Black Mountain College


Black Mountain. An Interdisciplinary Experiment 1933 – 1957, Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin

Curators: Eugen Blume, Gabriele Knapstein
Curatorial assistance and project management: Matilda Felix
Architecture + Exhibition Design: raumlabor_berlin
Carrier: Staatliche Museen

Black Mountain. An Interdisciplinary Experiment 1933 – 1957 presents the first comprehensive exhibition on Black Mountain College to take place in Germany. The show appears as a temporary exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof, and guides visitors chronologically through the school’s history and creative production.

The exhibition includes authentic art objects produced by Black Mountain students and faculty, as well as original letters, documents, and reading materials from the progressive education movement (John Dewey’s Art as Experience, for example) that lend further insight into the life of the school.

The overall chronological structure of the exhibition breaks down at a finer level into vignettes that highlight particular moments, stories, or individuals: the early episode in which John Andrew Rice writes to Josef Albers in the hopes that he and his wife, Anni, will join the faculty; spaces devoted to work by Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, or John Cage’s experimental music. The arrangement of these vignettes serves a helpful, didactic function by allowing a visitor’s knowledge of Black Mountain College to build up in graspable pieces.

Stylistically, the most prominent aspect of the exhibition is its use of plywood throughout the display structures. This is a visually striking choice of material—particularly in the context of a refined, white-walled museum—and lends the show a low-cost, ‘DIY’ aesthetic that is elegantly plain. This is a thoughtful creative decision for raumlabor_berlin to have made, as it echoes the way in which dwellings at Black Mountain College were constructed informally by students and faculty themselves.

Perhaps the central curatorial challenge of the show consists in balancing between showcasing artwork and providing historical context. While Black Mountain College produced a wealth of artistic achievement, showcasing this alone would be insufficient for providing a historical account of the school as a place of learning and a community with particular values and ideas. On the other hand, recounting the history of the school without emphasizing the artistic production it encouraged would be equally insufficient, for this would neglect and understate the work for which the college is remembered. Curators Eugene Blume and Gabriele Knapstein succeed in striking a balance between these two approaches, creating an exhibition in which visitors are led between spaces that alternate between emphasizing artwork over historical context and vice versa. The artworks are displayed simply, elegantly, and spaciously, while the historical documents and books are displayed more densely in groupings inside glass and plywood display cases. This back-and-forth has the added benefit of allowing visitors to focus primarily on the artwork or the history if they so choose. A number of large, vinyl, paragraph-length texts appear on walls throughout (in both Deutsch and English), weaving together the whole.

The exhibition is very much worth visiting purely for its art. Even more so, the books, letters, and other original documents it contains provide a particularly special chance to appreciate Black Mountain College for the day-to-day character it cultivated as a community and place of learning.

Text Tucker McLachlan