Jul 20th 2021

Beyond Functionality: Modern and Contemporary Ceramics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

 

What are the aesthetic, sensuous and expressive possibilities inherent in clay as a material substance in all its physicality? How is it possible that ceramics can restore, or rather reconfigure and remake our relationship to the natural world? These are among the fundamental questions posed by Shapes from Out of Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection – an exhibition running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 29. Perhaps on an even more basic level this exhibition challenges us to ask the question: what is the significance of shape in and of itself? – As George E. Ohr, the grandfather of modern ceramics observed, “Shapes come to the Potter as verses come to the poet.”

Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world.

The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling. Some of the greatest ceramic artists of the last century are represented here – including, George Ohr, the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” a visionary who was perhaps the first to experiment with ceramic abstraction but went largely forgotten after his death in 1918, until his rediscovery by an antiques dealer in the 1970s; and Peter Voulkos, another pioneer who was influential in the shift away from functional or utilitarian ceramics (he would tell his students at UC Berkeley to make a teapot “only if it didn’t work”). Voulkos, along with Kenneth Price and John Mason (also featured in the exhibition) together developed what has come to be known as Abstract Expressionist Ceramics.

Visitors to the exhibition will find themselves greeted by Axel Salto’s Vase (1945), a mesmerizing piece – large, green and irregularly shaped – done in the artist’s so-called ‘budding style’, which took its direction from the forms of naturally growing plants. It is a fitting way to commence an exhibition that essentially charts the movement from representational to abstract ceramic art, from functional pottery to purely aesthetic clay objects that have taken a decisive step closer to sculpture.

It is a development that can hardly be underestimated when we examine it from a theoretical-historical standpoint – inasmuch as the non-representational, non-instrumental ceramic work elicits from us a very different response than a utilitarian object, that is, an object the telos of which is already fixed, defined, and ultimately external to the work.

Consider for a moment the ancient Athenian water-vessels (hydriai), which did, of course, possess a certain utility-value – namely, to carry water. But part of what makes these Grecian jars so remarkable is that looking at them we get the impression that “the water created for itself the only envelope that would exactly fit it,” as the great theoretical biologist Jacob von Uexküll observed. In other words, it is almost as if the water somehow discovered the ideal covering or “clothing” for itself, and only then was this form made use of by human beings. Which is to say, the utility or instrumental value of these ancient ceramics – their relevance to our own ends – is of less importance than, and ultimately superceded by the demands of the object itself, or if you prefer, by its own inherent telos.

The Austrian-born American, Otto Natzler, is among the most notable ceramists featured in this exhibition. He worked closely with his second wife Gertrud Natzler – influenced in part by the Vienna Secessionists, they produced some of “the finest pottery of all time,” observed ceramic art consultant Dane Cloutier, writing for Modernism Magazine (1999). The piece included here Circular Open Disk Form (1984-85) was made after Gertrud passed away in 1971. A deceptively simple piece painted in a monochromatic brown, it is in fact an elegant and graceful lesson in the subtleties of texture, color and form.   

Anne Marie Laureys’ work is among some of the most shockingly beautiful to be featured in this remarkable exhibition. It possesses a look and a feel entirely its own, unlike anything else; even as she is clearly influenced by the groundbreaking genius of Ohr, who boldly extended the ceramist’s vocabulary in ways that were unprecedented, drawing on modes of manipulation that remained hitherto unexplored – including pinching, folding, crumpling and collapsing, as well as puncturing, ruffling, twisting and tubing. Laureys’ Cloud Unicus (2017) has – like so much of her work – an otherworldliness, a transcendent organicism, that is at once living, vulnerable, immeasurably exquisite, and yet seemingly ephemeral, and transient – as though to breathe too hard upon it would send the thing drifting and dissolving like a billow of smoke.

Laureys learned from Ohr that what gets thrown on the wheel is not necessarily the finished work but may be only the beginning of the process. In Cloud Unicus, three distinct volumes have been separately thrown and masterfully conjoined. Her work is profoundly sensuous and demonstrates that the textures one can elicit from clay are practically infinite – in Laureys’ hand the material becomes as soft as velvet, as gently ridged as the ripples of a barely ruffled pond. By eschewing glaze and throwing incredibly thin – at the point where the material is just on the verge of losing its form – Laureys preserves the traces of her process, whereas ceramists typically efface them. This allows the viewer the chance to enter imaginatively into the space where these works came into being, creating a relationship to the work that is intimate, embodied and unpredictable.    

The title of Amara Geffen’s Potemata (1991) is immediately suggestive of power – which is entirely appropriate in the context of this astounding, almost oracular form. Both color and texture mimic the effects of centuries of oxidation, neglect and erosion – which strengthens the sense that we are before some kind of ancient artifact of almost sibylline significance and potency. The piece derives much of its power from the immensity of that unimpeachable refinement and poise which permeates this particular form – from the confidence of its broad, rounded shoulders which symmetrically stretch out into two expansive wings, both of which come to a point before tapering down to a narrow, curvilinear base.

It is hardly surprising, given his extraordinary innovation, that Ohr was dismissed in his day as grotesque, as lacking in taste and training, whereas today he is now regarded as a master of “delicacy and restraint,” employing a rich repertoire of motifs and textures, including strange and idiosyncratic glazes that are among the most beautiful ever crafted. This exhibition offers a small but tantalizing handful of his pieces, serving to illustrate some of his extraordinary techniques – such as Vase (1898-1910), thrown impossibly thin yet twisting upon itself and somehow blossoming with dual spouts like a weird and wonderful flower. There is also Vase (1897-1900), an all-black, glazed form that began as a wheel thrown pot; Ohr then expertly folded this simple vessel utilizing one of his signature techniques. In the process the mouth is elongated, curving upward from the foot to where it finally reaches the uppermost lip; circumscribing a cavity that is at once sensuous, dark and enigmatic.   

The utter opposition of Ohr’s output to the factory-made ceramics of the northern industrialists undoubtedly carried a social significance for this politically radical artist, who was we know a supporter of socialism and the rights of “the common man.”  This is worth bearing in mind when we consider that there is something inherently subversive in the aesthetic movement that involves transcending functionality and utility – inasmuch as the viewer has now to step outside the realm of the familiar, the realm of what is comfortable, easy and known. Instead, the viewer is being challenged to construct new ways of being and new modes of sensibility and sensuous participation the ultimate outcome of which cannot be mapped out in advance. We are being thrown, as it were, into a new world – at times a more complex and distorted one, but also one that has the potential for modes of intimacy and becoming which could prove transformative in ways that we may not otherwise have known.

 

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More Essays

May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn [1964], to be auctioned in May, 'among the most iconic paintings in history', " ------ "Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history,.... "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACTS:".....there is plenty of space to scale. For internet-based businesses, the addressable total market is often large. In many areas, such as software, it spans the globe. Chinese estimates indicate that the average distance between seller and buyer on e-commerce platforms is roughly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), compared to five kilometers for a traditional retail or service business." ------- "While the internet has removed many geographical barriers, high-growth companies cannot emerge just anywhere. In fact, though such firms can be found in more countries than ever, they remain concentrated in entrepreneurial hotspots. For example, of the 24 unicorns in Germany (as of March 2022), 17 are based in Berlin and five in Munich. Of France’s top 24 unicorns, 19 are based in Paris and one in a Paris suburb." ------ "Tech entrepreneurship has become global, but its beating heart remains local."
Mar 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: " We are supposed to be living in a post-ideological era, where everyone one is a cynic, not so gullible as to believe in anything anymore, least of all in the quaint notion of objective truth. This rejection of truth as such is among the great disasters to have befallen our relations with each other and between nations.  We appear to be beyond truth’s demise – we are now witnessing its unpleasant putrefaction and decay." ------ " If we want to grasp how ideology functions in America today, there is no better place to look than at the phenomenon of Trumpism. While he may be only a symptom, Trump himself is the quintessential embodiment of America’s moral and epistemic decline. " ------ "By its disavowal of truth and perpetuation of lies for the sake of self-aggrandizement, Trumpism represents an existential threat to this country and to the future of the Republic. It is a cancer that threatens whatever is good and decent in American life. " ----- "All they know is negative freedom – freedom from – but ignore the need for positive freedom, the freedom to… as in the freedom to flourish, to realize oneself in the world; to make and re-make oneself and the world through action."
Feb 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the decades since its inception, there has been heavy criticism directed towards the War on Drugs. These complaints include the increased incarceration rates, the increase in the number of prisoners in jail due to nonviolent offenses, uneven sentencing guidelines often based on the drug type and race, and suggestions of a racist component in terms of who was targeted by law enforcement. Various studies show that instead of reducing crime, the strict sentencing guidelines created more criminals and undermined many of the communities most strictly targeted by law enforcement. Long sentences for non-violent offenses made it difficult for those released to find work and weakened their bonds with family and their broader community."
Feb 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "......... there are countries that have had a relatively high number of infections but which have still managed to keep their death numbers low – countries like Japan. It’s had 17,612 infections per million people yet only 146 deaths per million. This is despite almost one in three people in Japan being over the age of 65 and so at greater risk of severe COVID (the average age of people dying from COVID is over 80). What has kept the death rate there down? A recent Japenese study has proposed an answer. It reports that the risk of people dying of COVID in Japan is related to the microbes present in their guts. "
Jan 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Then there was a revolution. In 1964, Bob Dylan created a new kind of popular music. The simple, clear love songs ...... were replaced by complex and opaque lyrics, filled with literary allusions and symbolism. Dylan rejected the role of craftsman: "I'm an artist. I try to create art." Nor were his songs intended to be universal: "My songs were written with me in mind." "
Dec 13th 2021
EXTRACT: " We all know that Father Christmas would struggle to deliver presents to everyone around the world without the help of his magical reindeer. But why were they chosen to pull the sleigh rather than any other animal? It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job. Here are five reasons why."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Planting more forests is a potent tool for mitigating the climate crisis, but forests are like complex machines with millions of parts. Tree planting can cause ecological damage when carried out poorly, particularly if there is no commitment to diversity of planting. Following Darwin’s thinking, there is growing awareness that the best, healthiest forests are ones with the greatest variety of trees - and trees of various ages."
Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."