of Richards’s role as teacher and influencer in “M.C. Richards: Vanishing Point,” in: Jenni Sorkin: Live Form. Women, Ceramics and Community, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2016.
  • 8 M. C. Richards: The Crossing Point Selected Talks and Writings, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT 1966, p. 114.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 104.
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 Though they did not join Gate Hill Coop, Earle Brown and Carolyn Brown “joined the Williamses on a number of forays into the country north of New York, and eventually (they) found a tract of land in Stony Point that almost perfectly matched the little advertisement Paul had placed in Merce (Cunningham’s) Theater de Lys program. It was hilly and mostly wooded, had a stream, waterfalls, and a house and was within fifty miles of the city.” Carolyn Brown: Chance and Circumstance Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL 2007, p. 106.
  • 12 Ibid.
  • 13 Ibid.
  • 14 For an extensive and nuanced account of Karen Karnes’ work see Mark Shapiro (ed.): A Chosen Path The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2010, which provides one of the most detailed accounts of Gate Hill Coop.
  • 15 VanDerBeek: “Culture:Intercom,” in: Gregory Battcock (ed.): The New American Cinema: A Critical Anthology, Dutton, New York 1967, p. 175.
  • 16 Janet Vrchota: “Stan VanDerBeek: Technology's Migrant Fruit Picker,” in: Print, March/April 1973, p. 49.
  • 17 For a comprehensive and nuanced account of Pond Farm’s vital role in the development of studio craft and Wildenhain’s experience as a Jewish refugee see Jenni Sorkin, “Pond Farm and the Summer Craft Experience,” in: Elissa Auther & Adam Lerner (eds.): West of Center Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2012, pp. 128–139.
  • 18 Sorkin: Live Form, 2016, p. 62.
  • 19 Marguerite Wildenhain, The Invisible Core: A Potter’s Life and Thoughts, Kondansha International, Tokyo and New York 1973, p. 145 as cited in Sorkin p. 129.
  • 20 Sorkin: Live Form, 2016, pp. 65 and 256.
  • 21 Goodman: Communitas, 1947, p. 109.
  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 Ibid.
  • 24 Ibid.
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