"Ceramic Sculpture of Fontana, Melotti, Miro, Noguchi, and Picasso, 1943-1963"

Article excerpt

"Ceramic Sculpture of Fontana, Melotti, Miro, Noguchi, and Picasso, 1943-1963" Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX. September 21, 2013-January 19, 2014

A brief history of twentieth-century sculpture, focusing only on materials and techniques, might go something like this: bronze casting, direct carving, assemblage, welded-steel construction, fabrication, earthworks, and installation art. One would be hard-pressed to find a place for clay on the list, except as a preliminary stage in bronze sculpture. Other than in rare cases such as Ken Price, Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, and Mary Frank, clay did not figure in mainstream sculptural practice in the last century.

Except that, briefly, it did. "Return to Earth: Ceramic Sculpture of Fontana, Melotti, Miro, Noguchi, and Picasso, 1943-1963," which opened at the Nasher Sculpture Center in September, explores the two decades in the aftermath of World War II when clay became the medium of choice for a handful of modernist sculptors. It is an absorbing show and a groundbreaking one, managing to find something new to say in the well-documented area of twentieth-century art. Regrettably, it isn't traveling.

Organized by the Nasher's Chief Curator Jed Morse, the show consists of some seventy works in clay by the five artists, sculptures ranging from the hand-scaled to the monumental. A truly superb catalog accompanies the show, with essays by several scholars, all of them--curators and graduate students take note--written in clear, literate English, readily accessible to the layman. Of particular note is Catherine Craft's essay on Noguchi, which peels back much conventional wisdom to present a more nuanced and informative view of his development as an artist than previously has been written.

The artists in this exhibition turned to clay for a variety of reasons--practical, personal, economic, aesthetic, philosophical, and ideological. For Fontana and Melotti it was because clay was cheap and accessible in economically ravaged postwar Italy. It was also a "humble" material, thus ideally suited for the kind of rappel a l'ordre they felt was necessary at that moment. Where steel had symbolized the industrial age, clay represented a return to simpler times, appropriate to a continent struggling to get back on its feet after the cataclysm of war.

For Miro the appeal was that, after his return to Spain in 1940 from exile in France, the material represented a direct expression of his bond to his embattled homeland. He also wanted a medium that would allow him to create works accessible to the largest number of people possible. It was an ambition that achieved its fullest realization in his Labyrinth, the enormous sculpture garden on the grounds of the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France that he created with ceramic sculptures and tilework beginning in 1962. (One of the show's highlights is Goddess, on loan from Labyrinth. A six-foot high "phantasmagoric living monster" in Miro's words, she has a large aperture at her center cradling a tortoise shell, Miro's symbol of fertility. A sort of abstract Ubu, its scale alone makes it a triumph of the ceramicist's art.)

In his essay, Dakin Hart proposes that Picasso was motivated by what he calls "artisanal proletarianism"--a turn to humbler materials in order to reinforce his credentials as a member of the Communist Party. No doubt that is part of the explanation. But one of the common threads running through Picasso's life and career is the need for mastery--of different media, modes of representation, Old and new Masters (Velazquez, Delacroix), and of course mistresses. So it is no surprise that once he stumbled on the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris in the summer of 1946 he should have wanted to throw himself into ceramics just as he had everything else. Indeed, Picasso's penchant for domination is remorselessly expressed in the most startling work in this show, Standing Woman. …