PRINT March 1964

The Tao and Dada of Recent American Ceramic Art

AS A MATERIAL OF ARTISTIC COMMUNICATION clay has an old and deep meaning for man. Not only did he use clay, along with wood, stone and straw, for his first tools and utensils, but clay sculpture preceded stone sculpture in some cultures and the knowledge of firing processes was necessary for the development of bronze casting. Coyote, god of the Miwok tribe of California, modeled man in clay, and the Mesopotamian god Ea used the potter’s wheel to create the first man. During the last twenty years, American studio potters have revived some of clay’s meaning, first by creating pots with a quiet beauty to be used as vases and tableware, and later by giving clay a new life through abstract ceramic sculpture.

The making of functional pottery coincided with the creation of clay sculpture in the life of most primitive and semi-primitive people. In China functional pottery evolved over two thousand years to reach its highest state of refinement in a culture of sensitive artistic taste where all the richness of China’s past—the ritualistic vitality of the Shang, the simplicity of the Han, the robust fullness of the T’ang, and the attitudes of of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Zen—flowered in a final tribute to man’s creativity. The power, refinement and elegance of a Sung celadon, crisp but misty with Taoist nature, owes its life to a culture where the standard of living was higher than in the past, but more important, where art, life, religion and philosophy flowed together in a delicate balance, whether inspired by Taoist unity with the universe, orthodox Buddhism, Zen or Neo-Confucianism. Like the landscapes of Fan K’uan of the Northern Sung or the softer, more romantic and intimate Southern Sung landscapes of Ma Yuan and Hsia Kuei, a Sung pot seems to have been made by a spirit working with the spontaneity of nature herself. The potter who made a Sung vase or bowl seems to have become the clay, the fire of the kiln and the potter’s wheel, and yet expressed his own self through his hands on the wet spinning clay. But this self was the principle of nature working through him as well as the past of Chinese civilization.

It was these qualities which led the English potter, Bernard Leach, to adopt the Sung esthetic as the standard for contemporary pottery. Leach became the most influential and verbal of the earlier studio potters of the 20th century. For him the pottery of the Sung dynasty (960–1279) represented the highest attainment in ceramic history. Leach felt that Sung pots were “born, not made.” They were organic, and had a quality of life which can be explained only in part by the ways the potters used their clay and glazes. The potters did not have full control over the glaze patterns; they were partly products of a natural process, the melting of the ground-rock glaze by the Tao of the kiln.

Most Sung pots were made for a particular use. For the Sung potters and for Bernard Leach, a good pot is both useful and beautiful. A good pot expresses the fact that it is a pot, existing for and by itself in space, but meant for some use. It should express the nature of its materials, clay and glaze, and the technique of throwing on a wheel. This was the pottery esthetic which many American studio potters absorbed during the forties and fifties, largely from Leach although there were a few American studio potters working during the thirties, such as Glen Lukens and Henry V. Poor. And, of course, Charles F. Binns, also influenced by Chinese ceramics, had been making stoneware since the early part of the century.

A functional pot can have an enormous amount of life in its form and glaze pattern. Minute differences in form, in the finger-made spiraling ribs that record the act of pottery creation, can give the form life or kill it. This perfection of form is not a matter of design, but rather of creating with the hands and with the wheel a work of beauty and utility. Wet clay is flexible enough to allow the potter to express, perhaps without knowing, the subtlest of spontaneous impulses that modify his image of traditional forms. In many ways the making and appreciation of this art requires more subtle perception than painting or sculpture.

But for many American potters the Sung esthetic did not fit. Our urban culture did not encourage or support a total commitment to the anonymity of functional pottery. Western artists still carry much of the Renaissance negation of clay as a medium of artistic expression, and, in accord with the Western tendency for dichotomous ordering of experience, still tend to separate “fine art” from “minor art.” In addition, Americans are not as bound to traditions as the Orientals. Once one has gotten the feeling of the clay, preconceived notions of “good” or traditional form can get in the way of spontaneous creation, of letting the material itself and the potter’s ideas of form arising, partly unconsciously, during the act of throwing, determine the final form. Since most American studio potters were trained in art schools, they were aware of the attitude currents of contemporary painting and sculpture. Perhaps they first turned to functional pottery partly from a psychological urge to produce something useful for the public, to become involved as artists in the culture. Unfortunately, at least for those who like to eat and drink from plates, bowls, cups and pitchers that approach works of art, too few of them could make a living by their pottery alone. They had to teach to maintain themselves and their freedom as studio potters.

Many American potters wanted to do something to the traditional pot to raise it above the level of craftsmanship. Peter Voukos broke with traditional functional pottery and during the middle and late fifties began making ceramic assemblages. David Weinrib went into more architectural slab constructions. A pot may, however, rise above tradition without departing radically from familiar shapes by its slight irregularities in form. Toshiko Takaezu made slight changes and additions to a wheel-thrown pot without departing radically from traditional forms. In fact the piece shown seems to have something of the spirit of Mu-ch’i’s famous Persimmons. Some younger potters have attempted expressive brushwork and amorphous but suggestive forms and others decorated plates with a kind of generalized calligraphy. The fusion of both painting and sculpture in ceramics, characteristic of many American potters, is seen clearly in the ceramic wall reliefs of John Mason, which are assemblages of thrown shapes, coils, strips and slabs.

Most American studio potters were interested in sculpture rather than painting. They were searching for new forms, developed from the pottery processes of wheel-throwing, hand or slab-building, which were more personally expressive. The techniques of working with clay offer a much greater opportunity for the expression of momentary and unpremeditated ideas of form arising during the act of creation than conventional methods of modeling and casting in bronze,stone and wood. Functional pottery proved to be too restricting and inhibiting for Peter Voulkos and others, as the medium of lost wax casting in bronze proved too inhibiting for lbram Lassaw, and other metal sculptors. After absorbing the influences of oriental ceramics, Picasso, the ceramic sculpture of Miró and Artigas, the work of contemporary metal sculptors like David Smith, New York abstract expressionism, and finally, perhaps, the ideas of collage and assemblage, Voulkos moved into sculpture during the middle fifties to become one of the leaders of the recent movement toward expressionism in clay.

In Voulkos’ sculpture of the middle and late fifties one can see practically all of the qualities and attitudes that are typical of the sculpture of other American studio potters. Voulkos tends to work without a preconceived image, and his works were formed by ideas released in the process of creating. The finished work is expressive of the act of creation, and generally has no concrete symbolic significance as a total form, although its individual parts may have a vague or specific felt meaning. This common attitude of painters and sculptors—the gospel according to the act—grew from the liberating method of Dada and Surrealism which trusted the impulses of the “unconscious” to produce something of interest in the concrete act. It was reinforced by the immediacy of Zen brushwork. Existentialism may have reinforced the attitude, but it did not affirm the mystery of finding an image of all life and of oneself in the momentary act. The Zen doctrine of complete enlightenment or identity to be found in almost any concrete experience, where the life of nature is revealed in one’s self and one’s self is revealed through nature, was much more exciting.

But Zen was not totally accepted because most American artists are against doctrines, although it was felt to offer attitudes which are missing in the over-intellectualized Western tradition. Except for Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Ibram Lassaw, few advanced American artists fully understand and live within a unified belief system. Zen is perhaps more popular among potters, in spite of the fact that nearly all studio potters are academic teachers, than with painters because the whole Far Eastern influence is much stronger in American pottery than in painting. The attitudes of the abstract expressionists of the School of New York were not inspired by Wang Hsia and other “ink-flingers” of the Chinese T’ang dynasty (618–907) who splashed ink onto the painting surface or painted in other violent and unorthodox ways, nor by the impassioned brushwork of Shih K’o or Liang K’ai. Some of our potters have carried Zen expression in pottery beyond the somber, rough Japanese Bizen, Seto and Shigaraki pottery, as painters have gone far beyond the most abstract landscapes of Sesshu. The affirmation of the unfinished state and of textural roughness by American potters is also part of the broader attitudes of painters and sculptors who leave the surfaces of their works ragged, sharp, rough, heavy-textured or even sloppy.

In accord with this attitude, painters, sculptors and potters value a work which expresses the process of painting, the process of working with molten metal and the process of potting. A functional pot in the Sung tradition expresses, to some extent, in its form and in its finger-made lines, the process of wheel throwing. The more unfinished and cruder pots of Japanese Bizen and Shigaraki, highly valued by the Zen tea masters, are even more expressive of this process. But these pots were made by anonymous folk potters working under conditions of mass production. It is true, however, that in Japan, since the 16th century, the individuality of the potter has played an important role in the creation and appreciation of ceramics, and a work by Chijiro (1516–1592) or the first Kenzan (1664–1743) is highly valued because it has a great name attached to it. The individuality of these Japanese potters and the value placed on their work raised them to the status held by poets and painters, something unknown in Sung China. The work of the Japanese masters did not, of course, evolve into abstract sculpture. Semi-abstract and abstract ceramic sculpture was to be found only in primitive cultures until the modern work of Miró and Artigas and that of the contemporary Americans.

After experiencing some degree of perfection in more finished Sung-type pottery, many American potters seemed to want to express process even more than the Japanese. This is quite true of the work of the younger potters, and the process is certainly not limited to wheel throwing, but extends to slab-building and hand-forming methods. The slab-built sculpture by Win Ng (Fig. 8) is a successful expression of a slab-built form and in its architectural construction and subtle asymmetry vaguely echoes early Japanese Jomon ware. It is like a primitive hut, raised off the ground by successive layers of slabs, similar to the Chinese clay models of the Han tower house. The long worm-like sculptural piece of Clayton Bailey (Fig. 9) grew out of the simple hand-formed bowl, the traditional Japanese raku tea bowl. In squeezing the clay between his fingers while rapidly forming a bowl, he discovered that the clay which is pushed up between the two fingers could be left as a sort of “flying buttress” and might have a structural function as well as a decorative one. The “flying buttress” tea bowl gradually evolved into a more elongated worm-like form, with ribs of hand-formed buttresses every few inches. It is more expressive of the hand-forming process than the Japanese tea bowl.

A large sculptural piece by Peter Voulkos (Fig. 10) is expressive of the throwing process, the slab-building process, the process of modeling with the hands or tools and the process of simply picking up bits of scrap clay and sticking them on. Voulkos’ sculpture expresses more than the process that gave it life. He juxtaposes architectural forms and organic forms that evoke more specific images, with the amorphous shapes common both to non-geometric, abstract sculpture and abstract expressionist painting. His forms always have a primitive vitality, and often hark back to the solemn and playful muses of primitive sculpture, representing creatureliness in the abstract. They are usually large, massive composites of several wheel thrown forms and slab-built forms, sometimes pushed into shape by the hand or tool. Voulkos’ way of working has much in common with the basic method of collage and assemblage. Plant and animal-like forms are juxtaposed almost randomly and combined with square-shaped, or ambiguous slab and strip forms. By working without a pre-conceived image and by executing ideas as they arise during the process of creating, an assemblage is created out of the partly accidental fusion and contradiction of separate forms. The method of assemblage can provide a broader range of expression and can suggest a greater range of associations than more conventional sculptural forms by sacrificing older notions of unity.

Not all of Voulkos’ assemblages are as complex as the one shown in Fig. 10. Some are much simpler, smaller and perhaps more successful. He does not always use aggressive animal-like forms, for some of his sculptures are constructed more homogeneously as rock-like forms. Almost all have an element of playfulness and humor. Many are massive, somewhat immobile forms. They express the energy of mass, but hardly lightness. Even though clay is flexible in the forms it can take, it cannot be put together in very slender pieces as some metals can, especially if the clay construction is large. It is difficult to create space within the parts of a clay construction. Perhaps one of the reasons Peter Voulkos has recently been working in bronze, cast and then assembled with much the same spontaneity as his clay sculpture, but with greater freedom, is because of his respect for the limitations of clay.

Other ceramic sculptors such as Daniel Rhodes, Robert Sperry and Clayton Bailey keep their forms relatively simple, more unified, accepting the limitations of clay. The sculpture of Rhodes is rich in texture and plant-like in an abstract way, while the attraction of animal-like forms can be seen in the work of Robert Sperry and Clayton Bailey. Some of Sperry’s sculptures are like totems and seem endowed with a ritualistic or magical significance.

Bailey’s assemblages of “critters” are “Coonskin” beings that rise to an imaginative level from Southern Highland salt-glazed jugs. His creatures “snort” through their ceramic noses and twang like a mountaineer mouth-bow, while his blatting ceramic horns actually perform in music sessions. The appendages on these creatures—noses, mouths, breasts and penises, all belong to Dada. They are heavy, but not as solemn as most primitive images, and are invitations to the joyous drum beat. Like the metal sculptors, Lipton and Roszak, Bailey and other ceramic sculptors invent new organic forms which are expressive of man’s identification with nature, and of the fear, playfulness, sexuality and aggression of all creatures. The sculpture of Clayton Bailey is in tune with the witty and playful side of primitive sculpture and Dada, and his forms are expressive of clay—of a twanging humor—and a child-like looseness uncommon among contemporary painters. The sculptor may find himself in nature and nature in himself through his own inventions.

Bernard Pyron