Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2016
Eva Díaz The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 256 pp.; 20 color ills.; 58 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780226067988)
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Art historian Eva Díaz’s The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College is a tightly focused examination of the activities of Josef Albers, John Cage, and R. Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. As Mary Emma Harris argues in her foundational history, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), experimentation was integral to Black Mountain College’s pedagogical vision, and scholars have rightly called attention to its importance when evaluating the college’s impact on the arts during the 1950s and 1960s (see, for example, Vincent Katz and Martin Brody, eds., Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002; and Caroline Collier and Michael Harrison, eds., Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, exh. cat., Bristol, UK: Arnolfini Gallery, 2005). That said, Díaz’s The Experimenters is the first sustained examination of the interdisciplinary tensions arising from its protagonists’ shared interest in freedom through experimentation and the dynamic interrelationship between the vagaries of chance and constructed systems of order.

Díaz begins with Albers’s experimental approach to learning, which was indebted to Henri Bergson’s critique of perceptual conventions, a critique that was taken up by Russian formalists and further developed at the Bauhaus during the 1920s (informed, in part, by theorists in the Vienna Circle). This differentiated him from most in the American Abstract Artists group, who were intent on distilling formal values into ideal “essences” (28). Mitigating against their art-for-art’s-sake approach, Albers sought to channel artistic experimentation into an orderly design process that would benefit society as a whole (44). Diaz provides a brilliant recapitulation of his instructional program in drawing, color, and design, which was based on the interplay between the subjective agency of the artist and the “immanent capacities” of materials (22). She astutely characterizes this as an ethical refutation of social chaos in the name of “positive freedom,” which she links to Albers’s status as a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany (49). Learning through “vigilant testing” as a means of contesting received cultural and social practices embedded in the existing status quo echoed philosopher John Dewey’s pragmatist-based approach to education, an observation that neatly ties Albers to Black Mountain College’s mandate (46–48), given that its founders were inspired by Dewey, who also sat on its board of governors (11). Indeed, Díaz goes so far as to describe Dewey and Albers embarking arm in arm on the same social mission, writing: “Empowering individuals with attentive perception laid the foundation for an educated citizenry challenging regressive, outdated customs and sowing greater freedom in the world, or so Dewey and Albers hoped” (49). Such suggestive language begs the question as to whether Dewey and Albers corresponded or referred to each other’s ideas. Unfortunately, Díaz does not pursue this line of inquiry, though it is a rich one, given the breath of Dewey’s impact (see, for example, David Raskin’s discussion of Dewey in Donald Judd [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010]).

Whereas Albers was intent on mobilizing creativity in a deliberative sense, Cage cultivated a different approach, namely the surrender of human control to “life” so as to thwart “the imposition of false order (political, artistic, or otherwise)” (96). Díaz would have it that Cage’s mobilization of chance to “collapse the distinction between art and life” utilizing “sensory overload” strategies betrayed a failure to grapple critically with late capitalist modernity’s immersive and “confounding” effects, an assertion which is buttressed, curiously, with a brief meditation on Louis Althusser’s fumbling attempts to transcend determinism (99–100). Following this line of argument, Díaz goes on to equate Cage’s outlook with Fuller’s claim to be “transcendental” regarding things “political” (134), a formulation that threatens to collapse Cage’s anarchism into Fuller’s outlook to the detriment of critically exploring the differences.

She also implies that Cage’s approach to experimentation was somehow chauvinistic, writing “Cage attributed his split with Albers to the issue of change as ratifying a new and uniquely American, as opposed to European, hence traditional, aesthetic” (96). This is followed by references to Cage critiquing the “dominant German harmonic tradition of Beethoven through Schoenberg” (96), references that have little to say about his relationship with Albers. At this juncture German composers, both classical and contemporary, do figure in Cage’s work, but in a more nuanced way than Díaz imagines. During the 1950s he was making an impact in West Germany and was in dialogue with his German counterparts (composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the immensely influential new music critic Heinrich Strobel, for example). Many were building on and/or challenging the same traditions as Cage: hence the West Germans frequently invited him to give talks and commissioned numerous performances of his work during the latter half of the 1950s (and Cage, for his part, promoted their work in the United States).

Cage’s and Fuller’s stress on the value of “risk and failure in experimentation” gives rise to new methodologies which Diaz frames as oppositional to the “purposeful, collective (read European)” tradition of the Bauhaus that Albers had championed (125). As she convincingly demonstrates, Albers’s approach to design was effectively eclipsed by the combined duo of Cage and Fuller, whose forceful personalities overwhelmed his lingering pedagogical presence following his departure from Black Mountain College in 1949 (101). (Ironically, it was Albers who invited Fuller to teach during the 1948 summer session at the college and suggested he be invited again for the summer session of 1949 105). Her final chapter is devoted to Fuller’s trajectory after the Black Mountain interlude and the contradictions arising from his effusive “technophilic” utopianism (142). Fuller’s belief in the ability of disinterested designers such as himself to channel the forces of capitalism toward beneficial ends on a planetary scale is masterfully, and convincingly, dissected.

Díaz’s rigorously crafted study recalls Ihab Hassan’s The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987), which paired the experimental approach of Cage and Fuller with that of Robert Rauschenberg to posit Black Mountain College as a generative space for disrupting modernist values, thus mirroring a more generalized epistemological shift in the sciences and philosophy (Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, London: Verso Press, 1998, 17–18). Díaz never raises the specter of postmodernism, but she does characterize Albers’s methodology as modernist, adding that many regarded his approach as “rigid” and lacking in spontaneity (51). In any event, “Fuller’s visionary utopian romanticism” and Cage’s “sense of freewheeling freedom and anarchy” eventually triumphed: subordinating human agency to larger forces, Fuller and Cage nurtured a new approach involving interdisciplinary collaborations which cascaded across the arts and beyond (155).

Allan Antliff
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Visual Studies, University of Victoria, Canada

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