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

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."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "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."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."