Terra Incognita

– Edmund de Waal

Despite its ubiquity, clay is barely visible. From the ground that supports us to the bricks that house us, from the cups and plates that we feed off to masks that purify us, clay, in its many forms, is an assumed fact of life, so constitutive of the everyday as to be taken for granted, present everywhere except in consciousness. That this invisibility should also be a characteristic of the material in the history of art over the last 100 years or so is perhaps the more surprising given the rich history of association by which clay had virtually become a metaphor for art itself. It is only relatively recently that some of the most celebrated and innovative artists of the twentieth century have begun to be recognized for their works in clay, which, when coupled with a noticeable return to the use of clay by many contemporary artists, serves only to underscore the material’s absence as a medium from modernist accounts of art. “A Secret History of Clay” is an attempt to unearth the use of clay by artists from Gauguin to the present day, and presents a comprehensive history of its use, from the individual ceramic vessel to performance and installation art.

Critics have been quick to see the award of the Turner Prize in 2003 to the ‘potter’ Grayson Perry as the coming of age for craft, with its handmaiden skill a welcome antidote to the machismo and conceptualism of the YBA generation. But it could be argued that the distinction between craft and art has never been that clear, and that traditional definitions such as functionality become irrelevant when the means of display and context have changed so radically. That modern art was born from a functional piece of porcelain seems an absurd claim to make until one is reminded of Fountain (1917), Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal. It is perhaps a measure of the degree of repression operating in constructions of modernism that its materiality has been so thoroughly conceptualized out of existence. Some critics even locate the primary impulse behind Duchamp’s appropriation of the readymade to his exposure to Kunstgewerbe – arts and crafts – with its emphasis on functionalism, to a visit he made to Munich in1912. Similarly, in a revealing article on Picasso’s ceramics, his dealer and friend Kahnweiler identifies the artist’s interest in ceramics as a natural counterpart to his own drive to continually transform the reality around him, which he distinguishes from the ‘evil’ and ‘decorative’ use made of the material by Gauguin and the Fauves. What Kahnweiler fails to mention is that active interest in tribal art, identified with no artist more than Picasso, only began after Gauguin’s 1906 Paris retrospective which included his ceramics. It is tempting, therefore, to see constructions of modern art predicated upon the suppression of the very elements that brought it into being. 

The waters were even muddier between art and craft in England. The Renaissance ideal of the true artist working in clay, passing via Winckelmann’s declaration that “the genius of the artist is seen in its utmost purity and truth” when a sculptor models in clay, came to underpin the theoretical foundations of British Modernism. Writing in 1931, Herbert Read declared, “Pottery is pure art; it is freed from any imitative intention. Sculpture, to which it is most nearly related, had from the first an imitative intention and is perhaps to that extent less free for the expression of the will to form than pottery; pottery is plastic art in its most abstract essence.” Caught between the ‘will to form’ and the plastic freedom conferred by its own materiality, clay becomes not only the grounds for a new nationally inflected aesthetic but a signifier of pure potentiality. That the material’s versatility and freedom of use may also be its limitation was recognized even by some of its most innovative practitioners, such as Isamu Noguchi: ”…” Physical, gestural, somatic, temporal, fragile, malleable and unpredictable, clay is ontologically unstable. Although Read succeeds in turning Noguchi’s fear of freedom of the material into a positive virtue, the effect was only to circumscribe its creative possibilities by identifying it strictly with pottery, notwithstanding Read’s faith in pottery as the basis for a new universal language of abstraction.

Whilst exploring the often complex and extended field of possibilities that constitutes the use of clay over the past one hundred years, it is nonetheless striking to what extent the exhibition is informed by the form of the vessel, whose history mirrors something of the anxiety surrounding the status of the object in modern and contemporary art. There is a gradual progression away from the private and domestic pots of artists such as Gauguin and Ohr which open the exhibition, to vessels which are broken, or too big, or too many, or deconstructed entirely. Even at the point at which the object dematerializes completely, such as in the performance Changes (1972) by Jim Melchert, in which the artist and others dunk their heads in clay slip and are filmed waiting for it to dry in a room hot at one end and cold at the other, the body itself is described in terms of the vessel: “It encases your head so that the sounds you hear are interior, your breathing, your heart beat, and your nervous system. (It is surprising how vast we are inside.)” The final room of the exhibition, with its recreation of a domestic interior and return to the vessel, holds out the promise of a return to the self-sufficiency of the object demonstrated at the beginning of the show. But far from coming full circle, the accumulation of objects, from Edmund de Waal’s installation of pots to Cindy Sherman’s tea set, only serve to remind us of the radical instability of the object, and its dependence upon framing devices, both physical and conceptual. 

It is tempting to connect the movement of ceramics, especially in America, away from the domestic and the functional, to the rapid and widespread introduction of plastics in the 1950s, in the same way that painting had previously been forced to adapt by the emergence of photography. Artists on the West coast, such as Peter Voulkos began thinking of their work as sculpture rather than pottery, his breakthrough coming with the realization “that broken forms could be as strong aesthetically as whole ones.” Other artists, such as Ken Price, rejected any association with the crafts community from the very beginning, insisting that his work be shown in fine art galleries. Rejecting the principle of function, Price saw himself as a sculptor wholly occupied with form and colour. Colour was especially contentious, violating completely the ‘truth to materials’ mantra of the arts and crafts movement. But as Price explained, this was no less true for ceramics than it was for other media: “They were painted sculptures, and they didn’t have any reference to pottery, so I don’t think anybody thought about my forms as having anything to do with clay. Painted sculpture was very rare. I felt John Chamberlain and I were the only two guys at the time making coloured sculpture and dealing with colour as an integral part of the form, and not as an after thought.”  

As a sculptural material, the resistance offered by clay was attractive. The very materiality of clay is raised to the level of the work itself in Nobuo Sekine’s work Phase of Nothing – Oil Clay, where its malleability becomes a feature of the imaginary. Presented simply in its natural state, the huge two tonne mass of clay exists in a constant state of tension between our awareness of its overwhelmingly physical presence and our conscious desire to form it, whether mentally through the profusion of possible forms its surface might suggest, or physically, drawn as we are to the tactile nature of the material in its infinite malleability. The same physicality of the material is evident in the film The Dirt of Love, which is a record of a day that three young artists, Mark Titchner, Gary Webb and Roger Hiorns spend in a studio with a ton of clay. Each known for sculptural works in other media, the expectation was that the collaboration would result in the emergence of a new work. What emerges instead is a record of their struggle with the material: cut, caressed, drilled, smoothed, thrown, hit, gouged, the clay becomes a body forced to suffer all manner of indignity. As Hiorns later commented, the outcome was completely unexpected, still dreaming of turning in to Rodin when the actuality was closer to Vito Acconci. 

Stonehenge, or the unease provoked by the exquisite vulnerability of Claire Twomey’s white porcelain tiles laid out on the floor, or the work of the young Dutch artist Jeppe Hein, which quite literally startles the viewer out of a passive acceptance of the durability of the object.

Part of the strength of these works lies in their use of objects that are domestic in unfamiliar contexts. One need only think of the way in which the Japanese incorporated found rustic pots into the elevated ritual of the traditional tea ceremony, and relate that to Duchamp’s appropriation of the urinal, or to Frances Upritchard’s use of found and second hand stoneware jars for which she makes tops that are powerfully totemic. With Upritchard, one feels it is the past of the anonymous object itself that she appears to want to reanimate as a container of secrets or hidden desires. In the same way, it is precisely because ceramics are part of the everyday that artists from Malevich to the Futurists, from Cobra to Liu Jianhua make use of them. It has even been argued that Picasso’s turn to ceramics in the postwar at the same time as he joined the Communist Party was for ideological reasons. By the 1980s, however, the revolutionary impulse had been subsumed into that of consumerist desire, which an artist such as Jeff Koons exploited not just in the subject matter of his eponymous ceramic sculptures, such as Michael Jackson with Bubbles or Popples, but in parodying Beuys’ blackboards to publicise his ceramics show, upon which were written such slogans as “Exploit the masses” and “Banality as Saviour”. As Koons explained, “Everyone grew up surrounded by this material. I use it to penetrate mass consciousnesss – to communicate to the people.”