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Voulkos set up the ceramics department at Otis
During the mid 1950s the ceramics department at "Otis Art Institute" (then "Los Angeles County Art Institute") was a place of artistic vitality and innovative energy. At Otis, Peter Voulkos led a "revolution in clay" by questioning the tradition that ceramic forrns must be utilitarian and by creating instead nonfunctional, sculptural works that gave the medium a new freedom of expression. Voulkos attracted a group of talented students to Otis - which included Billy Al Bengston, Michael Frimkess, John Mason, Mac McClain, Ken Price, Janice Roosevelt, Jerry Rothman, Paul Soldner, and Henry Takemoto - who began their own searches for new forms of expression in clay. Although most did not fully develop their mature styles until after they left Otis, it was there that they absorbed many of the attitudes that shaped their thinking as artists.
The ideas that informed their art are reflected in the ceramis art collection of Fred Marer, who was their principal patron.
Otis and its Influences by Garth Clark ( mirrored, shortend artcle from the internet )
America's influence on European ceramics was not through copied styles and movements, but through changing attitudes. This was because post-War American artist-teachers such as Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson did not set out to found "schools" the way Bernard Leach and others did, and did not consider imitation to be the sincerest form of pottery.
What was it that the ceramics world found so exciting in American ceramics? Certainly it was the work itself; irreverent, provocative, experimental and sometimes, even glamorous. Europeans are inherently skeptical of America's influence and have strong cultural autonomy, producing their own masters to revere and aesthetic breakthroughs to provide momentum.
On a Personal Note
The first example of its impact that I can cite is myself and I ask the reader to indulge a rather personal look back at my own involvement with the Otis group and to acknowledge my great debt to Fred Marer. In 1974, recently arrived in Britain from South Africa, I was a student at the "Royal College of Art" working on a masters degree by thesis. My subject was modern ceramic history, a topic that the conservative art history department facetiously dismissed as my "over-specialization". I was already interested in American ceramics, had some knowledge but was then focused more on the post-Modernists in England (mainly from the Royal College itself) such as Elizabeth Fritsch, Jacqueline Poncelet and Alison Britton.
One morning in the winter of 1974, David Hamilton, then the head of my department, dropped a modestly sized catalog on my desk and said, "I think you should look at this". The catalog was for an exhibition, "Abstract Expressionist Ceramics", held in 1966 at the Art Galleries of the "University of California at Irvine" and at the "Museum of Modern Art" ( MOCA) , San Francisco.
The essay by the exhibition curator, John Coplans, was short but riveting. He was then a painter and art critic, the editor-at-large for "Artforum" magazine. Coplans had worked with Peter Voulkos, the leader of the so-called >Abstract Expressionist Ceramics Movement<, since 1959 at the >University of California at Berkeley<. He considered Voulkos the most talented artist in the faculty and witnessed at first hand his anguish at not being able to get the kind of attention and respect he sought as an artist because his chosen medium, ceramics, enjoyed about as much stature as finger painting. This isolation from the art mainstream influenced Voulkos to give up ceramics in 1963 and to work exclusively in metal until the mid-1970's.
I remember leaving the College that day in a mild state of shock, recognizing this exhibition as a seminal moment, perhaps the seminal moment, in our modern history. Otis had defined a new language of form and a tough and ambitious stance for ceramics. Even though the work showed a virtuoso facility with clay, it was not about technique but about the unleashing of energy and emotion. The vessels in particular were a revelation; Michael Frimkess's ungainly and bluntly named "Pot" (1959), Ken Price's witty "Lizard cup" (1959), Voulkos's thick muscular "Vase" (1961) that slumped back into the earth and a ripped and gouged "Plate" (1963), John Mason's sculptural "X Pots" (1957), Ron Nagle's luscious green and brown "Cup" (1963) and James Melchert's great masterpiece, "Leg Pot 1" (1962) with its defiance of the verticality of the vessel. This group of Los Angeles artists had confidently (some of the artists say, blindly) marched out of the more precious world of the decorative arts and into a new landscape, that was troubling, uncharted but promising.
About Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles
Of course, the work did not arrive by immaculate conception nor was it disconnected from ceramic tradition as some writers have suggested. Otis was very much about the continuum of extended tradition. After all, these were still pots and they carried with them all the nuances and deep association that pots have had in lives of man for thousands of years. But this group working experimentally through the night in the basement workshop of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles had finally crossed that line that ceramics had been pushing towards since the late 19th century in trying to establish an autonomous art form that was as relevant and contemporary as painting or sculpture.
Excited, I was determined to see this work in the flesh (so to speak) and in looking through the list of lenders noticed that the largest group of works came from a couple in Los Angeles, Fred and Mary Marer. On the surface, Fred Marer did not seem to be an archetypal American collector. Fred earned a modest income as a teacher of mathematics at a small city college. His apartment was compact and so his vast trove of pots and ceramic sculpture, including some of the great masterpieces of the Otis era, were stored on rickety, makeshift shelves in two garages behind his stucco apartment building. Marer decided to give his collection to Scripps College in the nearby town of Claremont. Scripps rescued Fred's collection from their perilous home and housed them in an exemplary earthquake proof setting.
Fred was the perfect first mentor for my intellectual inquiry into Otis because he had the perspective of an outsider and the access of an insider. He had been in the artists studios almost from the start of the Otis experiment, visiting almost every week and sometimes more frequently. He had watched the artists wrestle with their new vision, attended exhibitions with them, provided critiques of their art and listened to their opinions of the artists they admired, conversations that often went on into the early hours of the morning.
He also confirmed that Abstract Expressionism had little to do with the development of the work until around 1957. Of all the artists only Voulkos fit neatly into the Abstract Expressionist mode. Mason was a Neo-Constructivist, Price and Nagle were Fetish Finish artists (also known as "L.A. Style" and very much the opposite in temperament and style to Abstract Expressionism) and Frimkess became a kind of Pop artist. This was important because it did not make Otis "the regional adaptation of Abstract Expressionism".
The ceramics of Picasso for instance had been a much larger influence as was Japan's 16th century raku tea wares, wood fired pots from Shigaraki and Bizen and the haunting Jomon figures with their clear vertical architecture and incised, open volumes. Into this mix can be thrown a host of other pottery movements that Voulkos and others played with to find their own way from the elegant 1940's stoneware of Scandinavian artists Wilhelm Kage, Carl Harry Stalhane and Stig Lindberg to classical Greek amphorae from two millennia ago. All of this was fuel for a ravenous kiln of invention. Music played an important often understated role, particularly Jazz, as did the art various painters and sculptors from Miró to Wotruba, particularly those who were being shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during that time.
In 1976, eighteen months after my first visit with Fred, I moved from a farm outside London to Claremont, California, some forty minutes from Los Angeles. Living in Claremont literally placed me next door to the Marer collection. Every month we would get together with his new wife, Estelle. (Sadly, Mary had passed away in 1975). His big gift was that of making his collection available to the public.
Although so much has happened in ceramics in the twenty-five years since my first visit, the Otis group and its second generation at the University of California in Berkeley, has remained my pivot point as a scholar. It is the gold standard for post-War avant garde expression in ceramics. There is no other movement anywhere, in America or abroad, to compare with Otis at that time.
The later Organic Abstractionists from the Central School of Art in London (Ruth Duckworth, Gordon Baldwin) came close but was not as far-reaching. In Europe, aside from the work of visitors like Picasso and Miró, there was only one body of 1950's work that had the same dynamism; the sexually charged "Concetto Spaziale" ceramics of sculptor, painter and ceramist, Lucio Fontana. Unlike Picasso and Miró, Fontana's ceramics were not an occasional adjunct but the medium with which he began his career (his first exhibition in Milan in 1928 was of ceramic sculpture) and he continued to work actively in ceramics until his death in 1968. Not surprisingly his work, particularly the way he drew and composed with holes, was an inspiration to Voulkos in the 1960's.
Influences in the United States
The influence of the Otis group in the United States was immense. But it took some time to find acceptance, particularly from the ceramics world. In the early years the work was derided and belittled by a ceramics establishment committed to pretty glazes and traditional form (usually quietist and Sung-based). The first serious article on the group, "New Ceramic Presence" by Rose Slivka, editor of "Craft Horizons" in 1961, provoked outrage and resulted in a flood of canceled memberships for the magazine's publisher, the American Crafts Council. Older ceramists saw the emergence of the Otis group as the death knell of the medium, surrendering beauty, elegance and taste for a brutish novelty. But after the initial shock of the new began to wear off, attitudes changed particularly amongst younger ceramists who were drawn not only by the work but by the charismatic power of burly, wild-eyed Voulkos as well. The exhibition "Abstract Expressionist Ceramics" was the mid-1960's launch pad, garnering coverage in the national art press. Coplans's exhibition exposed them to a national and international audience.
To examine how this played out we will now jump just over thirty years to New York in 1997. In that year I curated a second exhibition on the Otis group in New York (the first was in Los Angeles in 1982), entitled "Abstract Expressionist Ceramics: Myth and Reality Revisited". By now I was ready to take a much more revisionist stance. Much of the conventional wisdom about Otis no longer held water (if you will excuse the container metaphor). The exhibition text argued that Coplans's 1966 portrayal of these artists as working alone, totally isolated, without encouragement or support certainly fit the romantic image of the starving artist sequestered in a garret but was not entirely the truth. This group had, even before 1966, enjoyed more attention and respect from the fine arts community than any other group of ceramists since the second half of the 19th century when the ceramics art movement first began to develop. The Otis group began exhibiting in 1957 even before some had left school. Voulkos, Price and Mason were showing in fine arts venues such as Irving Blum's groundbreaking Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. Admittedly their impact at that point was largely regional and restricted to California. Coplans, who had given up being a critic two decades earlier, visited the 1997 show and, not surprisingly, disagreed with my thesis. What followed was a good natured war of faxes in which we each debated our point of view. What became evident was that the "truth" was all a matter of vantage point and that Coplans and I, standing on different sides of the street saw two different scenarios, both equally accurate.
Coplans who spent his professional life in the fine arts world saw the response to his exhibition ultimately as a disappointment. By his standards, none of these great artists had been given their full due and none had been admitted to the uppermost canon of the arts where the blue chip painters and sculptors reside. In this he is correct. One can walk through the permanent installations of many American art museums and see nary a ceramic work. But there are some respectable exceptions, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the >Carnegie Museum of Art< in Pittsburgh and the Hirschorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Overall, institutional attitudes are slowly changing for the better and while ceramics might be rarely shown, most museums own works by these artists.
However, the landscape alters dramatically when one shifts to the vantage point of a ceramics historian. From this view what the Otis group did was truly revolutionary, it had crashed through a barrier that had kept ceramics apart from the fine arts for nearly a century. After 1966 there were many more triumphs. Price, Mason and Voulkos were included in numerous key exhibitions, several Whitney Biennials, the 1975 Whitney Museum exhibition "200 Years of Sculpture in America", the most important survey yet of American sculpture. The same museum also presented "Six Clay Artists" in 1986. Ken Price was one of the artists selected for the exhibition for the new Museum of Modern Art building in New York, a show designed to present what MOMA saw as the best in contemporary art. He also was given a retrospective exhibition, rapturously received by the critics, by two of the country's most respected institutions, the DeMenil Foundation and the Walker Museum of Art. This is just a sampling from a long impressive list and while ongoing attention from the art world has been spotty and erratic, it was still, for ceramics, unprecedented.
Today, New York, once the most hostile city in America to ceramics, is a friendly environment for the medium, certainly showing more contemporary ceramics than any European city. The critics of the "New York Times" have become remarkably informed about ceramics and its history, largely through the open minded leadership of critic Roberta Smith. In fact, today as I write this piece, the Friday Fine Arts supplement contains three reviews and articles on ceramic art (one on Bernhard Leach and Hamada and glowing reviews for Ken Price and the 1930's terra cotta sculptures of Alexander Archipenko). For many years ceramics reviews were not allowed on the Arts pages. In the marketplace the turnaround is dramatic. Aside from the fact that so many non-ceramic artists are taking on ceramics as one of their regular materials (Anthony Caro, Thomas Schütte and Tony Cragg for example), last year saw over sixty exhibitions of ceramic art in the world's art capitol, many at leading galleries that traditionally have not shown ceramics before.
Nearly a half-century after Voulkos set up the ceramics department at Otis, many of the artists from this group remain important, productive and progressive artists, lauded by the critics and the marketplace alike. But another gauge of what Otis achieved is in how it influenced the generations that followed. It gave young artists who worked in clay and wanted to connect with a serious and appreciative audience beyond that of the craft fairs, the hope that this goal was possible. It provided encouragement for a succession of movements that followed: Robert Arneson's Funk ceramics, the Super-Objects of Richard Shaw and Marilyn Levine, the Pattern and Decoration movement of Betty Woodman and Joyce Kozloff and the post-Modernists that swept in the 1980's; Adrian Saxe, Akio Takamori, Richard Notkin and others.
Influence in Europe
The legacy in Europe is more complex because it is indirect. Firstly, it needs to be noted that exposure in Europe of American ceramics in general, and Otis clay in particular, comes mostly from the media-films, slide kits, video, books and magazines-and few have seen the actual objects. It is staggering when one examines the record to discover how little American work has actually been shown in Europe, a factor that makes this exhibition at the Musée Ariana, all the more praiseworthy. One can list the major survey shows of the last thirty years on the fingers of one hand:
"West Coast Ceramics" at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1981;
"Who's Afraid of American Pottery ?", Kruithuis Museum, s' Hertogenbosch ( Netherlands);
"American Potters Today", Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
There is also surprisingly little American work in European public collections and the two largest collections are both in Holland, the Stedelijk and the Kruithuis. The largest holding is at the Kruithuis Museum, whose director Yvonne Joris has been the single most aggressive advocate for bringing American work to Europe. The eclectic collection she has assembled includes masterworks by Price, Nagle and Voulkos as well as newer works by Adrian Saxe and Kathy Butterly and the great maverick potter from the turn of the century, George E. Ohr. The Stedelijk Museum has a large group of exceptional and major pieces acquired in the 1970's by the then director, Edy de Wilde, a visionary who saw in American West Coast ceramics one of the great achievements of 20th century American art. He invested heavily, not just in acquiring Voulkos, Price, Nagle, Notkin but also three sculptures by the Funk maverick Robert Arneson that are considered to be amongst his greatest works.
European gallery shows have been rare: Ken Price in 1969 and 1970 at Paul Kasmin Gallery in London, a large survey of both American and British ceramics at the Smith Galleries in London in 1984, and several shows for Duckworth and Woodman. But there has not been a major museum show of the work of any of the Otis greats, neither Mason, Nagle, Price nor, amazingly enough, even Peter Voulkos. Considering that the American ceramics movements encompasses hundreds of artists and dozens of styles, has influenced the way ceramics are seen, shown, written about and valued worldwide, this is a paltry achievement.
The reasons for the lackluster reception across the Atlantic are several. Firstly it must be admitted that the American ceramics world is smug. It is aware of its greatness and takes the attitude that "if you want to see it, you know where we live". The fact that Americans, by far the largest group in ceramic art, are usually one the smallest of all the national delegations at international conferences, confirms this surprisingly parochial attitude. This is reinforced by a strong home market which lessens the incentive to seek exposure abroad. Then too there are no mechanisms in American culture to export its ceramic achievements. In the last decade America has been the recipient of large, well funded exhibitions celebrating Korean, Taiwanese, Norwegian, Danish, British, Dutch, Japanese, Eastern European and South American ceramic achievement. These shows have all been paid for by public funds set aside by their governments for the purpose of promoting their culture.
No such funds exist in America. Government funding for overseas shows is practically nonexistent. This has meant that not one single major survey of American ceramics, aside for the gift of sixty ceramics to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1986, has traveled to Europe in the last half-century.
American ceramics have not found traction amongst Europe's galleries because of the prices are, on average, high compared to those of European ceramists. While prices are a stumbling block, there is a second factor. Most of the major private and public ceramic collections in the United States of any consequence, are international, even if American work is in the majority. European collectors tend to be more nationalistic with a few exceptions such as Germany's and Holland's love affair with British ceramics. However, that compliment was not returned by British collectors who remain resolutely focused on their own country's artists.
A whole generation of European ceramists grew up aware, to one degree or another, approving or disapproving, seduced or indifferent, of what was happening in America. In most cases the European artists I have spoken to had no desire to imitate the visual style of American ceramics. Over the years I have had this conversation with a large and diverse group of European artists: Kylliki Salmenhara, Finland; Babs Haenen, Holland; Richard Slee, Angus Suttie, Tony Bennett and Ewen Henderson from Britain; Bodil Manz, Denmark, and many others. None of their work looks at all American but the influence of what was done in American ceramics in the 1950's, 1960's and later is concretely imbedded in their art.
This can perhaps best be explained by quoting a conversation I had with Bodil Manz a few years ago. She met Voulkos in Berkeley in the 1960's together with her late husband Richard. Voulkos invited them to work with him for a few weeks in his studio before returning to Denmark: "I came from a very strict traditional approach that required me to follow in the style of my teacher. I was feeling trapped but did not feel I had any options. I had to do what was expected of me. What Voulkos did was to release me from that restraint. I admired his independence when he worked, how he refused to be held back by any of the traditions or techniques he had inherited, yet fearlessly used it all to move forward. That was empowering. After returning to Denmark I did not make work that looked like his but I assumed an American-style confidence and sought and found my own aesthetic.
Scripps College in the nearby town of Claremont
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Hirschorn Museum, part of Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C
Kathy Butterly, George E. Ohr
Duckworth and Woodman,
www.archiebray.org ( Helena, Wa, USA )
Otis Institute, LA.
Paul Kasmin Gallery in London