SANTA FE, N.M. — In 1933, a college rose in the North Carolina mountains that would shape the artistic future of Taos for decades.
Pioneered by a classics professor fed up with traditional educational methods, Black Mountain College consisted of a who’s who of 20th-century brilliance: Bauhaus founder/architect Walter Gropius, philosophers Carl Jung and Max Lerner; artists Walter Locke and Franz Kline, and physicist Albert Einstein.
They in turn taught many of America’s leading visual artists, poets and designers: Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Josef Albers, Robert Creeley, Willem and Elaine DeKooning, Ben Shahn, Robert Motherwell and William Carlos Williams.
Twenty-six of their students ended up in Taos, where they spearheaded modernism and ignited a creative connection of experimentation that simmers to this day.
The Harwood Museum of Art is showing a trio of exhibitions linked by Black Mountain College with “Oli Sihvonen: The Final Years,” which opens Saturday, and “Black Mountain College and New Mexico” and “Onward,” opening Sept. 24.
The exhibit trifecta emerged when Harwood curator Jina Brenneman’s research on Sihvonen circled back to his studies with Bauhaus veteran Josef Albers at Black Mountain. Sihvonen attended the school from 1946-48.
“We were going to do a solo show of him on his last four years of life,” she said.
Brenneman had encountered at least two Black Mountain students in Taos. She dug up more names as she discussed the project with them.
“Many of them are in their 80s and they live just down the road,” she said. “It just grew into this monster because I kept finding people.”
The Taos transplants included everyone from poets and writers to filmmakers, art historians and musicologists, as well as visual artists.
“The hippies had nothing on these people in terms of experimentation and liberation,” Brenneman said. “They had black students 10 years before anybody else did.”
Black Mountain founder John Andrew Rice started the school out of disgust with the way students were treated in a more traditional educational setting.
“The students were left out of decision-making and they were preached at,” Brenneman said.
At Black Mountain, “they had student involvement all the way down. The students would be on the hiring committee.”
The school encouraged cross-pollination of disciplines.
A photograph shows artist Elaine DeKooning helping to build Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Taos gallery owner Rena Rosequist studied dance with Merce Cunningham.
It was a school also dedicated to honesty.
Taos potter “Cynthia Homire said a famous artist told her she was not a painter and to switch to ceramics,” Brenneman added.
Several alumni would go on to become tutors at St. John’ s College in Santa Fe.
In Taos, Sihvonen continued his studies under the G.I. Bill at Louis Ribak’s Taos Valley Art School. By 1950 he was working exclusively in abstract imagery. The Brooklyn-born artist lived by his mentor Josef Albers, who said, “abstraction is the essential function of the human spirit.”
“I have never seen an artist so committed to one concept,” Brenneman said. Sihvonen studied forms such as the spiral, the sphere and film strip shapes. The show features one of his first abstract pieces created under Albers.
“He was a colorist, so you would see this theme for a long, long period of time,” Brenneman said. “He took the ladder and did unimaginable things with it.”
The exhibition ends in a literary flair with a Black Mountain College-related photography exhibit titled “Onward,” after a favorite salutation of Taos poet and Black Mountain alumnus Robert Creeley. That legacy lives on in Taos today, Brenneman said.
“Even people who didn’t even know Robert Creeley end their conversations with ‘Onward.’ “