JOSEF ALBERS: “OPEN EYES” BY BRENDA DANILOWITZ

Note: This excerpt was originally published in 2006 in volume 11 of the Chinati Newsletter.

To coincide with an exhibition of Josef Albers’s paintings opening at the Chinati Foundation in October 2006, the following pages feature an excerpt from Brenda Danilowitz’s essay in Josef Albers: To Open Eyes, a study of Albers as teacher, and essays on the artist written by Donald Judd over a 30-year period.

At the very moment Josef and Anni Albers found themselves unable to imagine their future in Germany, the offer of a teaching position at Black Mountain College arrived. This surprising invitation, which came in the form of a telegram from Philip Johnson, then head of the fledgling department of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was an unintended consequence of three events: Rice’s resignation; the attendant dismissals and sympathetic resignations of a group of Rice’s colleagues; and the founding by this group of idealistic and disenchanted academics of a new college where they hoped to realize, independently, their educational philosophies and dreams. 1

Perhaps only at a time like that, at the depth of the Great Depression, in a general atmosphere of uncertainty and living on the edge, would five out-of-work academics, with scant financial resources, have considered such a daunting project.2 Rice, part pragmatist, part visionary, an acquaintance and follower of John Dewey, embraced freedom and democracy in education, and balked, especially, at the control that donors and wealthy trustees were able to exert over colleges and universities. Fortunately for Rice, one of his staunchest allies and a co-defector from Rollins was physics teacher Theodore (Ted) Dreier. Dreier, a passionate idealist, completely without affectation, was from a wealthy and well-connected background, and it was he together with Rice who found the money to make a start at Black Mountain College.3One of Dreier’s aunts was the now-legendary Katherine Dreier, painter, patron, and pioneering collector of avant-garde art.

“We were both interested in life and education,” Ted Dreier told Rice’s biographer sixty years later, “[The idea that art should be central to the curriculum] was natural to me. I think it was one of the things that drew Rice and I together. ”4Dreier’s mother “was in touch with Aunt Kate [Katherine Dreier] and some of her friends were on the board of the Museum of Modern Art.” Through these connections, Ted Dreier learned that Philip Johnson had recently returned from Germany with news of Albers. “So Rice and I went up [to New York] to see Philip Johnson. . . .[he] showed Rice and I pictures of things Albers’s students had done, including a picture of a sculpture just made out of wire, and studies of folded paper . . . the minute Rice saw this, he looked up and said ‘This is the kind of thing we want.’ I wrote to Albers and Philip Johnson sent a letter. I told him this was a new, pioneering college. I offered him a thousand dollars and told him to wire back ‘ja’ if the answer was yes. The money was put up by Edward M.M. Warburg of MoMA and by Mrs. Abby Rockefeller.” 5

The Alberses arrived in New York on Friday, 24 November 1933, their vessel, the S.S. Europa, having been delayed by ten hours on account of a hurricane at sea. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and they spent it in New York, dining with Ted Dreier’s parents in Brooklyn Heights, where they met “Aunt Kate” and Marcel Duchamp, whom Albers pronounced “a great fellow.”6 They visited the Museum of Modern Art’s Brancusi exhibition, which Duchamp had organized, and met, among others, Georg Grosz—according to Albers “sehr sympatisch”—as well as their benefactors, MoMA’s Philip Johnson and Edward M.M. Warburg, and ex-Bauhaus student Werner Drewes.7 Thanks to the publicity efforts of Ted Dreier’s mother, the news of their arrival, with an emphasis on Josef’s role as an educator, was carried in all the major New York newspapers, as well as in North Carolina (fig. 1.25).8“There is a lot of interest here,” Albers wrote to Perdekamp, “they want to write about us everywhere.”9

They spent the weekend in New York and then took the train to North Carolina. Soon after they reached Black Mountain, with its “beautiful view over the Blue Ridge Mountains,”10 the Alberses reported that it was “wunderbar.11 The panoramic view from his studio of the mountains and the wide Swannanoa Valley reminded Josef of the Sauerland’s Harz mountains, where he had spent all his holidays as a young boy (fig.1.26).12The mild climate and lush vegetation with wild rhododendrons “as tall as trees” added to the delights of their new home, where “the atmosphere is truly youthful and really beautiful. Much like the feel of the early Bauhaus. Even the faces are Bauhaus faces. And open arms for our work.”13

Black Mountain College resembled the Bauhaus, not least in that it was a work in progress. Anni Albers would later describe John Andrew Rice’s desire to have art at the center of the Black Mountain College curriculum as no more than a “vague hunch that this might be a way of establishing a college.”14 Rice said, “I don’t know how this thing’s going to work out. If I drew up any kind of plan I’d feel under an obligation to carry it through”15 It was, said Anni, exactly the promise of being part of a new and largely undefined venture that attracted her and Josef.

After the first telegram came to Berlin asking about going to Black Mountain, a long letter . . . came in German from Ted Dreier in which [were] the words “this is a pioneering adventure.” . . . When we came across this word “pioneering” we both said “This is our place.” You know, leaving the Bauhaus, which was certainly a pioneering place . . . to continue this. And I believe that this played a great part in our staying on [at Black Mountain for so many years]. . . . There was nothing and there was a chance to build something up, and in other places there was already a framework and you had to fit in, squeeze in, and so that made Black Mountain especially desirable and we loved it for that reason.16

Rice, an admirer of Thomas Jefferson as well as of John Dewey, believed that education should prepare students for life in a truly democratic society.17 Although the goal of Rollins College had been progressive education, Rice and his codefectors perceived that Rollins’s autocratic president had transgressed the faculty members’ academic freedoms. Whatever other doctrines of progressive education the founders of Black Mountain College embraced, the twin ideals of democracy and freedom became their overarching raison d’etre.18 For John Andrew Rice, this meant, specifically, not having to kowtow to the dictates of trustees and donors.

The fact that the college was entirely owned and run by its faculty was perhaps one of its most revolutionary aspects.19 The individuals who provided the seed money in 1933 gave as a matter of faith. They chose to remain anonymous for many years and did not expect a return on their investment. Faculty members, once appointed, were free to teach what and how they wished. Students were free to select their classes and attend—or not—as they chose. There would be no examinations and no grades. College government was based on a method of “mutual consultation and voluntary agreement.”20 The fact that freedom reigned was confirmed for Anni Albers (always a close observer of detail) the first day that she arrived at Black Mountain College: “The secretary, a very healthy, luscious girl greeted us on the porch and I remember that her fat little pink toes were in sandals. And I thought, ‘Well maybe this is a true story.’” 21

Even though Dewey’s Education and Democracy (1916) had appeared in German in 1919 and influenced many of Germany’s educational reformers, it is unlikely that Albers read it then or later. But Albers’s ideas about the creative individual’s place in society derived from a milieu—Germany at the end of World War I—in which they were common currency among advanced social thinkers. Dewey’s democracy transcended political systems, which were necessary, but less than perfect, attempts to “[realize] democracy as the truly human way of living.”22 Beyond political institutions, the “foundation of democracy is . . . faith in human intelligence and the power of pooled and cooperative experience” and the “faith that each individual shall have the chance and opportunity to contribute whatever he is capable of contributing and that the value of his contribution be decided by its place and function in the organized total of similar contributions, not on the basis of prior status of any kind whatsoever.”23 Dewey gave priority to freedom of mind, or free intelligence, over laissez-faire freedom of action, which presupposed the unthinking right of individuals to do as they pleased. For Dewey the role of the school was “to influence directly the formation and growth of attitudes and dispositions, emotional, intellectual and moral.”24 The distinction that Albers made between the “individual . . . who is concerned in a mutual give and take with his contemporaries” and the selfish “individualist” echoes Dewey’s distinction of two kinds of freedom and Dewey’s faith in cooperative experience.25

For Josef and Anni Albers, the ready-made community that received them with open arms at Black Mountain College was a cushion against many of the exigencies and unexpected cultural shocks that new immigrants invariably face. They did not have to make decisions about where and how they would live, what they would eat, or with whom they would socialize (fig.1.27). In November 1933, Black Mountain College comprised (including both Alberses) twelve faculty members, some with their own young families, twenty-two eager and idealistic students (thirteen of them defectors from Rollins College), and a handful of staff members, among whom Jack and Rubye Lipsey, the African-American couple who ran the kitchen, were most highly valued. Perhaps the greatest obstacle the Alberses faced was the language difference, but given that Rice and Dreier, as well as faculty members Emmy Zastrow (German) and John Evarts (Music), could communicate in German, even this was not an insurmountable problem. Anni Albers had a good, if passive, knowledge of English, but Josef had a mere three weeks of English instruction in Berlin immediately before their departure. Nevertheless, he launched into teaching right away, initially with the help of Zastrow and Evarts as interpreters. Their attempts at communicating Albers’s idiosyncratic expression in English were a disaster. “They very soon got in a fight about my aim or my sayings, so my conclusion was I threw them out and did it visually on the blackboard.”26 As one of Albers’s American students at the Bauhaus pointed out, “language played only a minor role [in Albers’s classroom] . . . doing was what counted.” 27

In April 1934, Albers wrote Kandinsky of the constant stream of visitors to the new Black Mountain College. Almost all of them sat in on Albers’s classes: “I seldom give a class without visitors [participating]. Mostly they praise my English. Although it leaves much to be desired.”28 Over the years the list of those who made the pilgrimage to Black Mountain College, or just dropped in when they happened to be in the neighborhood, was indeed remarkable. Many came as visiting faculty to the legendary Black Mountain College summer art and music institutes from 1944 to 1948, including Josef Breitenbach, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jean Charlot, Buckminster Fuller, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Agnes de Mille, Walter Gropius, Lyonel Feininger, Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, and Amadée Ozenfant. Others just came for a visit, such as Katherine Dreier, Albert Einstein, Fernande Leger, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Erwin Panofsky (who came while the Alberses were away on sabbatical in 1941), Thornton Wilder, Alfred Barnes, and John Dewey himself. (fig.1.28).29 Many sat in on Albers’s classes, as did most of the faculty (including John Andrew Rice) and their spouses.

After ten years of honing his skills at the Bauhaus, Albers, by the time he arrived at Black Mountain College, was in imposing command of his classroom. True to his own belief that individual growth was the key to human fulfillment, he took the measure of his new surroundings and pushed himself to ever-more creative teaching (fig.1.29). The largely undetermined curriculum structure of the new college allowed him tremendous latitude. Increasingly during the Bauhaus’s final years, Albers had been required to shift his teaching to address the training of professional architects and away from its more playful and more risky aspects. Now, he welcomed a newfound freedom in the classroom: “in Black Mountain we understood it so that I could be considered at the center of all educational activity. . . . [After leaving Black Mountain to teach and give lectures] I was always glad to come home where I did just what I wanted to do. . . . [I had] real freedom at Black Mountain where nobody had to say anything to me what to do.”30 In the early years at the Bauhaus, Albers had considered himself “unprofessional” and “an amateur,” terms by which he asserted his freedom to experiment with materials and ideas. At Black Mountain, where art was not fetishized and students were mostly unencumbered by notions of becoming professional artists, he could emphasize this nonprofessional aspect of working with materials. And he was encouraged to experiment alongside his students, creating, especially in his collages of dried leaves and cut, colored paper, some of the most liberated works of his career (fig.1.30).

The polemic of Albers’s 1924 article “Historisch oder Jetzig” had been framed to promote Bauhaus philosophy, and was directed at a society whose schools “turn out individuals stuffed with facts instead of a creative, intellectually curious population.” A decade later, in a new and doggedly radical environment, Albers’s conviction that an ideal society would be composed of truly creative individuals coincided with the vision of Black Mountain College’s founders, and gained fresh momentum. “In the Bauhaus I was more or less obliged to develop a way of study, but in Black Mountain I came more to it to develop people. . . . I felt much more personally obliged for the creatures under my hands.”31

Rationalizing his design for a new logo for the college in 1935—a design that swept away all conventions of traditional heraldry and stood on its own as a symbol of clarity, understatement, and modernity—Albers reprised the antihistoricist themes of “Historisch oder Jetzig” (fig. 1.31):

We have no inclinations to play at being Greeks, Troubadours or Victorians; for we consciously belong to the 2nd third of the 20th century. We are not enamored of astrological, zoological, heraldic or cabalistic fashions. We have hunted neither the phoenix nor the unicorn . . . nor have we tacked on learned mottoes. Instead as a symbol of union, we have chosen simply a simple ring. . . . And that no one may puzzle over cryptic monograms, we give our full address.32

In addition to his teaching, and to creating and promoting his own work, Albers from the start committed himself to the cause of Black Mountain College. As Anni Albers articulated it, the Alberses were conscious of being in a remarkable place. “It is truly interesting what they are attempting here at the college, and we see more and more, what a singular place this is. We are so happy here. We have the desire to work, and opportunities, and a wonderfully human atmosphere.33 “Art,” she maintained, had “always been considered esoteric . . . and . . . outside of general life. [At Black Mountain College, Josef showed] that you can build a general character through art, that you can incite interest . . . in knowledge of any kind through art. That any exploring . . . and [any] discipline . . . can be developed within art.”34

Josef worked unstintingly and conscientiously to promote the college and its educational aims. He had not been long in the United States before he began receiving invitations to teach, and to talk about his teaching, throughout the country. He developed and articulated his convictions of how creative education (in music, drama, and literary arts as well as the visual arts) contributed to the growth of creative individuals, and folded that thesis into an explication of practice as it developed at Black Mountain College. Albers’s ideas were aired not only in Black Mountain College publications but in books, magazines, and journals as varied as Progressive Education (October 1935), The American Magazine of Art (April 1936), Architectural Record (1936), New Architecture and City Planning (1944), Design (1946), and Junior Bazaar (1946).

Though he was a bit skeptical, the writer Alfred Kazin marveled at the “utopian impulse” of the people he encountered at Black Mountain College. “[They] stood out . . . they were like nobody else . . . they were terribly exceptional. They were idiosyncratic, crazy, wonderful . . . there wasn’t a dull . . . banal, person there.”35 The faculty generated an infectious intellectual and creative capital that was inversely proportional to the college’s financial wealth. Without trustees or an endowment in a time of general penury, Black Mountain was perennially dependent on soliciting funds from a small group of foundations and individual donors. There was never enough money (fig. 1.32). It may be that constant living on the edge—while it eventually strained the fabric of the community to its breaking point—intensified the focus on the creative, inventive, and productive life.

The energy and commitment that Albers devoted to the college was repaid by the freedoms it allowed him and Anni: “Absolute freedom . . . of doing and existing and saying what I want to say.” Freedom to not teach, if need be: “[When I was teaching at Harvard] I couldn’t say ‘I’m busy with other problems, leave me alone. Have a good time. . . . Next week I won’t come to you . . . I leave you to yourself.’ But in Black Mountain I could say that. That was respected.”36 There was also freedom to travel. For although the Alberses for years were paid the most meager salaries by virtue of the fact that, unlike other faculty, they had no children to clothe, feed, or educate, there was some compensation in the generous leaves of absence which allowed them to spend long stretches away from the college, and especially in their beloved Mexico. As soon as the 1946 Summer Art Institute was over, Josef and Anni set out on a year-long sabbatical that took them first across the United States by car via New York, Boston, Niagara, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles to New Mexico, where they arrived toward the end of 1946, and finally on to Mexico. Albers described the journey to Perdekamp: “This may sound luxurious and rich, but we neither feel like the first nor are the latter. Instead, we are supported by a college that depends on the idealism of its members. But our economic limitation is balanced by an intellectual freedom we would not swap for a better economic situation at richer institutes.”37

Freedom at Black Mountain College was an ideal that was rigorously pursued even though it sometimes came unstuck. The extreme freedom that John Andrew Rice and his cofounders envisioned was manifest in the almost complete absence of rules and regulations. Like all freedoms, if abused, it had the potential both for unbridled anarchy and for power mongering. Such antisocial tendencies could be forestalled, and responsibility and discipline—freedom’s corollaries—engendered, by individual example, shared idealism, and implicit self-regulation. This was easiest in the early days of the college, when there was one faculty member for every two or three students. Albers compared the social contract of those days, when faculty and students lived and worked under the same roof and took their meals together, to “a very close intimate family relationship. . . . [The students] went out with the teachers at night and drank beer and then [when] they came home and saw a light in my studio, they brought beer bottles and came to me.”38

A student who cut classes would have to face the instructor at the next meal, or perhaps even sooner (fig.1.33). To Anni Albers it was “an awfully important thing” that “at Black Mountain . . . the students identified themselves with the college. . . .They felt responsible for what was happening to it and they knew that it was their doing that made the college.” In some sense it was simply a practical matter. “You knew that if you didn’t shovel the snow or the coal or whatever it was, you would be cold and you couldn’t drive and the whole thing wouldn’t function. It depended on the contribution of everyone and everyone’s work was valued and counted and everyone therefore knew of his identity. You weren’t just one little wheel in the big running of a big university . . . you had to function if the whole was to function.”39

Richard Lippold, who participated in the last Albers-run Summer Art Institute in 1948, could distinguish the climate of freedom at Black Mountain from that at other progressive schools where “the teachers were sort of there just to let [the students] do what they wanted.” At Black Mountain College he found “a very different situation because of Albers’s and one or two other teachers’ work discipline. . . . Albers demanded performance.” Black Mountain, Lippold concluded, was held together by “the exquisite and delightful balance of the freedom of personal life . . . of the students, free to learn about themselves and their relationship to life, to each other . . . against the necessity to perform in their classes as at least demanded by Albers and a couple of the other people.” Lippold, who discerned the contentions and stresses that were beginning to pull the place apart, marveled at the energy it took to maintain the fragile balance. He was witness to the uniqueness of Black Mountain College at its precise tipping moment. After that “there was not the energy . . . there was only the dreaming . . . it was a lost cause.”40

The personalities, circumstances, events, statements, recriminations, and misunderstandings—documented and undocumented, remembered and forgotten—that finally sent Black Mountain College over the edge are so many, so vague, and so tangled as to spin a tale that can be told in an infinite number of permutations. In the end, perhaps, “what it boils down to . . . is that having to be always willing to give ground and adjust and change and evolve . . . gets to be very tiring.”41 Albers treasured a vision of Black Mountain College as the harmonious, creative world that, at its best, it most certainly was. The conflict between his devotion to his teaching and his students on the one hand, and his dedication to his life and work as an artist on the other, always in contest, may have been particularly acute at the time. He wanted Black Mountain to settle down. Yet it was constantly changing. Every new school year brought new faculty and new students to participate in this micro-democracy. Its functioning needed endless tending. Interminable meetings and discussions were held over the slightest issues, many of which were never resolved.

In May 1947, recently arrived in Mexico City on sabbatical from Black Mountain College, Albers wrote asking that the college extend his and Anni’s twelve-month leave period. They had been away from Black Mountain since the previous September, and, having motored across the United States and stayed several weeks in New Mexico, Albers saw the time slipping away. But there were other reasons for his reluctance to get back to North Carolina. Albert W. (Bill) Levi, who had succeeded Ted Dreier as rector in March 1947, responded to Albers’s request.42 The past year had “not been an easy one,” Levi wrote. “Faculty relations have not been smoothe [sic]. . . . Your letter . . . about further leave from the college . . . finds us all very much upset. . . . I wonder if you know how much you are wanted and needed.” Beside the stability factor that Albers’s timely return would represent, Albers’s students “would be desperately at a loss were you not to return to the college.” 43

Levi no doubt realized that Albers’s request for an extended sabbatical was coupled to his vast relief at being away from the increasingly fractious climate that had started to bedevil Black Mountain. One source of the difficulties of 1946 was the exasperation Albers felt for John Wallen, whose idealism expressed itself in a desire to impose greater order on the college. Martin Duberman, who chronicled the events in detail, astutely determined that the root of the friction between Albers and the idealistic, twenty-eight-year-old, Harvard-educated Wallen lay in the fact that “Albers was . . . concerned . . . that Wallen’s interest in efficiency and neatly defined structures might . . . stifle variety and spontaneity.”44 Ted and Bobbie Dreier had also written about the college’s problems at this time, and to these close friends Albers sent a heartfelt and revealing response.45 “Since last year,” he wrote, “I have grown more and more doubtful whether I can do there still what I need to do for myself and what I wish to do for the college.” Albers’s misgivings about the college centered on faculty members who “placed governing before serving . . . [and for whom] . . . appearing important has become important as being important.” He specifically mentioned Wallen, wondering “how anyone could take him seriously as a college teacher . . . if such a scrambled brain [as Wallen’s] can attract a group of students that long and that much then there must be something basically foul with the community providing the followers,” Albers reflected ruefully.

“Nothing seems more natural . . . [than] . . . build[ing] up strong departments more strongly,” wrote Albers, at the same time reminding Dreier of “my belief that good teaching depends on personality and experience more than on method and equipment.” Putting his finger on one of the paradoxes of democracy, and reacting to Wallen’s proposals, Albers lamented that “nothing is more discouraging than leveling down toward the inefficient or weak. I hate equalization for equalizations [sic] sake.” Freedom and democracy, Albers knew, were not absolutes. At Black Mountain they depended on “the spiritual climate,” and the current spiritual climate at Black Mountain College “worries and disturbs me. . . . You may give me there all the freedom for my work one could dream of,” he wrote, “I would not feel free to work as long as I see that a need for opposition is the dominating feature of the community.” And so, reprising his faith in practice before theory, Albers called for “more common sense instead of second hand analysis and third rate statistics; more action than ambition; and: organizing oneself before organizing others.” Albers made it clear that his patience had its limits: “During the past 13 years, I think, I have considered the demands of the College and students on me before my own needs. Now, being near 60, I cannot continue that way. Because too much of the work I need to do has been postponed for too long. I have also to consider more my public obligations.”

Given this letter, it was as much Albers’s stubborn refusal to give up on Black Mountain College as it was his sense of obligation that led him, one day later, to propose a compromise by which he agreed to spend a short time back at Black Mountain during the first semester of the 1947–48 year. He would advise the art students, teach one course during the second semester, help the students prepare for graduation, and organize the 1948 Summer Art Institute.46 Yet, despite all the evidence that Albers was attempting to limit his involvement in the college as early as the spring of 1947, he was drawn back into the conflict. After a tumultuous series of events that crystallized, in the early summer of 1948, in a sharp and acrimonious confrontation between Levi and Albers, Levi resigned as rector and took a leave of absence. With Ted Dreier unwilling to reassume a leadership role, Albers, perhaps seeing Levi’s absence as a chance to reassert himself, took on the position of rector against his own inclination and better judgment, and devoted himself to trying to find solutions to the college’s severe fiscal and structural crises.47

Incredibly, against this battling backdrop, the Summer Art Institute that Albers organized for 1948 was the most fertile and memorable in the college’s history (fig.1.34). It was the legendary summer of John Cage and Merce Cunningham; of Willem de Kooning and Buckminster Fuller; a summer that, with the passing of time, has become for many the defining moment of Black Mountain College.48 But Albers was growing increasingly weary of the constant reinventions the college demanded. “Every year you have the same thing,” Richard Lippold remembers him saying that summer, “[e]very year a whole bunch of people come and think they’re going to change it all. And we go through this same thing. And by the end of the year we’ve all finally got back to some stability, and then the next year it starts all over again.”49 “[The] constant tension and the constant lack of money and the constant friction with every faculty member [who has] the same voting voice that you had,” were what eventually wore them down, according to Anni Albers.50 After fifteen years, apart from Nell Rice, only the Alberses and the Dreiers remained of the pioneers of 1933.51 All else being equal, it is unsurprising that they felt their longevity, experience, and endurance should count for something.

With hindsight, it seems obvious that Josef and Anni Albers’s eventual resignation from Black Mountain College in early February 1949 had been brewing since at least 1947, and perhaps as early as 1945, when the end of World War Two began to change the character of American society. The final break has broadly and correctly been attributed to their solidarity with an embattled Ted Dreier. Despite having announced his intention to leave Black Mountain at least as early as September 1948, Ted Dreier was unable to tear himself away from the place in which he had invested so much of his personal, material, and spiritual resources.52 At last, all of Black Mountain’s pathologies coalesced around Dreier. Albers was made abundantly aware of this in early January 1949, when his secretary, Isabel Mangold, sent him a long, carefully worded, typewritten letter.53

Writing on behalf of a group of colleagues, Mangold told Albers that Dreier had voiced the possibility of once again taking on the rectorship. With admirable clarity she set out their objections: Dreier was confused as to the direction the college should take; unable to conduct a meeting coherently; autocratic; and prone to shut others out of his deliberations. Moreover, his pessimism about the chances for the college’s continued economic survival was the cause of lowered morale all around. “In my own mind,” wrote Mangold, “Ted has always stood as the symbol of rectitude, of honor. Knowing a little about how much the life of the College depended on him in the old days, it has grieved me beyond measure to find how he has changed.” Putting aside for a moment her careful tone, she added a handwritten note, as if speaking directly to Albers, “I think he is largely unconscious of these things. That he is psychically unbalanced.” Mangold pleaded with Albers to dissuade Dreier and thereby “to forestall, an open, unpleasant, explosive and unnecessary controversy.” 54

But Albers was not to be persuaded. Less than a week later, during meeting in New York City with a group of potential Black Mountain College trustees, Albers announced that Dreier had decided not to leave the college after all.55 Two weeks of uncertainty followed, as an ambivalent Dreier equivocated between declaring his willingness to resign and protesting his unwillingness to leave “an administrative vacuum” behind him.56 As Dreier continued to dodge the inevitable, Nell Rice and four colleagues called a special meeting for January 29 to request his resignation.57 As the endgame loomed, a facilitator in the form of N.O. Pittenger, retired treasurer of Swarthmore College, arrived on the scene. Pittenger was a skilled administrator and a trusted friend and confidante of Frank Aydelotte, who had sent him down to investigate the options for Black Mountain College. Although he was at the college from January 27 to 30,Pittenger did not attend the January 29 meeting.58 By the time the meeting was over Albers realized that he too had run out of solutions. Fond as he was of Dreier, and always a loyal friend, Albers realized that Dreier could not carry on as an official of the college. In a handwritten note, he appealed to Pittenger:

Though [this is] a P.S. it means something close to my heart. Seeing Ted Dreier carry the responsibility of a treasurer under the present circumstances and in the present surrounding in which we his friends can be of little help, I am most anxious to see him released of this burden as soon as possible. If by any chance you can not come won’t you try to suggest someone else. But let me assure you that we believe in you most.59

Dreier, however, seemed to think that the meeting had gone rather well for him: “Your word to Albers and then to Nell did the trick so far as the meeting was concerned,” he wrote Aydelotte, “I am not thrown out yet . . . we are holding the fort.”60 But Albers declared the meeting “had been prepared and developed in a way we protested against and declared unfair and disgusting. I prefer not to report details.” He had made up his mind to resign: “The same evening, 4 of us, Schlesinger, Guermonprez, Anni and I made a definite decision to be announced the following day.”[61. Josef Albers, letter to the Committee of Friends, 3 February 1949, carbon copy, JAAF Archive. Albers went on to ask “at the request of Pittenger . . . and in order to remain on Ted’s side” that this news be kept in “strictest confidence” until Pittenger and Aydelotte had “come to their conclusions—in about 2 weeks.”

  1. See Kathleen Chaddock Reynolds, Visions and Vanities: John Andrew Rice of Black Mountain College (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998). Also see Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987), 2–7.
  2. In Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, 2, the author writes, “the Great Depression created an environment in which new and financially unstable ventures like Black Mountain College seemed no more risky than so many other endeavors of the time.”
  3. Dreier was so much an idealist that he refused his own inheritance. Most of the money came from the Forbes family of Boston, good friends of Dreier and also of Rice. See Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, 120–22.
  4. Ted and Barbara Dreier, interview by Kathleen Reynolds, Winter Park, Florida, 5 April 1993.
  5. Ibid. Katherine Dreier had visited the Bauhaus in Weimar as early as 1922 and again in 1926. She had purchased works from both Klee and Kandinsky in 1922. See also Margaret Kentgens-Craig, The Bauhaus and America: First Contacts 1919–1936, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), 81. Philip Johnson first visited the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1928.
  6. Josef and Anni Albers, letter to Wassily and Nina Kandinsky, 3 December 1933, in. Kandinsky-Albers, Une corresponddance des années trente, ed. Jessica Boissel, Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1998) 17. The comment about Duchamp is handwritten on the typewritten letter. Carbon copies of the typewritten part of this letter were sent to several of the Alberses’ friends in Germany, including the Kandinskys, the Perdekamps, and the Grotes. In each case Josef and/or Anni added handwritten notes.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Among the headlines were: “Art Professor, Fleeing Nazis, here to Teach. Liberalism Curbed in Germany, Josef Albers takes Mountain Post” in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 November 1933; “A Teacher from the Bauhaus” in the New York Times, 29 November 1933; and “German Professor to go to Black Mt. College. Professor Josef Albers to Reorganize Art Department at School” in the New York Herald Tribune, 10 December 1933.
  9. Albers to Perdekamp, 11 December 1933
  10. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Dubermann, 11 November 1967.
  11. Josef and Anni Albers, letter to friends, 3 December 1933, JAAF Archive.
  12. Josef Albers to Wassily and Nina Kandinsky, 27 April 1934, in Kandinsky-Albers, 24.
  13. Josef and Anni Albers, letter to friends, 3 December 1933.
  14. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  15. Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, 1, citing Rice, interview by Martin Duberman, 10 June 1967.
  16. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  17. Rice first met Dewey when the philosopher chaired an academic conference on curriculum at Rollins College in January 1931. Later Dewey served on Black Mountain College’s advisory council. See Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, 125.
  18. See Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, 64–65, and Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College, 15, for Black Mountain College in the context of progressive education. See also Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, chapter 5, for the story of the founding of Black Mountain College and the ideas that underpinned it.
  19. See Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, 125, and Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College, 6–7 for details of the structure of Black Mountain College’s governing board.
  20. The phrase is Dewey’s. See John Dewey, “Democracy,” in Readings in Philosophy, eds. John Herman Randall, Jr., Justus Buchler, and Evelyn Urban Shirk, 2nd ed. (1950; repr., New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963), 348.
  21. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  22. Dewey, “Democracy,” 347.
  23. Ibid., 348–49.
  24. Ibid., 351.
  25. Albers would reiterate this distinction in several of his talks and published writings. An early example is “A Second Foreword,” December 1936. The same paragraph appears in a speech given at a Black Mountain College luncheon held at the Cosmopolitan Club, New York City, 9 December 1938. Typescripts of both talks in the JAAF archive. The typescript of “A Second Foreword” is inscribed by Albers “written in December 1936.”
  26. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  27. Dearstyne, Inside the Bauhaus, 91.
  28. Albers to Kandinsky, 27 April 1934, in Kandinsky-Albers, 24.
  29. According to Kathleen Reynolds, Dewey visited BMC twice during the 1934 –35 academic year. On one of these visits he was accompanied by Alfred Barnes. Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, 143.
  30. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Black Mountain College leaflet, TK YEAR, JAAF Archive.
  33. Anni Albers to Wassily and Nina Kandinsky, 22 November 1934, in Kandinsky-Albers, 40.
  34. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  35. Alfred Kazin, interview by Martin Duberman, 22 February 1967, North Carolina State Archives, Black Mountain College Papers. Kazin was at Black Mountain College in the fall semester of 1944.
  36. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  37. Albers to Perdekamp, 26 December 1946.
  38. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  39. Ibid. Albers compared this situation, where the community provided the context, with Yale, where the highly selective makeup of the student body ensured “boys so eager to do the job and to serve themselves.”
  40. Richard Lippold, interview by Mary Emma Harris, 5 June 1972, North Carolina State Archives, Black Mountain College Papers, Interviews Box 6.
  41. The sentiments are Mary (Molly) Gregory’s in Martin B. Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (New York: Dutton, 1972), 303.
  42. Levi, a University of Chicago graduate who taught philosophy, and John Wallen were among newcomers to the faculty in 1945, a period of mild postwar expansion as the GI Bill augmented the student numbers at Black Mountain. Both Levi and Wallen had prickly relations with Albers.
  43. Bill Levi, letter to Josef Albers, 24 May 1947, JAAF Archive. Albers wrote in pencil at the top of the first page of Levi’s three-page letter, “Consider partly an answer of the board [of fellows..”
  44. Duberman, Black Mountain, 251.
  45. Josef Albers, letter to Ted and Bobbie Dreier, 29 May 1947, JAAF Archive. “Both your letters were too touching to be answered immediately. . . . All your good reasons . . . turned my inside that I could not think straight.” All quotations in this and the following paragraph are from this letter. The Dreiers’ letters have been either lost or destroyed. Martin Duberman outlines the complex financial situation at the time. Among the college’s liabilities, Ted Dreier’s family held a second mortgage of $16,500 on the Black Mountain property. Dreier, who was formally rector in 1946–47, was absent from the college much of this time, leaving things in Mary Gregory’s charge. Gregory, a master of the pithy statement, observed that when “a poor benighted little carpenter like me [was put in charge. . . . the setup was unhealthy.” Duberman, Black Mountain, 274–77.
  46. Josef Albers, letter to the Board of Fellows of Black Mountain College, 30 May 1947, JAAF Archive. Albers also asked to be paid “at least 1000 dollars” for his work during the second semester.
  47. See Duberman, Black Mountain, 298–305 for an account of these events. Albers agreed to take on the rectorship so long as Ted Dreier would give him administrative support. Dreier took on the position of treasurer.
  48. As Charles Perrow has recalled, “All this was a glitter that made the basic conflicts of the regular season suddenly seem superficial in that glorious summer.” Unpublished memoir courtesy Charles Perrow.
  49. Richard Lippold, interview by Mary Emma Harris.
  50. Josef and Anni Albers, interview by Martin Duberman.
  51. Nell Aydelotte Rice was John Andrew Rice’s first wife. The couple became estranged in 1937, after Rice was discovered to have been having a relationship with female student. After a protracted leave of absence, Rice was forced to resign from the college in 1940. The Rices were divorced in 1941. Nell Rice returned to school part-time, qualified as a librarian, and ran the library at Black Mountain College until 1955. Her son, Frank, taught German at Black Mountain College in 1947 and 1948. Nell Rice’s connection with Black Mountain extended beyond her marriage to one of its founders. Her brother, Frank Aydelotte, a Rhodes Scholar and American secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, was president of Swarthmore College from 1921 to 1940 and head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from 1941. Aydelotte had been from the start an eminence grise at Black Mountain College. He had been consulted at the outset and remained the person to whom Dreier, Albers, and others constantly turned for advice. See Reynolds, Visions and Vanities, 61-63 and 169. For Information on Aydelotte see Dan West, “Frank Aydelotte: Architect of Distinction. A Look at Swarthmore’s Defining President,” March 2003, http://www.swarthmore.edu/bulletin/mar03/aydelotte.html.
  52. Dreier’s vacillating stance on his continued relationship with the college is disclosed in correspondence with Frank Aydelotte, whose counsel Dreier and Albers vigorously sought at this time. See Ted Dreier, letter to Frank Aydelotte, 24 September 1948, and Ted Dreier, letter to Frank Aydelotte, 3 November 1948, Aydelotte Papers, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA. For Harris’s account of the 1949 “Reorganization and Resignation” see The Arts at Black Mountain College, 164–165.
  53. Mangold was the first wife of Fred Mangold, professor of romance languages and registrar at Black Mountain College from 1934 to 1942. After he agreed to become rector in October 1948, Albers asked Isabel, who had left the college during the war, to return as his secretary. See Nell Rice, letter to Frank Aydelotte, 30 June 1949, Aydelotte Papers, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA.
  54. Isabel Mangold, letter to Josef Albers, 8 January 1948, JAAF Archive.
  55. “Minutes of meeting about Black Mountain College based on notes taken by Beaumont Newhall,” 14 January 1949, carbon copy, JAAF Archive. This group of “Friends” included, besides Newhall, Mrs. Graham Blaine; John Burchard, dean of humanities at MIT; Dr. Samuel Cooley, the college’s consultant physician; and Bartlett Hayes, director of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass. It had been established in December 1948 at the suggestion of Frank Aydelotte in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to create a board of trustees (none of those approached was willing to serve on such a board but all agreed to act as informal advisors, hence the “Friends” label). Establishing a board of trustees of course went directly against the college’s founding principles but was deemed necessary for its financial survival.
  56. Ted Dreier, “Note to our Committee of Friends in connection with the minutes of the meeting of January 14, 1949,” carbon copy, JAAF Archive.
  57. The others were Erwin Bodky, Raymond Trayer, Frank Rice, and Natasha Goldowski. The Alberses learned of the meeting when they returned from New York on January 27. The letter announcing it had been mailed to them care of Albers’s dealer, Sidney Janis, but had not arrived in time.
  58. N.O.Pittenger, letter to Frank Aydelotte, 1 February 1949, Aydelotte Papers, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA. The names of those present at the meeting are recorded in the minutes, “Special Meeting of the faculty of Black Mountain College . . . held Jan. 29, 1949 at 3.00 p.m.,” North Carolina State Archives, Black Mountain College Papers 1.7.28. One result of the meeting was that the Board of Fellows officially asked Pittenger to take on the job of the college’s business administrator.
  59. Josef Albers, letter to N.O.Pittenger, 1 February 1949, carbon copy with handwritten postscript, JAAF Archive.
  60. Ted Dreier, letter to Frank Aydelotte, 31 January 1949, Aydelotte Papers, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA. In this loquacious, nervous letter, Dreier sounds like a condemned man reprieved at the eleventh hour, “ I said that I would be glad to resign at once if they persuaded Mr. Pittenger to take my place, but that I couldn’t resign in a vacuum. Talking with you not only cheered me up. Pittenger’s face brightened a lot too, because I certainly did ask him down here into a mess. I just thank my stars I didn’t know it when I asked him down,–I wouldn’t have dared ask him and as he himself said he never would have come. But it was a lucky thing he was there . . . I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been there, because there really wasn’t anybody ready to take over after all—at least not so far as anybody could find out.”

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