Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art" at Yale

By Charles Kessler

Installation view, The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art. In the foreground is John Mason's Untitled, Vertical Sculpture, 1961, glazed stoneware, 30 x 15 3/4 x 7 3/8 inches; and behind it to the left is Willem de Kooning's Untitled XIII, 1975, oil on canvas, 87 x 77 inches. (Photo: Yale Art Gallery). 
A major exhibition of ceramic art is unusual in itself, but what makes The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art (Yale University Art Gallery, through January 3rd) really extraordinary is that it places ceramic art in the context of other art of the period. The exhibition was co-curated by Jock Reynolds, the director of the gallery, and Sequoia Miller, a Pd.D. candidate in Art History at Yale. It contains about 100 clay objects (20 from Yale's own collection and 80 from the Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection) plus about 150 paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings from Yale. In addition, like the great educational institution it is, Yale organized a two-day symposium in connection with the show. I'll be reporting on the symposium in another post.
In the foreground is a 1961 glazed stoneware sculpture by John Mason; behind it is a sculpture by Manuel Neri; and clockwise on the wall are paintings by David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Elmer Bischoff.
It’s been more than 60 years since Peter Voulkos and others had their breakthrough making ceramics a viable art. [See my post on that subject.] It’s time for their work to be included in the same room with paintings and sculpture of the period, instead of being isolated in decoration and design galleries as is done at MoMA, or allocated a separate, usually minor, space, such as the Met's glass cases along the balcony over the entrance hall.
In the foreground is Peter Voulkos, Cadiz, 1998, wood-fired stoneware; right background is David Smith, Bec-Dida Day, 1963, painted steel. According to co-curator Sequoia Miller, Voulkos admired David Smith and often visited him in his studio in the 1960s.
Fortunately this seems to be happening.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has already integrated ceramics into their collection, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is starting to show ceramics with sculpture and painting of the period (although even they still have galleries where ceramics is segregated along with design and decoration).
Installation view of a gallery in the contemporary art wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On the right are ceramic cups by Ken Price.
Even MoMA might be changing. According to a Times article, after their Picasso Sculpture exhibition closes, they'll be reinstalling their permanent collection, and curators from different areas will be collaborating on the installation.

One surprising result of integrating ceramics with the rest of art is the ceramics doesn't seem precious, as it sometimes does when displayed by itself in glass cases or on shelves. Even work that plays with preciousness, like that of Ken Price and Ron Nagle, seems edgy in this context.
On the table from the left are sculptures by John Chamberlain, John Mason, cups by Billy Al Bengston, a colorful sculpture by Jim Melchert behind the cups, and three John Mason plates.
Nor was the work in this exhibition crammed together so it looks junky, as is often the case when it's shown in galleries:
Installation view, Paul Clay, Salon 94 Gallery, June 23, 2011–August 12, 2011. At least the Salon 94 gallery regularly exhibits ceramic art.
Of course there will always be disagreement about what should or should not be in any exhibition, but Yale owns one of Viola Frey's best pieces, and at the symposium the curators were roundly criticized for excluding her.

Her omission is especially egregious since there were so few women in the show, and, putting salt on the wound, Frey's sculpture could be seen from the exhibition, in an adjacent room segregated with design and the decorative arts, thus contradicting the main message of the exhibition.
Viola Frey, Resting Woman #2, 1989, glazed ceramic, 40 x 102 x 49 inches (Yale Art Gallery, photo: Mara Superior Instagram).
On the other hand, some artists don't belong in the show, and including their work also confuses the issue. I feel the ceramic artists based in England (e.g., Ruth Duckworth, Magdalene Odundo, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie), beautiful as their work is, are still in the functional craft/design tradition. While it's possible to make a case for exhibiting craft and design objects with fine art, that isn't the point of this exhibition, which is to put ceramic art on the same level as painting and sculpture of the period.
Hans Coper, Bottle with Disc and 4 Cycladic Forms, ca. 1970–75. stoneware, ranging from 4 1/2 × 3 3/4 × 3 1/2 inches to 11 3/4 × 2 × 1 3/4 inches (Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection. © Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts).
And aesthetically this work doesn't go much beyond ancient Asian vessels.
On the left: Lucie Rie, Vase, ca. 1967, glazed stoneware, 15 3/4 x 6 3/8 x 6 3/8 inches (Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection. © Lucie Rie / Courtesy Yvonne Mayer); on the right: Trumpet-Mouth Vase, Chinese, Yaun dynasty, c. early 14th century longquan ware (Yale Art Gallery, 1955.4.64).
The curators' attempt to relate these ceramicists to Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, and Agnes Martin is far-fetched, to say the least. But, as Jock Reynolds, the co-curator of the exhibition and director of the gallery said, this exhibition was the "first word, and hopefully not the last word.”

Monday, December 14, 2015

More on Picasso's Sculptures

By Charles Kessler

As I stated beforeThe Picasso Sculpture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (through February 7th) is like a huge (159 works!) group exhibition of a dozen great sculptors. The guy was a monster – some kind of freak.

On a recent return visit, I was struck by the various ways Picasso used the base for his sculptures. (I am deliberately using the term base, because pedestal and stand imply more of a separation between the sculpture and its support than is usually the case with Picasso.) His bases, when he uses them at all, set off the work, but they also become a part of it. I'm not making a claim that Picasso was the first to do this – it was probably Brancusi, or maybe Giacometti – but I'd like to point out some brilliant examples.

In his Reclining Bather, 1931 (below), the base of the sculpture is whatever it is the bather is reclining on (grass? sand? dirt?).
Reclining Bather, 1931, bronze, 9 1/16 x 28 3/8 x 12 3/16 inches (Musèe national Picasso).
Similarly with Woman Reading, 1951-53, the base is the bed or platform that the woman is reading on.
Woman Reading, 1951-53, painted bronze, 6 1/8 x 14 x 5 1/8 inches (Centre national d'art et culture Georges Pompidou). 
Picasso sometimes sinks his figures into his bases, analogous to the merging of figure and ground in his paintings.
Cock, 1932, bronze, 25 13/16 x 22 15/16 x 15 9/16 inches (Tate).
And the surface of the bases in these sculptures are worked in a similar manner as the figures.
Bather, 1931, bronze, 27 9/16 x 15 13/16 x 12 3/8 inches (Musèe national Picasso).
Many of Picasso's bases are small and thin relative to the sculptures, so the sculptures appear precariously, and expressively, top heavy, which gives a sense of great weight to the figures. In these cases Picasso often makes a clear distinction between the sculpture and base.

The smooth, round disc of the base in Head of a Woman, 1931, and many similar sculptures of this period, sets itself off from the rougher treatment above it. And this rough area seems to extend into the smooth, rounded (and quite phallic) neck and head.
Head of a Woman, 1931, plaster, 37 13/16 x 12 5/8 x 19 1/8 inches (Musèe national Picasso).
Even more extreme (in more ways than the base) is The Orator, 1933-34, in which the sculpture is supported by a pole anchored to a large stone. The figure is presented like a flag or a sign, and the base acts as a soapbox for the absurd orator.
The Orator, 1933-34, plaster, stone, and metal dowel, 72 x 26 x 10 5/8 inches (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).
The Bathers, 1956, wood (Staatgalerie Stuttgart).
Detail closeups of the stands for The Bathers, 1956 (above). 
The Bathers have stands, but they're too flimsy for the job they need to do. There must be a plate under the gravel that attaches to Picasso's sculptural ensemble, otherwise they'd just fall over. Again, Picasso uses clearly inadequate bases to create an expressively precarious work, and, in this case, to emphasize the frontality of the figures.
Fountain Man, The Bathers, 1956, wood (Staatgalerie Stuttgart).
By the way, the figure in the middle background, Fountain Man, is a man urinating. Once The Bathers were cast in bronze, Picasso intended a water pipe to be installed in it to provide a stream of water. It's unclear from the exhibition catalog if this was ever carried out.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Selection of Bushwick Exhibitions – Part 2

By Charles Kessler

I'm really impressed by Christian Ruiz Berman's striking show at Outlet, 253 Wilson Ave., Brooklyn, NY, 11237 (through December 6th). Like heraldry or icons, Berman's work seems to have some esoteric meaning, however cryptic.
Installation view of the work of Christian Ruiz Berman at Outlet.
With its bright, luscious colors, and materials such as porcupine quills and Macaw feathers, there's an exotic quality about the work that references South American kitsch – but, of course, this work is refined and sophisticated.

Christian Berman, Dos Mantras, 2015, acrylic, gouache, feathers, porcupine quills, metal screen on panels, 24 x 18 inches.
Christian Berman, Zaïde's Offer, 2015, oil, acrylic, wood, cement, sisal rope, and macaw feathers, 112 x 49 inches.
These are finely constructed objects made of separate pieces put together like marquetry or large jigsaw puzzles.
Close-up detail of Christian Ruiz Berman, Zaïde's Offer, 2015.


Installation view of Days Have Gone By at Galerie Manqué.
Galerie Manqué  (I love the name), in the 56 Bogart building, is a tiny "pop up" gallery that has been doing some interesting shows. Their last exhibition consisted of photographs of disconcertingly human-looking robots – moles, wrinkles and blemishes included. Their latest, Days Have Gone By (through December 6th), guest-curated by artist and poet Andy Misteralso has to do with realism – this time realistic depictions of other images. For example, Thom Stevenson, Piranha II, 2015 (below), is an oil enamel painting that's painstakingly rendered to look like a silk screen. 
Thom Stevenson, Piranha II, 2015, oil enamel on canvas, 40 x 30 x 1.5 inches.
And Chris Oh's Sirens, 2015 (below) is a highly realistic depiction of a beat-up 1992 album cover of the R&B band Chic. 
Chris Oh, Sirens, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches.


Installation view of Lat and Long, an exhibition by Karen Oliver (photo: Fresh Window). What look like the hollow centers of the cinder block wall are actually mirrors inserted in the openings that reflect the other objects in the room.
Lat and Long, an exhibition by Karen Oliver at Fresh Window, 56 Bogart, Brooklyn, NY, 11206 (through December 6th) makes abstruse reference to the many places she has lived. (I assume the title of the show refers to latitude and longitude.) It doesn't matter if we get the references; what matters are the compelling objects her intention inspired. 


Installation view of Gradual Kingdom by Meriem Bennani at Signal. The actual exhibition is a lot darker than this photo. 
Unlike most galleries in Bushwick, which tend to be small, the Signal gallery, 260 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11206, is large with high ceilings. They generally show big sculptures and room-size installations. Their current show is Gradual Kingdom, site-specific video installations and other works by Meriem Bennani (through December 20th). 

I was hoping to review exhibitions in Bushwick that I hadn't covered in an earlier post, but several of the galleries I wanted to visit weren't open when I went, and others were just too out-of-the-way for this trip. Another time.