- The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College by Eva Díaz
Eva Díaz traces the founding and short life of Black Mountain College (1933–1957), which was situated in western North Carolina and was home to a small group of faculty who were deeply influential in the evolution of art and design education in the twentieth century. With well-developed prose and [End Page 730] a good narrative, Díaz excels at providing context and content for an important story of experimentation on this campus and in subsequent locations inspired or directly impacted by the Black Mountain College approach to education. By reminding readers how avant-garde the pedagogy of the Black Mountain faculty was, Díaz ably situates the “complicated and contested concept defined by projects as varied as geometric abstraction, serialized and mass production, dome architecture, chance-based musical composition, and explorations of monochromatic painting” (pp. 3–4). Díaz introduces readers to three significant people—“artist Josef Albers, composer John Cage, and architect-designer R. Buckminster Fuller”—singling them out among the faculty as the great innovators who fueled the Black Mountain experience (p. 1).
After an introduction that leads readers through the founding of the institution and the complex pedagogical and philosophical positions of its faculty, Díaz unfolds a chapter each on Albers, Cage, and Fuller, the main bulk of the two-hundred-page work. In the chapter on Albers, Díaz stresses how the artist focused on experience rather than outcomes and believed in “an experience in and of perception that facilitates complex understandings of the visual world” (p. 52). In chapter 2 Díaz notes Cage’s opposition to Albers’s approach and explains the composer’s formulation of what he termed the “chance protocol,” a process designed to accentuate “an exploration of uncertainty, not a careful examination of variables” (pp. 103, 57). Careful to provide context for this evolution in the process, Díaz points to the presence of a more mature generation of students and the decline and replacement of the original faculty as factors contributing to the shift. In chapter 3, Díaz analyzes Fuller’s interpretation of “total thinking” as his model of experimentation, one that “leveraged the creativity of the artist and the technological innovativeness of the scientist to completely rethink acts and objects of design” (pp. 103, 101). Significantly, Fuller’s experimentation resulted in the idea that anyone could be a designer and perhaps signaled the beginning of the end for Black Mountain College. Fuller’s own experimentation, Díaz reminds us, stemmed from the “scientificity in a spirit of American technological optimism and exceptionalism” that placed design at the heart of social and technological processes of the mid-twentieth century (p. 147). In the closing chapter of her work, Díaz speculates about the impact of Black Mountain on subsequent generations of educators, connecting the experiments that took place in western North Carolina with prospective research projects to examine Albers’s, Cage’s, and Fuller’s models for experimentation.
Díaz’s interpretation of the written evidence seems on target with the evidence in ample supply in the notes. The extensive bibliography provides significant sources for readers to dig into the subject matter more deeply. Though the book includes a wide range of illustrations in black-and-white and in color, this reviewer found the treatment of the chosen images flattened by a lack of critical analysis. Given the visual nature of the fields the author investigates for the book, this oversight seems slightly troubling: how might each piece of visual evidence tell the reader more about the theme of experimentation so central to the volume? While the images are interesting visually, [End Page 731] it is not clear how their inclusion helps tell the story, the chief shortcoming of this otherwise well-conceived publication.