It is common practice for artists to list, on their curriculum vitae, the colleges and universities they attended, just as a point of interest. However, the name Black Mountain College carries with it a certain significance that imbues its graduates with added gravitas. Donald Alter is such an alumnus.
The Bronx-born Alter, who will celebrate his 83rd birthday this year, is one of the last remaining graduates of the rural North Carolina school that served as a combination mecca and artistic trailblazer for a generation of American artists. Founded in 1933 by the controversial scholar, John A. Rice, Black Mountain College took up the mantle that was dropped by the closing of the Bauhaus School in Germany, under the increasingly powerful Nazi regime. The new school operated on the premise that the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a truly liberal arts education, and it attracted and created maverick spirits. Although Black Mountain College lasted only 24 years, it quickly became legendary in the art world. The heady atmosphere spawned such future luminaries as Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Shahn, Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham, Robert Motherwell, Arthur Penn, John Cage, Kenneth Noland and Donald Alter.
Alter entered Black Mountain College in 1948, at the age of 18, and studied under the noted German artist Josef Albers. As Alter recalls, it was all primarily painting, but I did everything that I could touch. I did sculpture, weaving, all kinds of crazy stuff. After he left Black Mountain in 1950, he never felt the urge to return to school, and believes to this day that once you learn yellow and red make orange, you’re off and running. Alter became a textile designer in New York City, a trade that he followed for the next four decades. He was always involved in the arts, he states, and at 65, he opted to leave the world of commercial art, and returned to painting as a full-time pursuit.
Alter’s work deals with varied subject matter but always experiments with communication of life’s experiences within arm’s length. These include people, landscapes, nature, social interaction, tropical fish and night driving. Color in his work is the primary story and the main attraction.
Alters’ work has recently been described by one art critic as a “very sensitive, picture-book nar rative style in the form of paintings, drawings and mixed media works”. Just as his media run the gamut from oil to acrylic, from watercolor to weaving, the artist’s themes defy categorization, and range from abstract landscapes to almost Chagall-like depictions of people and animals. Alter recently eschewed the use of canvas, preferring to paint his figures on the styles section of the Sunday New York Times! He relates these paintings to his inner caveman: wanting to leave behind pieces of himself on surfaces seen by many. His use of colors can be at once startling and satisfying, and invites the observer’s gaze to linger.
Alter’s work is part of the permanent collection of the Black Mountain College Museum and of the Asheville Art Museum, both in North Carolina.