PRINT April 1982


What on earth is wrong with clay? There is still prejudice against clay as an art material. Clay, or (in its ideal form ) AI2O32SiO362H2O, has useful and magical properties: when raw it is pliable; when “cooked” it has a hardness that can approach its rock origins. It can be coated with mineral oxides and fired again until the surface fuses into a glasslike, impenetrable glaze. Coiled, pinched up from the sides, molded or thrown on to a wheel it can be made into pots. Pots! That’s what it is. The prejudice against clay is the prejudice against pots and—dreaded term—the crafts.1

SURELY THE MATERIAL CRITERION for art no longer applies. By material criterion I do not mean that art must be material or have some physical manifestation, though a fairly good case can be made for this. Instead, by material criterion I mean the notion that for any object to qualify as an art work it must at least be made of certain culturally sanctified art materials, such as marble, bronze, or paint on canvas, to give examples from within our own history. Of course though this material criterion was until this century considered necessary, by most people in the world of art, it was never sufficient. No one in his or her right mind, as far as I can tell, ever held the notion that anything made of marble or bronze was automatically art just because it was made of these materials. Nevertheless, at one time these materials functioned as signs that we should consider the object in question as belonging to art and that it was the maker’s intention to create art. (Setting or context also helped, of course.) How this material criterion came about is for others to investigate, but certainly it must have had something to do with rarity, cost, or difficulty of working the prime matter. The amount of time invested in making the object stood for memorialization or the intended immortality of statement. More importantly, the material criterion functioned as a control mechanism and as a device for ensuring focus within what might be posited as an economy of esthetic consciousness.

If art could be limited to certain materials, then esthetic consciousness could be controlled and limited to certain occasions and contexts, instead of belonging to the world and thereby getting in the way of reason and action. This is a naive dynamic of consciousness, one which sees consciousness as finite, individualized, and in opposition to both action and being (modes of existence not necessarily opposite or mutually exclusive). This oversimplification has the virtue of clarity, but is ultimately degrading. If the object in question was not made of marble or bronze, one did not have to pay it any special attention or even look at it in a thoughtful or inquisitive way; thus the happy friend of art was spared the burden of constant esthetic awareness, so draining and debilitating, so distracting from the more important tasks of daily life.

Although the material criterion lingers as a kind of nostalgia for “seriousness,” any material—or almost any—is permitted now. We began to value strangeness, assuming that unusual and unexpected media would yield new forms, new thoughts. In some cases this is true; in most it is not. Until quite recently it was not uncommon to see art works made of sand, dust, neon, rubber. It is not that these elements in themselves are unusual; in fact, they are quite common. Instead it was their novelty as prevalent art materials that imparted a shiver of daring and signaled art status. Even the artist himself or herself, physically present, was and is granted the status of art material. Is not this emphasis and perhaps dependence upon strangeness of materials yet another version of the material criterion? At the very least it is a mirror image, for a curious reversal took place in the ’70s: if the work was made of marble, bronze, or even paint on canvas, it probably wasn’t “art.”

Over the past decade the experiments concluded with art’s tie to the materialistic and to the market firmly re-established, and even this emphasis on strangeness changed. It expanded. Traditional art materials have begun to look stranger and stranger. Marble and bronze? Paint on canvas? Truly all is permitted. We are deluged by the exoticism of the past.

There is, however, one last prejudice, and this happens to be against one of the most traditional art materials of all: clay. Clay almost—if you will excuse the expression—slipped in, but this was mainly in California. To a large extent clay is still associated with the nursery and the kitchen; with art therapy and art education. Above all else clay is associated, quite correctly, with pots; pots are useful, so they can’t be “art.” Besides, pots are in the realm of the crafts.

Has not clay, upon the occasion of the exhibition “Ceramic Sculpture: Six Artists” (a joint project of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it opens this month, and the Whitney Museum of American Art), been at long last accepted as a fine art material? Does it matter that almost all the works are within one clay tradition or another, and allude to these traditions, playing off them, deriving their strengths in part from the naughtiness of bringing these traditions—sometimes sarcastically—into a fine art context? Does it matter that all these artists started out as potters, that some still make pots (of a rarified or possibly ironic sort); and that all remain committed to clay?

This exhibition of the works of Peter Voulkos, John Mason, Kenneth Price, Robert Arneson, David Gilhooly, and Richard Shaw—all at one time California-based, all linked by educational institutions and a network of teacher/student relationships—might have the effect of lessening the clay taboo. There are actually some vessel forms here “masquerading” as ordinary or perhaps extraordinary sculpture; the vessels of Peter Voulkos and Kenneth Price can be seen as the beginning and the end of the California clay movement—brackets, as it were, around the Funk of Arneson, Gilhooly, and Shaw and the near-Minimalism of Mason. Contemporary clay or ceramic sculpture begins and ends with pots—which is a kind of triumph for pots.

“Ceramic Sculpture” has its faults. At best it is a pared-down sampling of each artist’s often quite varied and complicated oeuvre and a pared-down version of the whole California clay phenomenon, which began with Peter Voulkos’ classes at the Otis Art Institute in the ’50s, moved to the Bay Area, spread to the Davis campus, and then beyond, in diluted versions. This particular “survey” omits some very important figures: Ron Nagle and Stephen De Staebler come immediately to mind. That this exhibition includes only men reveals something about a particular time and place; a more accurate title would have been “Action and Reaction—Two Generations of California Male Artists Working in Clay.” How different an exhibition this would have been if it had been less rigid. It is safe and historical. Some of the art is very good: Mason’s 1966 Geometric Form—Dark (too long in hiding), Voulkos’ recent stoneware vessels (or antivessels), Arneson’s Fragment of Western Civilization, 1972 (and his Casualty in the Art Realm, 1979, his Classical Exposure, 1972, his Current Event, 1973), and almost everything Kenneth Price has done since 1970. Nevertheless, one craves a survey that would include Marilyn Levine’s stoneware “leather” pieces, Joyce Kozloff’s tiles and her collaborations with Betty Woodman, and at least some indication that Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party has a place. Or why not the new collaborative piece by Woodman and Cynthia Carlson? Why not Woodman herself? Venturing even further outside the official art world, why not Toshiko Takaezu’s wonderful “closed” pots? To continue along this forbidden line of thought—it is considered bad form for art critics reviewing exhibitions to dwell on what might have been or could still yet be—I would have preferred an exhibition of pots, not only because it would have been more adventurous, but because it would have forced the issue of crafts versus art, instead of simply disguising it once again. It is clear that what some of these artists have done is to “masculinize” clay. with Action-Painting tactics (Voulkos and Mason) or with humor (Arneson, Gilhooley, and Shaw).

Clay is not like any other art material. The artists know this. Perhaps its fault, or rather its glory, is that it is too much like some other materials—excrement in particular. It is almost impossible to avoid the scatological here. Clay may have had a noble past, but in contemporary life it is as debased as it is ubiquitous; hence the references to and quotations of kitsch, such as figurines and souvenirs, in Arneson, Gilhooly, Shaw, and Price. But clay is also china, plates, and pots. Will it ever rise above this domestic shelf? Should it?

One wants something deeper than the superficial message of “Ceramic Sculpture,” which is that some of this work may look like crafts, but it’s all really “art.” The museum context almost gets this across, almost sanctifies clay (or more correctly, resanctifies it, and I suppose this will be of some help to people who only believe an object is art if it is labeled and catalogued. The real interest of the exhibit, however, lies in those areas where the context still fails to sanctify.

Whether the artists intended it or not, their art is subversive, and this comes through despite the effort to tone it down, to make it manageable. All the art in “Ceramic Sculpture” plays with the ghost of the material criterion: if it’s made of clay, it can’t be “art.” Although some of the artists may pretend to scoff at this “ghost,” a great deal of the energy that went into these objects and that comes out of them is from the flaunting of the clay taboo. This is complex art which could be pushed further, although we would thereby enter the realm of grave anxiety. We have explored the frisson of crossover (craftspeople becoming artists and artists becoming craftspeople), juggled old categories, and invented new ones, long enough. The distinctions made between art and craft, like those made between the genders associated with each (men with art, women with craft), are often false. One may ask the value of categories. The question of whether or not thought or even perception can exist without dividing things up is open. Art categories start out as working descriptions, but they tend to be changed very quickly from description (how interesting that these objects can be put together) to prescription (based on art already made, this is the way to make more good art) to proscription (art must be made this way). Categories should be questioned all the time.

Fear of clay is mainly the fear that the utilitarian and the esthetic could be once again truly united. It is a fear of pots, a fear of objects that don’t fit neatly into given categories, of objects that can be more than one thing at once. A pot can be utilitarian and esthetic; there is a long history of this that we are supposed to know but for the most part we remain ethnocentric, sexist, and full of class bias.A pot can be art and craft; sculpture and painting; masculine and feminine.

John Perreault is senior art critic for the Soho News, New York.



1. John Perreault, Soho News, New York, March 5, 1980.