Making a Mess Ceramic Sculpture Now

Glenn Adamson

Tenth Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Schein International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University

November 20, 2008

This lecture is based upon research for the exhibition ‘Dirt on Delight: Impulses that Form Clay,” on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, January 16 - June 21, 2009.

image of Glenn Adamson
Glenn Adamson

Glenn Adamson is Deputy Head of Research and Head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he leads a graduate program in the History of Design. His research interests include 20th century craft and design, furniture and ceramics in England and America in the 17th and 18th centuries, and decorative arts theory. Dr. Adamson is the co-editor of the triennial Journal of Modern Craft, and in 2007 published a full length study entitled Thinking Through Craft (Berg Publishers/V&A Publications). His other publications include Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World (MIT Press). Presently he is working on an exhibition about Postmodernism, to be held at the V&A in 2011.

Let me begin with two examples. Though they were made almost half a century apart, Peter Voulkos’s Red River, 1960, and Loulou, made by the British sculptor Rebecca Warren in 2006, are remarkably similar in their approach to the sculpting of clay—at least at first glance. Both are squat and monolithic, and without interior volume. One juts abruptly, while the other swirls erratically, but both make clear the physical energy that it takes to coax clay into shape. Gouged, pounded and twisted into being, they bear the marks of their making like badges of courage.

One might say that in this company, the Voulkos seems mighty prescient, like it’s on its way somewhere: a squat rocket, rooted permanently on an invisible launchpad. Or perhaps a better analogy might be an erect phallus, perpetually denied consummation. For Red River speaks volumes about the restless state of ceramic sculpture circa 1960. The three-foot-tall stack is cancelled out by patches of color that push and pull across the surface. It wants to be a painting, or at the very least, not a vessel. The composition’s key detail is its choked-off top, which resolutely refuses to be an aperture into which one could place a fistful of blossoms. The incised marks crawling towards that closure feel like a signature, a declaration of intent: I am artist, not a potter. Hear me roar.

Rebecca Warren’s Loulou, by contrast, is an object remarkably at ease with itself. It has all the expressionist brio of the Voulkos (maybe more), but none of the inner turmoil. Most telling, perhaps, are the few casual swipes of pastel paint near the bottom edge. For Warren, evidently, surface and substance are not at war with one another at all, but in happy coexistence. What can we make of the subtle differences between these ostensibly kindred works? Or, to put it another way, how far has ceramic sculpture come in the past fifty years, and how are we to account for the changes?

Part One: A Dirty Shame
Ceramic and sculpture have always been intertwined; the first sculptures made by humankind, let’s not forget, were made of clay. But to understand ceramic sculpture in the context of modern art history, it is necessary to think of it as an exception. For this purpose the representative examples of the genre are not works like Voulkos’s and Warren’s, but objects of considerably less authority: the ceramic figurine, a key format for sculptors in the medium from the eighteenth century onwards; and the clay model, or maquette, through which a form is roughed out prior to its realization in other, “higher” materials. By the 1950s, both of these traditions had more or less fallen into anachronism. Yet they linger in the background of postwar ceramic sculpture, like uninvited guests at a really happening party.

The figurine and the maquette stand in for two aspects of an inferiority complex that has dogged modern ceramic sculpture, persistently keeping it within the realm of the “minor.” A figurine is an objet d’art (as opposed to an artistic object), invested with a conservatism that sometimes edges into kitsch. The diminutive term itself, “figurine,” aptly conveys the effect of such an object, which is to trivialize the grand tradition of figurative art. A maquette, meanwhile, is the embodiment of ceramic as a relational medium. Since the Baroque period, sketches in clay have been collected as indexes of the sculptor’s hand and mind at work, much like a painter’s drawings. The implication is that clay is ideal for that provisional stage when an idea is in formation, but unworthy of a finished work.

Furthermore, both the figurine and the maquette seem to lack the “presence” that a modern sculpture is supposed to possess. A figurine often replicates some other original work in miniature, so it is in a sense post hoc; it exists in the fallen state of a commodity. A maquette is just the opposite: a preparatory form en route to some other (perhaps less compelling, but more complete) version of itself. Their natural habitats are the mantelpiece and the atelier. Neither one quite belongs in an art gallery. Such deep-seated associations are hard to shake. Outside the narrow precincts of contemporary art, collectible figurines (and to a lesser extent, terracotta maquettes) still define expectations about ceramic sculpture. This is a problem for anyone who wants to take the genre seriously. Stereotypically speaking, the figurine is everything an avant garde work should not be: precious, inconsequential, sentimental. It is an object of taste rather than theory, pretty rather than challenging. It is just the sort of thing that art world sophisticates are taught to disdain. The maquette, meanwhile, invites us to believe that art is a just a matter of inspired messing about. Its quickly modeled surfaces may trace the process of an artist’s thinking, but they bespeak impulse rather than consideration. A maquette is an artwork in raw material form, as yet undigested, haunted by the specter of art as play and nothing more.

Neither Voulkos nor Warren capitulates to these conditions, obviously. Their work is neither entirely delightful nor simply dirty. In the end, both artists steer a course toward the difficult, the serious, the formally assured. Yet to grasp the historical distance between these works, we need to see them in relation to a big change in attitude toward things like figurines and maquettes, and the embarrassments they seem to entail. Now, let’s try to flush out that story.

Part 2: Ceramic Presence
In 1961, just after she had become editor of the magazine Craft Horizons, Rose Slivka fired a shot across the bow of the craft world: “The New Ceramic Presence,” an article that announced an emerging radicalism in clay, coming mainly from the West Coast. Voulkos was clearly the key figure, but others were hot on his heels: John Mason and Peter Soldner in Los Angeles, Rudy Autio in Colorado, Jim Leedy in Kansas City, Ken Shores in Oregon and Robert Arneson in the Bay Area. Slivka declared it a movement, and the next big thing in the unfolding history of the American avant garde. The new clay art, she wrote, possessed “the esthetic urgency of an artist functioning in an American climate… a climate which not only has been infused with the dynamics of a machine technology, but with the action of men—ruggedly individual and vernacular men (the pioneer, the cowboy) with a genius for improvisation.” She also brought intelligent formal analysis to the new ceramics, noting that it depended upon a collision of substance and surface, which “are used to oppose each other rather than complement each other in their traditional harmonious relationship—with color breaking into and defining, creating, destroying form.”

Slivka was right to argue that this was a style at war with itself. However, she was wrong to claim the phenomenon for America alone. The West Coast ceramists were a regional avant-garde, but their work makes most sense in an international context. Several leading fine artists—including Joan Miró, as well as Pablo Picasso, Asger Jorn, and Lucio Fontana—either continued or intensified their involvement with the medium in the 1950s. There were also radical ceramic artists emerging in Sweden (the understudied Anders Lillefors, whose work you see here), Japan (Kazuo Yagi), France (Gilbert Portanier), and Italy (Guido Gambone).

We might also say that Slivka stacked the deck by focusing exclusively on ceramics. If we widen our view to include Europe, South America, and Asia, it becomes obvious that clay was only one material that was entering a new phase of experimentation—roughly parallel to art informel in painting, and involving many of the same artists, such as Cy Twombly, seen here. The 1950s saw artists in many places subjecting their materials to rough-and-ready treatment as a way of extending the possibilities of expressionism. In many ways, this was modest work, very much about its own conditions of making. These sculptures were limited in scale, shaped through a constant interplay of additive and subtractive processes, and sense of unmediated touch (in these ways they contrasted with the likes of David Smith, Mark di Suvero and Anthony Caro, who used industrial-style craft to create their monumental constructed sculptures). Plaster, for example, produced results that were similar to ceramics but posed fewer technical challenges, attracting talents such as Twombly, Piero Manzoni and Jean Dubuffet. Painterly, post-Expressionist sculpture was also made in papier-mâché, hot glass, burnt wood, glued paper, and even the most formal of the traditional sculptural media, bronze, as you see here in the work of Fritz Wotruba, an Austrian sculptor who was among the key influences on Voulkos’s work.

But in one respect, clay was unique. For most of the artists who worked in the medium, ceramics were defined by some form of disregard—it was used not in spite of its reputation as a lesser medium, but because of that reputation. As so often, Picasso pointed the way. His ceramics were striking, but also strikingly offhand. He seemed to consider the medium’s associations with “minor art” as a pretext to take unaffected joy in process. When Picasso sat down to cut apart, rejoin, and then paint the unfired pots that had been prepared for him by skilled throwers, it was playtime. He worked at astonishing speed, making as many as fifty pieces in a day, without the second, third and fourth thoughts that made his canvases into palimpsests of overpainting. The most impulsive of artists, Picasso hardly needed an excuse to treat his art as an exercise in pure will; but even for him ceramics offered a sort of freedom.

If even the most famous living painter could get away with using clay like this, then certainly it was not hard for others to see the medium as permissive. Asger Jorn noted in 1955 that “any child, before it has reached school-age, is better able to apply modern techniques to bring a particular surface to life than all the professionals in the field of decoration, both in the artistic sense and in terms of handicraft, architecture and industry.” His ceramics, with their uncontrolled splashes of bright paint, scrawls of line, and roughly modeled improvisational forms, bear out this predilection. As a connoisseur of the infantile, Jorn seems to have regarded clay as interesting primarily for its regressive associations. Robert Arneson carried this logic to extremes in his Funk John sculptures, which implied that working with clay was a shameful act akin to playing with one’s own feces. (As one scandalized Craft Horizons reader put it: “Whether too rigorous toilet training, surprising his parents at having intercourse, or something entirely different stymied Robert Arneson’s emotional growth is for a psychiatrist to evaluate—and Arneson ought to see one regularly.”) For Arneson too, clay was a plaything, and scandalously so. Kazuo Yagi also applied this thinking to his activities in pottery, going so far as to work with residents at a mental asylum—who were as interested in eating the clay and throwing it around the room as they were it into making objects. Yagi described the lumpen things they did make as preferable to the works of Picasso and Miró. Such experiments suggest that in the 1950s, clay was a medium more fraught than wrought. Clearly, it offered advantages: it was dimensionless, cheap, and capable of registering an artist’s impulses in great detail. Like paint squeezed direct from the tube, ceramics had the potential to seem (to use one of the period’s most suggestive terms of praise) “fresh.”

But this work was also carried out under a shadow. The twin characters of the figurine and the maquette—the overrefined and the unfinished—were always lurking. Back in California, this opposition would soon coalesce into two rival modes: hyper-precious and trompe l’oeil “Super Objects” by Ken Price, Richard Shaw, Marilyn Levine and Ron Nagle, and a sort of ultra-materialism, which can be seen both in the sculptures of Viola Frey, and in the down-and-dirty Funk of Arneson and his circle at UC Davis. As radical clay proliferated, it became more and more preoccupied with these extremes: the fetishistic and the fecal.

Part 3: Production Values
And so we arrive at the present—a moment when contemporary artists have returned to ceramics, and also to the bifurcated aesthetic of the 1950s and ‘60s. Artists such as Kathy Butterly and Ann Agee, at left and right respectively, channel the confectionary delights of the rococo figurine, while Beverly Semmes, Nicole Cherubini, and Arlene Shechet, whose work is seen here, all make use of the down and dirty mode of the quickly rendered maquette. Yet current ceramic sculpture is a very different affair from its predecessors. For one thing, the new clay is even more obviously part of a broader trend, the tide of loose improvisation in every conceivable medium that was memorably documented in the 2008 New Museum exhibition Unmonumental. And here are two works from that show by Jim Lambie and Shinique Smith. As that show’s title implied, the favored idiom at the moment is limited in scale, personalized, and evocative. One way of understanding this direction in sculpture is as a reaction against the primacy of logistics in art.

In the rapidly metastasizing international contemporary art fairs, galleries compete with one another like stores at a shopping mall. As a consequence, they often show works of enormous scale, technological sophistication, and other surefire means of achieving monumentality. This may sound like a cynical way to explain recent art, but only if one is still operating from the quaint premise that business and art are best kept separate. Judged solely from the point of view of artistic innovation, the exigencies of the marketplace have proved to be even more generative than formalist aesthetics or political critique were in earlier decades. Yes, artists have been driven into industrial outsourcing, branding exercises, big photography, and one-thing-after-another art (as epitomized by the work of Tara Donovan, here a witty rejoinder to Minimalism in the form of a cube of toothpicks), and other means of establishing their presence. But there have been other responses, too, and unmonumentality is one of them. It demands—and perhaps arises from—a re-engagement with the studio.

Some contemporary sculptors with a deep investment in craft—Sarah Sze, here on the left, and Rachel Harrison, on the right spring to mind, as do Tim Hawkinson and Tom Friedman—distinguish themselves through sheer invention. By generating new forms through the repurposing of old techniques, like old fashioned ad hoc tinkers, they explicitly distance themselves from embarrassments about artisanal production. This tactic marks an indifference to craft movement politics, and also to the supposed obsolescence of the studio as a place where art is made. As Caroline Jones has argued in her book The Machine in the Studio, the model of a small scale, artisanally based atelier—artisanally here meaning not just the traditional crafts, but also painting or sculpting by hand—this model of production was made to look antiquated by the 1960s avant garde. Most famously, perhaps, Andy Warhol called his art workshop a Factory and engaged in mass production of images. Essentially, he was announcing a transformation in art, where the artist competed on mass culture on its own terms. The artist would now be a celebrity. He might not touch the art by hand—an idea that was present in Duchamp’s Readymades already, of course, but was now transposed into a quasi industrial framework.

As Jones writes, we can see many artworks made in the ‘60s and since as driven by this abandonment complex, where the studio was held to stand for little more than tradition and ego. Under the heading of post-studio art, we might also list the rise of photography as the main vehicle for conceptualism in the 1970s; the prevalence of installation art, and more recently the fashion for ‘relational aesthetics,’ in which the site of production and the site of consumption are collapsed and the viewer is either a part of or a co-author of the work. (This is the driving idea behind the Guggenheim Museum’s current exhibition ‘the any space whatever,’ the very title of which implies a drastic departure from the fixed and secure studio.)

Finally, we might point to artists like Matthew Barney, who have taken a cue from Warhol and employed the techniques of celebrity-driven mass culture in their work. By moving laterally from sculpture to photography to film and back again, postdisciplinary artists like Barney seem to make artisanally based, studio production seem antique indeed. And here I’m showing you a still from Barney’s Cremaster cycle, also shown at the Guggenheim, back in 2003. That project, in which the artist completely took over a museum, subjugating it completely to his will, essentially rendered the curator of the project an assistant. Barney even seemed to hint darkly at the totalitarian quality of his vision by hanging ranks of flags from Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiraling ramps. Though his sculptures were immaculately crafted, it’s hard to imagine a form of artistic production less in thrall to the earnest authenticity of the studio. And yet, in the five years since, something surprising seems to have happened. After the initial astonishment at the scale of his achievement, many seem to regard Barney as baroque and indulgent, an inadvertent self-parodist; and perhaps not coincidentally, it seems to be safe to go back to the studio again.

I was very struck by a recent interview published in London recently, in which two of the chief exponents of outsourced industrial sculpture, Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor, insisted against all appearances to the contrary that their practice was essentially centered in small-scale craft. “I’m a little cottage modelmaker,” said Serra. “I use a hammer and nails!” Kapoor concurred: “I’m very much studio-based. I employ a few people, because you can’t do it all yourself, but the studio is all; every problem, every issue is here. I can’t solve them in a plane or in my head and I don’t believe that intellectual practice is enough. Maquettes are an essential tool, because drawings alone just don’t explain it.” While Serra and Kapoor seem to be temporizing here, at best—their work would be unimaginable without teams of fabricators and installers—their unhesitating enthusiasm for studio activity is telling. Suddenly it seems even the big boys want to work small.

Clay is useful in such a moment, because it is still unrivalled as a means of capturing the artist’s own experience of making. It records every touch, however slight. Unlike most of the art formats that are currently fashionable – big photography, sloppy painting and the rest of them—clay leaves the artist’s touch nakedly on inspection, and draws the viewer into the process by which the work was created. In this sense, ceramic sculpture could at a stretch be allied to “relational aesthetics,” but it more obviously relates to the current craze for DIY, which is another way of addressing the relations between artist and art-consumer. It’s worth dwelling on this new craft subculture for a moment, and its relation to the history I’ve been offering here.

But in their unapologetic wallow in the mud, clay sculptors like Butterly and Schechet are perhaps even more honest. Rather than avoiding the figurine and maquette, they embrace those points of reference with fervor. The idea seems to be that these things are perfectly OK in their own terms; it is only when they are compared to an absent other, an imaginary, more “finished” work, that they seem inadequate. And this is a comparison they refuse. If their works seem caught in a liminal state, just after or before their own coming-into-being; if they are unfinished business, they nonetheless admit of no preferable alternative.

Part 4: Sloppy Seconds
So what exactly is the relation between the generation of today and the generation of the 1950s? I think partly it is that the ceramic avant garde of the 1950s—figures like Voulkos, Slivka, and Arneson, may have protested too much. They assumed that pottery was a problem, something to be overcome. Today’s ceramic artists, by contrast, seem to ask: why on earth should we be ashamed of this material, or of studio practice more generally? And yet, somewhat counterintuitively, this directness gives rise to a very canny set of objects. These ceramics contain a battery of framing devices—over-ornamentation, props, “sloppy” craftsmanship—but they nonetheless come across as objects without scare quotes. There is no excruciating irony, as in Arneson’s work; nor are there arch nods to the commodity fetish, as in the early work of Nagle or Price.

In the work of an artist like Nicole Cherubini the neo-Baroque, the louche, the camp are back with a vengeance, and this time without apology. If Voulkos and Company protested too much, these artists protest not at all. In fact, it strikes me that despite the formal excess of some of this work, Cherubini’s included, what we are seeing now is an exact inversion of the logic of 1950s ceramics. Some have called Voulkos an expressionist; what is happening now, I think, is the exact opposite of expressionism. In our post-post-modern moment there can be no certainties, no towering egos untroubled by nuance. The resulting attitude to process and material is again opposite to that in the 50s; while Voulkos, Picasso, Jorn and Yagi, all in their different ways, staged an assault on the logic of their medium, today’s artists seem to be turning to materiality with a mixture of relief and joy, perhaps even solace. The density of incident in works like Cherubini’s seem born of a breathless experimentation with the medium and its possibilities, not a psychologically intense expressionist intent. Nonetheless, there is something oddly absent-minded about this generation’s embrace of clay. As a historian, I find it hard to look at these artists without thinking of their precursors, I also find their lack of discursive engagement with earlier clay sculpture to be remarkable. Artists working with ceramics today claim no affinity for the generation of the 1950s, even when their work is very close in style and substance.

When the new fashion for ceramic sculpture was first announced, in the 2007 exhibition “Makers and Modelers” at the blue-chip Barbara Gladstone Gallery—a show that included some of the artists I’ve shown here, like Warren and Kapoor, as well as, to its credit, these brilliant pieces by Sam Durant, which are replicas of cheap plastic chairs made in the porcelain factories of Jingdezhen—in this exhibition, no reference was made to historical precedent, either by the gallery or by reviewers. This effacement of an obviously relevant past could almost be read as a strategy in its own right, the covering up of a secret shame, as natural as a dog scratching earth over its own droppings. Of course contemporary artists have no incentive to present themselves as the inheritors of Voulkos’s legacy. He dared the art world to condescend to him, and that is exactly what has happened. (And in this connection, it is worth noting that Rebecca Warren, Grayson Perry, and Andrew Lord—the three most prominent British contemporary artists working with ceramics—declined to participate in the ICA exhibition.) What I’m getting at here is the old story of the repression of craft and its particular histories: a dynamic that will be all too familiar to many of you. If contemporary ceramic sculptors like the ones I’ve been discussing do cite a forerunner, it is likely to be either a fine artist like Asger Jorn or Jasper Johns, or perhaps a singular figure like George Ohr (whose work is currently on view at the Schein International Museum of Ceramic Art here in Alfred). Without taking anything away from Ohr’s amazing pots, it is nonetheless worth pointing out that the acceptance of his work by contemporary artists, the high prices that his pots fetch, the fact that Frank Gehry designed a museum about this potter—all these notable successes conform to a general rule: contemporary artists can safely claim inspiration from well-known fine artists, or from “outsider artists” like Ohr whose presumed lack of self-consciousness renders them fair game, but never from the art-wannabes of the studio craft movement.

This may sound like the carping of a craft specialist—and it probably is. But it is vitally important to note that today’s post-disciplinary art world has not brought freedom from hierarchy. As pecking orders are displaced, new ones rise to replace them. Let’s not kid ourselves: the line that separates legitimate art from the illegitimate is both wafer-thin and permeable. It is maintained only through the uncoordinated activities of galleries, collectors, and curators. This is by no means to suggest that professional artistic judgments are only false fronts, or flimsy disguises for the replication of power relations. If anything, the opposite is true, because the days of critical consensus are long over. Determining what makes a work “interesting” (the art world’s usual way of expressing approval these days) has never been more difficult.

And this means that the multiple fears that have traditionally clustered around ceramics—being seen as irrelevant, intellectual vapid, merely commercial or merely competent—are hardly located in the past. These anxieties have never been so pervasive; they are no longer the special province of the craft world. Contemporary artists working in clay (or any other medium that carries the craft curse) should by all means maintain their distance from the tired politics of the studio craft movement. But this does not mean that their work should be seen as cut off from the long history of crafted artworks—not only Voulkos, Picasso and Jorn, but also Feminist art of the 1970s and “abject” sculpture of the 1990s. To understand all these cases, including that of contemporary ceramic sculpture, we cannot drop questions of status from view, as if they no longer existed. They are constantly on the move, these structures of power and disempowerment, and artists surf them like a breaking wave. All of this is a roundabout way of getting at the great discovery made by Warren, Cherubini, Mitchell, Semmes, Shechet and their peers: the fact that craft is hedonistic, a purposeful escape from theory and self-critique, is not a problem for contemporary art, but rather part of the answer. As the current crop of ceramic sculptors forges a new combination of deconstruction and elaboration, they attend to the act of making itself, not to some external narrative of ceramic history. What is at stake for them is not the status of clay. They couldn’t care less. What they seem to care about is the viability and vitality of human-scaled art works in general. Perhaps it is only under the present circumstances, with the unprecedented profusion of the larger-than-life in the art world, that a total commitment to object-making could seem radical again. In this way above all, contemporary ceramic sculpture stands apart from its precedents in the 1950s. Back then, the unquestioned imperative was to find a new expressive language. The pleasures entailed in form-giving were obviously part of this search, but they were seen as incidental to the goals of discovery and expression.

Now though, the tables have been turned. Novelty is worth less and less in a saturated market, and as I’ve said, artists may not even want to “express” anything anymore. But as John Roberts has put it in his recent book The Intangibilities of Form, “there is a broad realization amongst a new generation of artists confronted with the realities of the studio [rather] than the comforts of the seminar room that the tasks of representation and artistic form don’t end simply because they are assumed, theoretically, to have ended.” To put it another way, every time someone walks into a studio and sees the mound of clay where it was left the night before, wet and musty under its plastic sheet, rife with possibility but obdurate in its raw materiality, the question of what drives us to bestow form upon matter is posed anew. Before it can be shaped by the market, clay is subject to the dictates of the artist’s own desires. This seductive quality may only be in fashion for a moment. Artists will move on to other things. But for now, clay offers sculptors that rare thing in contemporary art: the chance to come clean on their own dirty pleasures.