8 Pioneering Women Artists of Black Mountain College
From its home deep in the North Carolina woods, Black Mountain College nurtured and inspired some of the most celebrated artists of the mid-20th century. Teachers encouraged experimentation and collaboration amongst students variously specializing in art, design, writing, and music—which, in turn, inspired daring new works of modern art.
While history books regularly celebrate the school’s relationship with famous male painters, from Josef Albers to Robert Rauschenberg to Cy Twombly, the women who studied and taught at Black Mountain College are rarely given their due.
Below, we highlight eight female artists who passed through the progressive institution during its short but influential life from 1933 to 1957. From Anni Albers and Mary Parks Washington to Ruth Asawa and Dorothea Rockburne, these painters, sculptors, and weavers not only shaped the legacy of Black Mountain College, but pioneered new approaches to abstraction and art-making in the process.
“Will you consider coming to Black Mountain College? It’s a pioneering adventure.” This was the invitation Anni Albers and her husband, Josef, received in 1933, as political conflict began to brew in their native Germany. The previous year, the Nazi regime forcibly closed the Bauhaus, a pioneering art school where the couple studied and taught. Seeking a place of refuge, they accepted the request.
By the time Albers landed in rural North Carolina to teach at the then-fledgling institution, she had already begun to revolutionize her medium of weaving. On her loom, she created abstract compositions that fused the teachings of Paul Klee (her instructor at the Bauhaus) with her interest in Pre-Columbian textile arts.
As a both an artist and a teacher, Albers advocated for the importance of “play,” or experimentation, in the artistic process. In her 1941 text “Handweaving Today: Textile work at Black Mountain College,” she argued that art should grow from “a playful beginning, unresponsive to any demand of usefulness, an enjoyment of colors, forms, surface contrasts and harmonies—a tactile sensuousness.”
This experimental approach informed her abstract textiles. In single works, she combined loom-weaving and hand-weaving, reproducible geometric patterns and spontaneous marks, and organic and synthetic materials. Even the Museum of Modern Art took note of these inspired decisions, granting Albers a solo exhibition in 1949—the first for a textile artist at the New York institution.
In the spring of 1948, Elaine de Kooning and her husband Willem were “penniless with no prospects,” as she recalled. She was writing art reviews for two dollars a pop, and he hadn’t sold a single painting from his recent solo show. A Hail Mary came in the form of an invitation, sent by Josef Albers, to spend the summer at Black Mountain College. “All of our problems were solved,” she continued.
Willem taught at the school, while Elaine took classes with Albers, Merce Cunningham, and R. Buckminster Fuller. She also took part in performances and plays, as both actor and set designer; in one show hatched by Cunningham and John Cage, she starred opposite Fuller.
Even after Willem left Black Mountain, Elaine remained. There, she had her own studio where she made bold abstractions on wrapping paper, filled with thick, energetic strokes of color. These compositions would be the springboard from which her rich painting practice grew—one that ultimately joined abstraction and representation with inspired series like her “Faceless Men” and “Bacchus” canvases.
Portrait of Karen Karnes. Courtesy of Lacoste Gallery.
The child of Russian and Polish immigrants, ceramic artist Karen Karnes grew up in cooperative housing in the Bronx. She eventually landed at Brooklyn College, where she studied art under the architect Serge Chermayoff. She didn’t pick up pottery, however, until her husband (also a ceramicist) brought home a chunk of clay. She began experimenting with the material, which soon became her primary medium and passion. “Clay is a totally expressive material, making permanent the most immediate, the most profound, or the most trivial image of the maker,” she once said.
Karnes honed her skills through courses in Italy and, later, at at Black Mountain College, where she studied and then taught as the school’s potter-in-residence. She would maintain a sculptural practice for the rest of her life, experimenting with both fine and functional art. She became famous for creating a flameproof casserole dish and functional tableware, which she produced for over 40 years, while also forging large, abstract clay sculptures.
During her teenage years in Montreal, Dorothea Rockburne longed for an escape from her Canadian hometown. She also had a rebellious streak—against her parents’ wishes, she left for Black Mountain College in 1950, just after turning 18.
She remembered herself as “a dry sponge” during her first years at the school. Hungry to soak up the diverse expertise of her new instructors, she took dance with Merce Cunningham, linguistics with Flola Shepard, philosophy with Bill Levi, and photography with Hazel Larsen. Rockburne also acted, playing Ophelia in Rauschenberg and Twombly’s unorthodox rendition of Hamlet. “I was never just a painter,” she later said. “I always did and still do fish around. I study. I want to know everything at once. I want to be an interdisciplinary person.”
The geometric paintings Rockburne produced during her five years at Black Mountain College, and which she developed over the course of her life, were steeped in these learnings. They were most influenced, however, by Max Dehn’s mathematics lessons. Equations like golden ratio (also employed by Renaissance masters such as Leonardo da Vinci) were her favorite. They informed not only her folded works on paper, which were scored by angular pleats, but also her monumental installations that turned rooms into total artworks by dividing walls and floors with lines and painted shapes.
Hazel Larsen Archer is best remembered as the photographer who captured the creative luminaries, pioneering performances, and intimate community that animated Black Mountain College. She took intimate portraits of John Cage, Anni and Josef Albers, Ruth Asawa, Elaine de Kooning, and Buckminster Fuller, to name just a few. A photo of Cage, for instance, captures a close-up of the young, freckled composer’s face; his eyes gaze skywards, as if contemplating his next avant-garde score. The artist photographed complex dance pieces choreographed by the likes of Merce Cunningham with equal sensitivity. Some shots highlight the carefully composed lines created by groups of dancing bodies, while others focus on the strong, reaching limbs of individual dancers.
Archer arrived at Black Mountain College in 1944 and left in 1953, first studying under Josef Albers, then returning as a teacher. As the school’s first full-time photography instructor, she taught students including Twombly, Rauschenberg, and Stan VanDerBeek. “According to accounts from her students, she was an inspiring teacher,” Diana C. Stoll writes. “Some even spoke of her teaching as spiritual.”
Ruth Asawa always had a natural inclination towards art. Even as a young girl working on her family’s farm in California, she’d dangle her feet from the back of the horse-drawn equipment to draw shapes in the sand with her toes. Later in life, these drawings would become “the bulk of my sculptures,” she once said.
Despite her early interest, however, Asawa’s path to becoming a practicing artist was circuitous. In 1942, at the age of 16, her family was sent to a Japanese internment camp. While there, Asawa serendipitously met several former Disney Studio artists who were fellow prisoners and spent her days making art with them. But it wasn’t until she was freed and made her way to Black Mountain College in 1946, via scholarship, that her sculpture practice blossomed.
There, she was influenced by her teachers, including painter Josef Albers, the inventor Fuller, and the mathematician Dehn. She began to make her best-known sculptures: delicate hanging wire matrices that resemble organic forms like bodies, bulbous tree trunks, and dripping fluids. “I was interested in the economy of a line, enclosing three-dimensional space,” she recalled in a 1981 interview. “I realized that I could make wire forms interlock, expand, and contract with a single strand because a line can go anywhere.” This approach would lay the groundwork for her entire practice—one that challenged traditional approaches to sculpture by exploring lightness and transparency rather than weight and mass.
Susan Weil, Spare Parts (Self-Portrait), 2012. Courtesy of the artist.
In the late 1940s, Susan Weil enrolled at Paris’s Academie Julian to study painting. There, she met Rauschenberg, who became her friend, collaborator, and lover. The pair soon sought out a more experimental, multidisciplinary environment; by 1948, they had arrived at Black Mountain College.
While Weil was initially surprised by what she remembered as the “authoritarian, exacting [teaching] style” of Josef Albers, she also admitted that this instruction deeply influenced her work—paintings and sculptures that explore the female body through various modes of abstraction and fragmentation.
But perhaps more influential to Weil’s practice was the supportive, diverse community that Black Mountain offered. “It was so lively,” she remembered. “When you had finished your classes, and you went to the dining hall in the evening to have dinner, then you’d sit around and talk with all the other creative people about their day.” Weil noted, in particular, how the poets and musicians at the school informed new directions in her work.
She and Rauschenberg famously scavenged for unorthodox materials during trash duty, one of the chores required by all students and teachers. This detritus made its way into the paintings and sculptures the duo made while at Black Mountain—and, later, informed the use use of found objects in both artists’ individual practices.
Mary Parks Washington
Portrait of Mary Parks Washington by Beaumont Newhall. Courtesy of the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.
Washington must have felt a new sense of freedom when she arrived at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1946. She even bought a new pair of dungarees—the first time she had ever worn pants. The young Atlanta-born artist had just graduated from Spelman College with a degree in art, and Black Mountain was the first desegregated school she’d attended. There, she studied design and color theory with Josef Albers, painting with Jean Varda, and photography with Beaumont Newhall. She also forged deep friendships with Asawa, one of her roommates, and the painters Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight.
Throughout her long career as an artist and teacher, Washington experimented with drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage. No matter the medium, her work mined the subjects of history, memory, and race. A series she called “histcollages” brought together documents such as family photos, paperwork, and letters in works that directly explore lineage and identity.