Fortress Ceramica Answered Prayers

By Clark, Garth | Ceramics Art & Perception, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Fortress Ceramica Answered Prayers

Clark, Garth, Ceramics Art & Perception

FOR OVER A CENTURY CERAMISTS HAVE BEEN PRAYING WITH great fervour for the stature of ceramics to shift from that of craft to art. It would seem that the prayer is finally being answered. We have witnessed more progress on this journey during brief life of the 21st century than ever before and the momentum is growing. This is not just a few anomalies and exceptions. but appears to be the beginning of a major paradigm shift that will transform, within a decade, ceramics, its educational resources and its marketplace.

Some worry that the price for this progress will be too costly, the loss of the ceramics community as we know it today. They could be right. As Saint Teresa of Avila famously warned, "answered prayers cause the greatest pain". The current shift in the role of ceramics in art could result in a diaspora from the traditional home of clay that will leave Fortress Ceramica, our walled adobe city on the hill, semi-deserted, if not abandoned.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First let us test the premise that ceramics is crossing over into the fine arts. And bear in mind that 'crossing over' is not like the parting of the Red Sea. The entire tribe does not get to go together through to the other side. The process of acceptance into the upper echelons of high art is selective. It is no different for a painter, sculptor and photographer. Many try for entry, few are admitted. But the once rigid 'clay-is-always-craft' rule is beginning to soften. Museum and gallery doors have opened, ceramists are actually finding a welcome mat at major galleries, price ceilings of contemporary ceramics have been shattered and many of the old Modernist sanctions against clay have been lifted.

We see this most tellingly with museums, a good indicator because they are the most conservative members of the art world. Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York held a high-profile retrospective of the potter Betty Woodman, not in their design gallery, as happened with Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, but in the Modern Art Galleries. MoMA, long resistant to ceramics (10 years ago they refused to accession work by Woodman into their collection), is slowly coming around. They devoted an entire room to the ceramics of Ken Price as part of their recent exhibition of the Ed Broida Collection. In other smaller ways they are indicating a liberalism on the subject.

In 2003, Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing potter (it is interesting how many more potters than ceramic sculptors have made it into the high arts or at least the higher price levels) received one of the art world's most prestigious award from the Tate Gallery, London, the Turner Prize. He beat the Chapman brothers (considered the odds-on favourites by London bookmakers) and their tableaux of upsetting prepubescent children with Perry's own sexually and socially perverse art. Upon receiving his award at the Tate, the artist made an observation; "I don't know what is going to cause the most fuss about getting this award, the fact that I wear frocks or that I make pots. My guess is the latter."

Then there is ceramics in the contemporary art galleries, once a contradiction in terms. I will take the example of the city I know best, New York. It is a a good indicator as it is still the nominal capital of the art world. During the 1950s the city's dealers coined a name for art in clay, 'terra worthless', be it by an unknown potter or a famous artist.

A recent biography about the New York dealer Pierre Matisse records correspondence between Joan Miro and Matisse in the late 1950s. Matisse was selling every painting by Miro he could get his hands on. Hungry for product, Matisse urged Miro. "Send me your ceramics; I will sell them all at $3000 a piece."

After they arrived the mood changed. Unable to sell them the dealer dropped the price at a rate of $500 per letter until they were down to $1000 and still not selling. That kind of experience was common and coloured the approach of dealers to ceramics for decades. …

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