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

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."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.