Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art" at Yale

By Charles Kessler

Installation view, The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art. In the foreground is John Mason's Untitled, Vertical Sculpture, 1961, glazed stoneware, 30 x 15 3/4 x 7 3/8 inches; and behind it to the left is Willem de Kooning's Untitled XIII, 1975, oil on canvas, 87 x 77 inches. (Photo: Yale Art Gallery). 
A major exhibition of ceramic art is unusual in itself, but what makes The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art (Yale University Art Gallery, through January 3rd) really extraordinary is that it places ceramic art in the context of other art of the period. The exhibition was co-curated by Jock Reynolds, the director of the gallery, and Sequoia Miller, a Pd.D. candidate in Art History at Yale. It contains about 100 clay objects (20 from Yale's own collection and 80 from the Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection) plus about 150 paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings from Yale. In addition, like the great educational institution it is, Yale organized a two-day symposium in connection with the show. I'll be reporting on the symposium in another post.
In the foreground is a 1961 glazed stoneware sculpture by John Mason; behind it is a sculpture by Manuel Neri; and clockwise on the wall are paintings by David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Elmer Bischoff.
It’s been more than 60 years since Peter Voulkos and others had their breakthrough making ceramics a viable art. [See my post on that subject.] It’s time for their work to be included in the same room with paintings and sculpture of the period, instead of being isolated in decoration and design galleries as is done at MoMA, or allocated a separate, usually minor, space, such as the Met's glass cases along the balcony over the entrance hall.
In the foreground is Peter Voulkos, Cadiz, 1998, wood-fired stoneware; right background is David Smith, Bec-Dida Day, 1963, painted steel. According to co-curator Sequoia Miller, Voulkos admired David Smith and often visited him in his studio in the 1960s.
Fortunately this seems to be happening.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has already integrated ceramics into their collection, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is starting to show ceramics with sculpture and painting of the period (although even they still have galleries where ceramics is segregated along with design and decoration).
Installation view of a gallery in the contemporary art wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On the right are ceramic cups by Ken Price.
Even MoMA might be changing. According to a Times article, after their Picasso Sculpture exhibition closes, they'll be reinstalling their permanent collection, and curators from different areas will be collaborating on the installation.

One surprising result of integrating ceramics with the rest of art is the ceramics doesn't seem precious, as it sometimes does when displayed by itself in glass cases or on shelves. Even work that plays with preciousness, like that of Ken Price and Ron Nagle, seems edgy in this context.
On the table from the left are sculptures by John Chamberlain, John Mason, cups by Billy Al Bengston, a colorful sculpture by Jim Melchert behind the cups, and three John Mason plates.
Nor was the work in this exhibition crammed together so it looks junky, as is often the case when it's shown in galleries:
Installation view, Paul Clay, Salon 94 Gallery, June 23, 2011–August 12, 2011. At least the Salon 94 gallery regularly exhibits ceramic art.
Of course there will always be disagreement about what should or should not be in any exhibition, but Yale owns one of Viola Frey's best pieces, and at the symposium the curators were roundly criticized for excluding her.

Her omission is especially egregious since there were so few women in the show, and, putting salt on the wound, Frey's sculpture could be seen from the exhibition, in an adjacent room segregated with design and the decorative arts, thus contradicting the main message of the exhibition.
Viola Frey, Resting Woman #2, 1989, glazed ceramic, 40 x 102 x 49 inches (Yale Art Gallery, photo: Mara Superior Instagram).
On the other hand, some artists don't belong in the show, and including their work also confuses the issue. I feel the ceramic artists based in England (e.g., Ruth Duckworth, Magdalene Odundo, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie), beautiful as their work is, are still in the functional craft/design tradition. While it's possible to make a case for exhibiting craft and design objects with fine art, that isn't the point of this exhibition, which is to put ceramic art on the same level as painting and sculpture of the period.
Hans Coper, Bottle with Disc and 4 Cycladic Forms, ca. 1970–75. stoneware, ranging from 4 1/2 × 3 3/4 × 3 1/2 inches to 11 3/4 × 2 × 1 3/4 inches (Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection. © Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts).
And aesthetically this work doesn't go much beyond ancient Asian vessels.
On the left: Lucie Rie, Vase, ca. 1967, glazed stoneware, 15 3/4 x 6 3/8 x 6 3/8 inches (Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection. © Lucie Rie / Courtesy Yvonne Mayer); on the right: Trumpet-Mouth Vase, Chinese, Yaun dynasty, c. early 14th century longquan ware (Yale Art Gallery, 1955.4.64).
The curators' attempt to relate these ceramicists to Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, and Agnes Martin is far-fetched, to say the least. But, as Jock Reynolds, the co-curator of the exhibition and director of the gallery said, this exhibition was the "first word, and hopefully not the last word.”


Ken Garber said...

Thanks for this post Charles. It looks like a great show. I especially liked the shot of the gallery that included the paintings of the Bay Area artists. The Oakland Art Museum actually has mixed ceramic art with painting and non-ceramic sculpture in their permanent installation for some time. This show does it better though.

I would question why ceramic work that comes more directly from a utilitarian tradition, especially if it is a one of a kind studio piece, rather than a production piece, is somehow "less than" a painting or sculpture. Does that hierarchy of medium still make sense? Just asking.

Charles Kessler said...

Thanks Ken.

I think a good case can be made for doing away with the "hierarchy of medium," but that wasn't the point of this exhibition. The objective of Ceramic Presence" was to compare and relate some of the best ceramic art with some of the best painting and sculpture of the period — still sadly something unusual to do. An exhibition that also included craft, design and the decorative arts, maybe along with outsider and folk art, as far as I know, is still to be curated. Strangely this isolating of mediums seems only to be true of modern and contemporary art. Displays of older art (period rooms, for example), and Asian Art have been much more open.

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