Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jersey City Last Sunday

By Charles Kessler

Multiple exhibitions opened Sunday in two Jersey City venues: MANA Contemporary and Drawing Rooms.

MANA is by far the largest art storage facility in the metropolitan area, and it's also what can only be described as a gigantic art mall. On their million+ square-foot site they have a framer, a printer (Gary Lichtenstein Editions), a full-service foundry, more than 100 art studios, a dance studio (Karole Armitage is there now), the Richard Meier Model Museum, and thousands of square feet of exhibition space.

But there's something creepy about the place.
Hallway for the art studios at MANA.
It's all a little too much and too slick for my comfort, and they're secretive and impulsive with what seems like their unlimited resources. They are buying huge warehouses all around them and building many enormous, admittedly beautiful, exhibition spaces – all in a very short time.

But with all their money, and all their resources, in the past I've found their exhibitions to be thin and lackluster, and the artists that rented their studios (at least the ones I was able to see) were either amateurish on the one hand, or too-polished commercial on the other.


The Pellizzi Family Collections of Francesco Clemente and Chuck Connelly paintings had some of the best work of these artists, and from their best period – the early eighties.
Installation view, Francesco Clemente; on the right: Two Painters, 1980, gouache on 9 sheets of pondicherry paper joined with handwoven cotton strips, 67 3/4 x 95 1/2 inches.
Chuck Connelly's work has not been exhibited much lately, and it looked spectacular in this show – gutsy, mysterious subjects, and rich gorgeous color and brushwork.
Installation view, Chuck Connelly; on the left: Roller Coaster Car, 1984, oil on canvas, 90 1/2 x 108 1/4 inches.
Connelly became known in the early eighties along with Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but he never achieved the same acclaim as those two. I never understood why. I know, I know – he had a problem with alcoholism, and he was a difficult personality, but so was Basquiat, and Connelly's work is as least as good. A major Chuck Connelly retrospective would be invaluable.

Also, the work in MANA's artists' studios was terrific this visit. I don't have time to write about the art (I'm working on part 2 of my Koons post), but here are my top picks:
Catherine Haggarty – studio 590.
Geraldine Neuwirth – studio 570.
Ernestine Ruben - studio 468.
Rick Klauber - studio 432.
I wasn't able to take a good photograph of Danielle Frankenthal's work (who, I discovered, like me, is a former student and admirer of fellow LBAB writer, Carl Belz), so I took this one from her website.
Danielle Frankenthal – studio 504.
After MANA, I went to Downtown Jersey City to see Drawing Off the Wall, a series of installations expertly curated by Anne Trauben, on view at Drawing Rooms (until October 26th). The space is a former convent, and each of the small bedrooms has been converted to a gallery ideally suited to drawings and, as in this case, installations.

Again I don't have time to discuss the work, and only a few of the photographs I took are adequate, but all nine artists (Anne Q. McKeown, Anne Trauben, Maggie Ens, Jeanne Tremel, Suzan Shutan, Ellie Murphy, Nancy Baker, Kate Dodd and Larry Dell  – a refreshing eight of the nine are woman) did lively, playful and inventive installations.
Kate Dodd
Maggie Ens
Ellie Murphy
Jeanne Tremel
This is just a taste – go see the show!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Richard Jacobs: In the Moment

Richard Jacobs, Summit, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 30 x 40 inches.

By Carl Belz

Author's note: I've followed Richard Jacobs' s painting since the late 1980s when he established a studio in Waltham MA and I was able to include his work in an exhibition at the Rose Art Museum. The following essay was written for the catalog of his forthcoming exhibition at the Jack Geary Gallery (185 Varick Street, NYC), which opens on September 12 and continues through October 11. The full catalog is available online here

As a teenager, after days spent working as a summer guide at Lost River in Lincoln, New Hampshire, I used to jump from a waterfall into the river to cool off. I’d swim behind the waterfall and tread around in a small cave behind the raging downpour. The moments in that cave were amazing sensory experiences that have stayed with me. The water thundered down in deafening torrential sheets, yet it sometimes seemed to stop, as if you could glimpse the absolute present. There was mist all around, which created prisms in the sunlight, and sometimes it appeared as though the water might even be rising. The boulders, trees and sky of the landscape were mostly fuzzy in the background, but sometimes, for an instant, a section of water opened and they became as clear as the day. Deep space shot forward, became momentarily framed, and was then just as quickly lost. Everything was fast and slow at the same time, here and gone, past and present and future were interchangeable.

Richard Jacobs, Putney, Vermont, May 2014 


Richard Jacobs and his generational colleagues were mostly too young to have seen "New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970," curator Henry Geldzahler’s canonical exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they’ve likely seen “Painters Painting,” the 1973 documentary classic it inspired, in which director Emile de Antonio interviews many of the artists in the exhibition, notable among them Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler. If so, I can imagine the film seeming to them what it has come to seem to me, which is a glimpse of a world on the far side of a cultural divide, a world that for better and worse at times feels inaccessibly distanced by the interventions of the 1970s. And foremost among those I’d cite Postminimalism,* the ground-zero cultural critique that targeted what had gone before in the hope of shaping what was to come, was in large measure identified with the Women’s Movement, and, not least, doomed as blatantly sexist Geldzahler’s 40-member pantheon that had space for only one woman.

Elsewhere in the seventies, we got the one-size-fits-all commonplace of pluralism instead of the panoply of styles we became accustomed to in the sixties, and with it we also got the social history of art instead of formalism, and T. J. Clark instead of Clement Greenberg. In the process, politics, deconstruction and theory supplanted esthetics, connoisseurship and criticism, the reader replaced the writer, and meaning in turn became a function of context rather than individual talent, whose appropriated voice was regularly muffled by quotation marks. Beauty became suspect for its link to commodification, punk instead came to signify sincerity, and objects yielded to ideas via market-resistant conceptual art, while performances and installations both flourished. Realist art experienced a renascence with a boost from photography, yet the death of painting was widely reported. And irony spread everywhere, as postmodernism leveled the playing field and muscled modernism to the margins of the cultural arena it had dominated since the middle of the 1940s. The shifts echoed widely, the divide remains.


Richard Jacobs’ paintings acknowledge the far side of the divide without fretting about its distance, and they position themselves firmly in the present while doing so. Like much current abstraction, the paintings are visibly intelligent and informed, they know the past whence they came, along with the wide range of techniques that enabled their construction. They know, for instance, how paint can be brushed on thick or thin, troweled in wet-on-wet or textured into layers, poured or dripped or stained, even sprayed or feathered into misty veils, their techniques together comprising a brimming arsenal of options developed in response to their maker’s evolving vision and ever-focusing yet intuitive urge to meaning.
Storm, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
Their abstractness is likewise purposeful in being stripped of narrative and figuration with the aim of having them stand on their own, not in the name of any theoretical goal of purity--a recurrent misconception about modernist abstraction--but as an affirmation of their autonomy, which is synonymous with their modern condition, as it is with ours as well. Which is in turn to say their abstractness is a matter not of stylistic tropes or nostalgic appropriations, both common in our time, but a way of being in the world--as the best abstraction, past and present, has always been.
Loon Lake, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.
In referring to the paintings’ abstractness, I mean to distinguish them from nature, whose look they resolutely avoid imaging but whose animus they regularly and respectfully evoke – its visual richness and complexity, for instance, but also the diversity of its shapes and lines and spaces and colors, its ubiquitous and relentless presence, its resilience, its rhythms, its seemingly infinite ability to inspire awe and wonder, its magic.
Landscape, Figure, Portrait, Skull, 2013, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches
And each evocation is in turn attended by a capacious range of feeling unguarded by irony or quotes or conceptual gambits, feeling tendered instead with candor and generosity. Wholly present to us, the pictures in turn offer face-to-face, give-and-take encounters unencumbered by postmodern artifice, encounters absorbing us, and thereby affording us, an exhilarating glimpse of freedom from the confines of separateness that in modern experience routinely distance us from ourselves as well as from one another--and a glimpse, too, of how the divide may be narrowed.
Odalisque, 2002-2014, oil, acrylic and dye on silkscreen, 36 x 28 inches.
The pictures comprising the current exhibition were completed during the past two or three years, but it’s hard to tell when they were begun or in what sequence they became resolved. Jacobs typically works on many pictures at the same time and sometimes allows a decade or more to elapse between starting and finishing them. Process-based, he is a patient painter, willing to allow each picture to develop and assert its character independent of any overarching formal or conceptual program. He edits deliberately, often by masking and repainting existing shapes and areas, but however extensively they are revised or amended, the paintings throughout remain open with breathing light and color, eliciting the impression that they’re animated as much from within as they’re guided from without.
Soul Delay, 1997-2013, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 52 x 48 inches.
For the Anniversary of My Death, Homage to WS Merwin, 2005-2014, oil and dye on paper, 24 x 18 inches.
Their patient gestation, moreover, can be felt in the measured pace with which they yield their content. Measured, for instance, by the number and diversity of their parts and the formal complexity of their assembly. These are not the one-shot paintings of Abstract Expressionism in the fifties, the gestural paintings that appeared to have been accomplished in a single creative assault;; nor do they reflect the sixties version of the one-shot theme, the riveting Color Field arcs and bands meant to be knowable in the instant of our encountering them. Instead, the Jacobs paintings ask to be experienced slowly, allowing each shape and space and color and mark to be absorbed with the same patience that informed the creation and placement of that pictorial unit in the first place. In thus responding to them, we’re in turn able to empathize with and know them deeply in the way they know themselves, an epiphanous experience in which time seems to pause while past and future become interchangeable in an ongoing present, and their autonomy becomes mutual, theirs and ours alike.


I got to know Richard Jacobs in the late 1980s after he’d completed his MFA at Yale and set up a studio in Waltham, Massachusetts, home to Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum where I was at that time the director. In 1989 I included his work in the group exhibition of area artists we annually mounted--which led to the acquisition of a picture for the Rose permanent collection--and I continued to follow his early development via the regular solo exhibitions he enjoyed at the Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston through the first half of the 1990s. After moving to Putney, Vermont, he was honored with an important show at The Cooper Union that was curated by Dore Ashton in 1997, but we were by then on separate paths and didn’t reconnect until the early 2010s, when he brought recent pictures for me to see while he was visiting family in nearby Lincoln, New Hampshire.

As if time had stopped, I was as flattened by them as I’d been with each new exhibition I saw back in the nineties, and I was in turn impressed to learn he hadn’t shown his work at all for over a decade following a firm but risky decision to put that part of his career on hold while focusing his energy on domestic priorities and the studio--the studio where, from the evidence of the pictures before me, the decision paid off where it artistically mattered most, which was by enabling him to bring them to full maturity. In response to their depth and character, I want first to suggest they make the margins of today’s cultural arena--where they can metaphorically be said to have been made--look like abundantly fertile territory for nurturing quality art, maybe more fertile, even, than the spotlighted center of the arena that is so regularly celebrated by our entertainment-driven media. And I will in addition say they demonstrate convincingly how such an art effectively spans any real or imaginary divide between the present and the past, while at the same time extending vital traditions of that past unequivocally into the here and now.
Malachite, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on silkscreen, 22 x 18 inches.
Wind, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on silkscreen, 48 x 72 inches.
Epiphany, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 40 x 30 inches.
*For postminimalism, see Susan Stoops et al, “More Than Minimal: Feminism and Abstraction in the ‘70s,” Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, April 21-June 30, 1996.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Jeff Koons: The Artist Critics Hate to Love – Part 1

By Charles Kessler

People waiting to get into Jeff Koons: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art.
Jeff Koons is having a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum (until October 19th). It's the largest retrospective the Whitney has ever had, and it's the last exhibition in this space – in the spring, the Whitney is moving to a new building in the Meatpacking District near the Highline.

The public loves Koons – and why not? His work is fun, bright and shiny, accessible, sexy; and the craft he employs (literally – Koons employs hundreds of other artists and craftspeople to make his works) is miraculous in its verisimilitude.

Koons has taken over more than the Whitney – his work can be seen all over New York right now.
H&M’s new flagship store on Fifth at 48th Street opened with a line of handbags inspired by Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog.
Left: Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2014, armature with about 50,000 live flowering plants, 37' tall (Rockefeller Center until September 12th). Right: a gardener maintaining Split-Rocker.  
But there’s something about the popularity of Koons with the public, and the huge sums of money that his art sells for (in 2013, Koons’s Balloon Dog sold for an astounding $58.4 million - the most ever for a living artist) that rankles critics – myself included, I must admit.
Installation view of Jeff Koons, A Retrospective.
(Click to enlarge.)
I can’t think of an occasion when critics struggled so much with their ambivalence. I will be quoting them a lot not only to illustrate this ambivalence, but also to pass on their insights into Koons's art. (Another summary of the critical reaction to this show can be found at artnet.)

Jerry Saltz called the art Koons made between 1994 and 2007 "... huge, shiny baubles for billionaires. ... the readymade crossed with greed, money, creepy beauty [I love that phrase], and the ugliness of our culture;" and on the other hand, he wrote, "Haters will hate, but A Retrospective will allow anyone with an open mind to grasp why Koons is such a complicated, bizarre, thrilling, alien, annoying artist."

Roberta Smith wrote that the works "unavoidably reek of Gilded Age excess, art star hubris and the ever-widening inequality gap that threatens this country. ...a stunning allée of bizarre Pharaonic splendor." But she also referred to Play-Doh as "a new, almost certain masterpiece;" and wrote,  "There are surprises around every corner. Despite some ups and downs, this is a gripping show... ."
Jeff Koons, Play-Doh, 1994-2014, polychromed aluminum, 120 × 108 × 108 inches, edition of five.
Peter Scheldahl, in the New Yorker, wrote the most favorable review, but even his writing is filled with backhanded compliments such as: "It’s really the quality of his work, interlocking with economic and social trends, that makes him the signal artist of today’s world. If you don’t like that, take it up with the world." And on Koons's antics: [they] "call to mind Degas’s remark to Whistler: ‛You behave as though you had no talent.’”

Peter Plagens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, was the most negative (and funniest): "You leave the show feeling you’ve eaten entirely too much cotton candy on the boardwalk;" and: "The real subject of the exhibition, however, is not Mr. Koons’s bright, empty, perhaps ironic and ultimately numbing art, but his persona." But even Plagens was mixed: "The beginning and end of the show contain the good stuff;" and Plagens also wrote that Play-Doh is "a technical and aesthetic masterpiece."

Koons might be making "huge, shiny baubles for billionaires," as Saltz charges, or his work may "reek of Gilded Age excess," as Smith claims, but I don’t think it would be reasonable to go further and charge him with cynically making art only for the money. Koons is such a fanatic perfectionist that he keeps pushing the technology and craft, sometimes spending more on his sculptures than he got for them, and several times he spent to the point of near bankruptcy. This is not the behavior of someone in it for the money.
Jeff Koons, Balloon Venus (Orange), 2008–2012, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 102 x 48 x 50 inches.
An excerpt from an article by Nina Stoller-Lindsey in the Atlantic about the fabrication of Balloon Venus (Orange), 2008–2012, will give you some idea of what a stickler Koons is.
A reference to the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf statue, this sculpture owes its especially reflective surface to a custom stainless steel alloy Koons developed in collaboration with German fabrication firm Arnold. The structure itself is perhaps even more technologically impressive. Koons began the piece by working with a balloon designer to create an original model of the stone Venus from a single balloon. “Any normal person would have made the hair out of one balloon and the body out of another,” says Rothkopf  [Scott Rothkopf, the curator] alluding to the artist’s near-religious commitment to realism. “But by using a single balloon Jeff could get the sense of continuous pressure and air throughout.” To generate the computer rendering necessary for fabricating the larger, final version, Koons relied on 3D imaging. But the light scanning method he used in his 1994-2000 Balloon Dog (Yellow) was insufficient for capturing the balloon’s minute folds in the level of detail he was after. Instead he turned to CT scanning, a technology powerful enough to detect a brain tumor and not often used outside the medical field. The end result is a sculpture cast in such a way that the interior volumes echo the twists and curves of the balloon with hyper-realistic precision.
I don't think money is Koons's motive, at least not his main motive. Peter Scheldahl, in the New Yorker, may have have come closer to the mark when he wrote that Koons's work is "marked by an obsessive perfectionism, and wound tightly around some core emotion, perhaps rage, which impels and concentrates his ambition." I am reminded of a story Saltz recounted in his review: "In a Madrid club in 1986, I watched him confront a skeptical critic while smashing himself in the face, repeating, “You don’t get it, man. I’m a fucking genius.” This is one very intense person! But maybe this rage, sublimated as maniacal ambition, is what ultimately makes his work so interesting.

In addition, Koons has always taken major risks throughout his career, offending the art world time after time. Writing about "Made in Heaven," a notorious exhibition Koons had at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1991, the then New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman called the work “self-promoting hype and sensationalism,” and he called Koons “an opportunistic publicity monger whose conflation of himself and his work precipitated the self-destruction that already seems [his] fate.” Well that ultimately didn’t happen, but it's an example of the heat and anger his work generated, and how Koons kept pushing boundaries in spite of the risks to his career.
Installation view of Jeff Koons, Made In Heaven, Sonnabend Gallery, New York, November 23 - December 21, 1991.
The 1991 Made In Heaven exhibition contained large, sexually explicit photo-realistic paintings and sculptures of Koons having sex with the Italian porn star, his wife to be, Ilona Staller, known as La Cicciolina. The rest of the show was garish sculptures and reliefs of flowers.

Pornography, even this graphic, was and is common in the art world; why were people so uncharacteristically prudish about these works? My theory is it's because the work isn't anonymous. These were real people – too real for aesthetic distance. The critical outrage is similar to what happened MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO! when Manet first exhibited Luncheon on the Grass, and for the same reason: the depiction of sex was too real. If there were no clothed men in Manet's painting, if there were just idealized nudes, there would be no outrage. I guess art is only supposed to be disturbing in a limited number of acceptable ways.
Edouard Manet, The Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, oil on canvas, 82 x 104 ½ inches (Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France).
Even today there is a strong reaction to Koons's "Made in Heaven" paintings. People avoid the small gallery set aside for the most explicit work, or, uncomfortable and embarrassed, they leave quickly. (I confirmed this with one of the guards.) And I can't find a site where reproductions of the work is available (there are none on Koon's own, otherwise inclusive, website); and, mea culpa, I don't want to publish any of the pornographic images either.
Sign outside the room of Jeff Koons's sexually explicit paintings.
Significantly, the paintings and sculptures exhibited in a more public gallery at the Whitney (see below) are more idealized, so they don't shock, and in fact are kind of funny if anything.
Installation view, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum.
These are works made in 1991 as part of his Made in Heaven series.
(Click to enlarge.)
One final thought: if popularity, financial success and/or being an asshole were to exclude artists from the history books, we would be bereft of many of the greatest – Caravaggio, Wagner, Pound and Picasso, to name a few.

I'm going on vacation. Next post will be more specifically about Koons's art, rather than his personality and critical reception.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Cézanne at the Barnes

By Charles Kessler

Last week I went to Philadelphia to see The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne at the Barnes Foundation (until September 22nd). Unfortunately, the Barnes website reproduces only one of the works in the exhibition (and it's not even captioned), and they don't allow photography. I did, however, manage to find a few good reproductions online, like this one:
Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and Pears, 1891-92, oil on canvas, 17 ⅝ x 23 ⅛ inches.(Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Update: A guard at the Barnes told me on Facebook that this painting isn't in the show. That's very possible – but I'm sure it's at least close to ones that are.

Except for Cézanne's early dark, heavily impasto paintings, I don’t see his work as solid, heavy and immobile, the way they're usually described. Just the opposite. I experience them as unstable, weightless volumes of elusive, colored light. (I know about Cézanne's famous quote: "I want to make of impressionism something solid and lasting like the art in the museums”  from Paul Cézanne, Letters, edited by John Rewald, 1984 – I don’t care.)
Paul Cézanne, Pitcher and Plate with Pears, 1895-98 (Nancy Whyte Fine Arts, Inc.).
Bottles are asymmetrical, tables are tilted up, the composition changes point of view, volumes flatten out (probably because they are often outlined in black), and figure and ground sometimes merge. All these thing create tension because the mind seeks harmony and balance, and when it’s not there, the brain will create it. From the corner of my eye, I often see the illusion of objects – apples, plates, bottles, etc. – move. The forms seem to wobble, float and shift in space. At minimum, I feel the tension.

That’s also how the phenomenon of simultaneous color effects operates – the eye seeks the complement of a color, and if it’s not there, it will hallucinate it. The result is more vibrant and elusive color.
From Josef Albers,  The Interaction of Color
The blue on the left looks different than the blue on the right even though they are exactly the same because all that green demands the complement, turning the blue a little reddish. The blue on the orange field stays true, if perhaps a bit more vibrant, because orange is the complement of blue.

That's the trick with this Jasper Johns's flag painting too. If you stare at the white dot in the middle for about a minute, then look at a white wall, you'll see the compliment – a red, white and blue flag.

I experienced simultaneous effect very clearly with Paul Cézanne’s Young Woman at a Table, 1885-1900, at the Getty Museum.
Paul Cézanne, Young Woman at a Table, 1885-1900, oil on canvas, 38 ⅛ x 28 ⅞ inches (Getty Museum).
The painting was hung in natural light and just glowed. The blues, especially the shadows on her hands, were so bright they didn't seem natural, certainly not typical of Cézanne's gray tonalities. I realized I wasn’t seeing color that came out of a tube, but the kind of vibrant, elusive color that resulted from a simultaneous effect. This can even be seen in reproduction.
Detail, Paul Cézanne, Young Italian Woman at a Table, 1885-90.
The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne is a great show, but there are some nits I want to pick with the exhibition catalog and wall labels. Several times they make the point that the genre of still life allowed Cézanne to control the composition in his studio. True, but this is certainly not something unique to Cézanne. Aside from the possible exception of some Impressionist paintings, artists working in all genres have always manipulated and controlled their compositions. And of course even the Impressionists carefully chose the point of view of a composition, and carefully edited it, often back in their studios.
Paul Cézanne, The Kitchen Table, 1888-90 oil on canvas 65 x 81 cm. (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
Another wall label, presumably written by the curator, regarding The Kitchen Table, 1888-90 (above) states: “The distortions of forms and simultaneously varies points of view … demonstrate his knowing deployment of what has been called ‘willed ineptitude.”  It was not “ineptitude” willed or otherwise, but a different type of aptitude, a different skill set, employed for a different goal: the ordering and animation of a painting.

I said they were nit picks!

If you're interested in Cézanne (and there's no hope for you if you're not), Philadelphia is one of the best places in the world to see his work. There are 23 paintings in this exhibition and 70 more (not a typo) on view in the Barnes's permanent collection; PLUS the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art has many more Cézanne paintings including his enormous (for Cézanne, that is – about 7' x 8') Large Bathers, 1906.
Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1900-06, oil on canvas, 82 7/8 x 98 3/4 inches (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Peter Voulkos and the Ceramics Revolution of the 1950s

By Charles Kessler

As I noted in a recent post, ceramics, as an art medium rather than a utilitarian craft, has become popular with artists. In fact, discarding functionality for the more purely aesthetic or expressive is happening to all the applied arts: textiles, glass, graphic design. I've even seen jewelry and fashion that's so wildly outlandish it really isn't intended for ordinary wear.

There's a history in the evolution of ceramics that can put this phenomenon in context and enrich our understanding of it. Clay has long been used as a medium for sculpture – prehistoric figurines, Japanese Haniwa, Greek vases, etc..  But for whatever reason, ceramics was shunned as a medium for sculpture during much of the past few centuries. It was considered a craft – an applied art limited by the requirement that it produce something functional, like a plate or a vessel of some sort. As a craft, it was considered inferior to fine art.

The Bauhaus improved matters a bit by treating ceramics, and the other applied arts, with the same respect as fine art. Nevertheless, it was assumed that ceramics, along with the other crafts, would serve a utilitarian purpose.
Johannes Drisch, breakfast service, 1921-22, free thrown high-fired earthenware with slip decoration (private collection, included in MoMA exhibition, Bauhaus 1919-1933, Workshops for Modernity),
Peter Voulkos was the first person to radically change a craft medium into a viable art medium, some seventy-five years ago. Few people have had such an impact on an art medium as Voulkos, both as an innovator and as an inspiring teacher.
Peter Voulkos in his Glendale Blvd. studio with Black Butte-Divide, 1959.
When I came to Los Angeles in 1965, Voulkos and his students John Mason, Ken Price and others at the Otis Art Institute (they were typically referred to as the "Abstract Expressionist Ceramicists"), were regularly exhibited in major galleries and museums, but almost no notice was taken in the rest of the world, including New York. And, with the notable exception of Ken Price, it’s still pretty much the case.
Installation view, Ken Price Sculpture - A Retrospective, September 16, 2012 - January 6, 2013, (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Ken Price.  Photo © Fredrik Nilsen).
I believe this is about to change. The fact is, Voulkos is relevant today for the influence, direct or indirect, he's having on many vital young artists.

Until recently, Voulkos's sculptures looked dated, like a lot of the Abstract Expressionist sculpture of this period. Rather than being colorful, polished and relatively minimal like the ceramic sculptures of Ken Price, Voulkos' work looks rough, handmade – what is referred to today (in a good way) as "sloppy craft."  Also there is an emphasis on surface texture and materiality in his work.
Peter Voulkos, Little Big Horn, 1959, polychromed stoneware, 62 x 40 x 40 inches (Oakland Museum of California).
These are just the things that interest some of the most adventurous artists today. In contrast to the over-produced, highly polished art commonly found in Chelsea, there's a refreshing authenticity about handmade art. There's also a growing interest in surface and materiality (perhaps from a discontent with video). You can see evidence of these trends in Bushwick – one of the most vital art scenes in the world right now. (See my posts on Bushwick Open Studios here and here.) And Voulkos has had a direct influence, in this respect, on many important young ceramic artists, Ruby SterlingKathy ButterlyNicole CherubiniArlene ShechetJessica Jackson Hutchins among them.
Installation view, Arlene Shechet, solo exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 2013. 
Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Couple, 2010, couch, ink spray paint, charcoal dust, hydrocal, ceramic, 52 x 67 x 38 inches (Derek Eller Gallery).
Sterling Ruby, Basic Theology, 2013, ceramic, 20 ½ x 42 ¾ x 44 inches.
So what about Voulkos? What in particular did he do that was so revolutionary?

His major artistic breakthrough, in the early 1950s, was to create abstract ceramic sculptures from parts of wheel-thrown pots; that is, to build ceramic assemblage sculptures rather than monolithic vessels. He thereby not only broke away from the utilitarian, but he was no longer limited by what could be thrown on a wheel in one shot.
Peter Voulkos, Untitled, 1956, stoneware, 20 x 14 x 15 inches.
Later Voulkos innovated the use of epoxy glue rather than kiln firing to join parts, and epoxy paints along with colored glazes to add color to the sculptures.
Peter Voulkos, Red River, ca. 1960, stoneware with slip, glaze and epoxy paint,  37 x 12 ½ x 14 ½ inches (Whitney Museum). 
The other big innovation, large-scale ceramic sculpture, Voulkos developed with John Mason, one of his older and more advanced students. They shared a studio from 1957 until 1965 when Voulkos moved to Berkeley. With the advice of Mike Kalan, a ceramics engineer, they built two industrial-size kilns capable of firing sculptures up to six feet high.
Peter Voulkos and John Mason in their shared studio, late 1950s.
In addition to being a great innovator, Voulkos was an inspiring teacher and, with his students, he spawned the "Abstract Expressionist Ceramics" movement. He was sociable, charismatic, rebellious and extraordinarily energetic. He was about the same age as his students, and he treated them more like colleagues than pupils. He worked alongside them and they exchanged techniques and ideas. Most important, since all Voulkos's students came from the crafts world, he introduced them into the fine arts world, and to the different intentions and values of that world.

As a group they were hard-working, collaborative and highly competitive – but they were also independent and, to Voulkos' credit as a teacher, they all made very different ceramic art. (The term "Abstract Expressionist Ceramics" really only applies to Voulkos and the early work of John Mason. Later Mason became more of a Minimalist making highly refined constructivist tile walls and abstract sculptures.)
Installation view, John Mason, ceramic, 2014 Whitney Biennial.
In addition to Ken Price and John Mason, the other Abstract Expressionist Ceramicists incude: Billy Al Bengston, Michael Frimkess, Mac McClain, Jerry Rothman, Paul Soldner, and Henry Takemoto. And in 1959, when Voulkos moved to the University of California at Berkeley, James Melchert and Ron Nagle came under his influence.

* I'm grateful to my friend Ken Garber who loaned me his informative unpublished 1973 thesis about these artists. It helped put their achievement in context.


To prevent this post from getting clogged up, I heavily edited it. Here are some of the things I left out. Feel free to skip it if you want!

Publications about this art and period. Not many good ones, but here are two: 

More on the visibility of these artists in New York – or lack thereof:
  • John Mason had three sculptures and a ceramic wall in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and the Whitney has a large collection of California ceramics — the Howard and Jane Lipman Collection – but they hardly ever show it, and none of it is on their website.
  • The Museum of Modern Art lists no work on their extensive website by Mason or Peter Voulkos, and only four minor lithographs by Ken Price – no ceramics. I contacted MoMA to find out if they owned work that wasn't on their site, and they said they had a Voulkos vase from 1956, and nothing by Mason.
Peter Voulkos, Jar, ca. 1956, stoneware, 22 inches high (MoMA).
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art lists some 400,000 works on their website including more than one thousand ceramic works from 1900 to the present, but nothing by Voulkos, Mason or even Price who was just given a major retrospective there. The Met did have a show of some work by Voulkos and Mason in 1998 as part of a small contemporary ceramics exhibition installed in a glass display case on the Great Hall Balcony. Not the most prestigious space, but it's something – and they continue to occasionally exhibit contemporary ceramics there.
  • There are a few museums that seriously collect and exhibit ceramics: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh, and the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington D.C..

Hedges and provisos:
  • Of course, there have been exceptions to the functionality requirement, such as Gauguin's disturbing stoneware sculpture that made me gasp every time I saw it at the recent Gauguin exhibition at MoMA. It's difficult to see in reproduction, and not easy in person either, but at her feet is a bloody wolf that she probably killed, and she’s holding a wolf cub – probably the cub of the dead wolf. This was Gauguin's last sculpture, and his biggest. He considered it his masterpiece and wanted it placed on his tomb.
Front, back and close-up views of Paul Gauguin’s Oviri (Savage), 1894, partly enameled stoneware, 29 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 10 5/8 inches (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
  • And needless to say, there's nothing wrong with craft ceramics; in fact, all of the ceramicists discussed here continued to make functional objects their entire careers. And, of course, some of the greatest, most breathtakingly beautiful art in the world is functional.
Unknown artist, Qing dynasty vase, 1713-22, porcelain with peach-bloom glaze, 7 ¾ inches high (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Influences and inspirations for the ceramics revolution:
  • In 1954, when Voulkos still considered himself a craftsman, Rosanjin, a well-known Japanese ceramicist, had an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) that impressed Voulkos because the work was less refined than traditional pottery. Rosanjin's Zen aesthetic allowed for more chance and improvisation in the making, and for asymmetry and imperfection in the end product. In addition, even though Rosanjin continued to make functional vessels, he repudiated the craft tradition and declared himself a fine artist.
Rosanjin, Jar, 1954, 8 ½ inches high.
  • Joan Miró worked with ceramics in 1947-48 and again in 1953-56, and Voulkos saw some at a 1959 Miró exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Joan Miró, Monument,1956, earthenware, 28 1/4 x 12 3/4 x 12 3/4 inches (courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Terese and Alvin S. Lane Collection).
  • Especially influential were the ceramics of Picasso who made a mind-boggling 2000 ceramic pieces in 1947-48, and even more in 1953.
Pablo Picasso with some of his painted ceramic works at his studio at Vallauris.
  • They were impressed that Picasso and Miró didn't stop after the pot was thrown, but continued working on it, manipulating it, cutting it, and using the clay surface as a medium to paint on. And just the fact that artists with the stature of Picasso and Miro (and, BTW, Fernand Leger) made ceramics lent credibility to the medium as a fine art.
  • But perhaps the biggest impact on Voulkos was the time he taught at Black Mountain College (BMC) in the summer of 1953, then a hotbed of experimental art activity. Because Voulkos was naturally sociable, he quickly became friends with many of the other teachers, especially the poet Charles Olson, the composer David Tudor and the painter Jack Tworkov with whom Voulkos traded work. He also met Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage whose performances profoundly impressed him. And Voulkos spent time in New York where he hung out at the Cedar Bar and befriended Franz Kline and many of the other Abstract Expressions. 

Two small but possibly significant details:
  • Voulkos pinned black and white photos of Picasso’s ceramics to his studio wall as inspiration for himself his students. They thought the work in these photos was more brightly colored and bigger than they actually were, which is significant since that might be one reason they ended up producing larger and more colorful ceramics.
  • In an interview reported in Clay’s Tectonic Shift, Ken Price said: "We thought we were pretty hot stuff until we saw him. ... Voulkos was capable of an almost inhuman capacity – he made fifteen pieces to everyone else’s one.”  

Some other Abstract Expressionist Ceramicists:

  • John Mason, the other great innovator, experimented with the properties of clay, pushing it to its technical limits of thickness, size and weight. He did away with the throwing wheel altogether and instead he would slam large hunks of clay to the floor, mold them, join them together, cut them up into smaller sections that could be fired without exploding, and, after firing, join them together again into large ceramic walls. This was as close to "Abstract Expressionist Ceramics" as it ever got.

John Mason working on Blue Wall, 1959 (Photo from Frank Lloyd's blog).
John Mason, Blue Wall, 1959, ceramic, 96 x 252 x 8 inches (collection of the artist. Photo by Anthony Cuñha). 

  • Ken Price, whom I just wrote about here, is closer to the Los Angeles “Cool School,”
Ken Price, G.L. Green, 1964, fired and painted clay on a wood base, 6 1/4 x 5 x 5 inches, Betty Lee and Aaron Stern Collection © Ken Price (from Ken Price, A Retrospective at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, 2013).
  • as is Ron Nagle.

Ron Nagle, Red and Turquoise Knob Job, 1984, glazed earthenware, 2 ⅞ x 4 ¼ x 2 ¼ inches (de Young Museum, San Francisco).
The others were (and are) all over the place from Pop to Funk to traditional craft pottery.
Michael Frimkess, Jumpin' at the Moon Lodge, 1968, glazed stoneware, no size noted (Scripps College Collection).
Jerry Rothman, Covered Olympic Vessel, ca. 1984, glazed earthenware with colored oxides in sand, 32 ½ x 11 inches.
UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times just published an obituary for Jerry Rothman.

And finally, my pet peeve about Los Angeles artists of this period:
  • While the Abstract Expressionist Ceramicists considered themselves artists, they identified with blue collar workers and affected an anti-intellectual, macho, pose. This, unfortunately, set the tone for future LA art groups like the Ferus Gallery artists (below), the “Cool School,” and, to some degree, even the 1980s Cal Arts graduates. It was common for them to say things that used to infuriate me like "I don't look at art (or read about art), I just make it," as if they were proud of it. (Fortunately this wasn't true of most LA artists — my friends Ron Davis, Charles Garabedian, Karen Carson, Robin Mitchell, Allan McCollum, Pat Hogan and Peter Plagens among them.)
The Ferus Gallery Artists, 1959; from Left: John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Allen Lynch, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston (photo: Patricia Faure).
  • Probably due to this macho ethos, the only women ceramicists I found even alluded to during this period were Susan Peterson, who taught Mason the craft of ceramics before he went to Otis, and two full-time ceramics students at Otis – Carol Radcliff and Janice Roosevelt. But I've never seen any mention of them in relation to Abstract Expressionist Ceramics.