TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1990

MADNESS, SEX, EXHAUSTION: GEORGE OHR

In 1968 James W. Carpenter, an antiques dealer from New Jersey, was traveling through Biloxi, Mississippi, in search of veteran automobiles. He had heard about the Ohr Boys’ Auto Repair Shop, and, hoping to find an early Cadillac or perhaps a Model T Ford, he contacted the surviving Ohr children to arrange a visit. When he met them at the family warehouse he was greeted not by classic cars but by a collection of over seven thousand of the strangest and most wonderful pots he had ever seen, all crafted by George Ohr, a potter then obscure in the ranks of American ceramists. Reluctant to sell his wares to an unappreciative public, Ohr had hoarded almost his entire mature output, predicting that it would be “purchased by the entire nation,” which would then erect a temple to his genius. . . . In 1972 Carpenter made the works available for purchase. . . . [Ohr’s] return could not have been more dramatic. . . . Historians of the Arts and Crafts Movement were suddenly forced to reevaluate Ohr’s importance. Art pottery collectors were startled and intrigued by the “new” work. And New York City’s contemporary art world discovered Ohr, conferring on him the status of cult figure.
—Garth Clark1

SO BEGINS THE REVISIONIST historical narrative of the second coming of George E. Ohr, the self-described “mad potter of Biloxi.” Strange, obscure, a genius and a cult figure: this postbiographical sketch—the very definition of a career beyond the grave—is now commonplace in the Ohr literature, the “text” that includes the large anecdotal, oral tradition that has emerged since the works’ rediscovery. The strangest, oddest, craziest thing about this revisionism is that it does not so much revise a myth as simply revive one. Revisionism becomes a misreading for the purpose of a legend, a mythology neither analyzed nor interpreted. That Ohr himself fueled this madness myth should make it all the more suspicious. But contemporary critics have an investment in it: if misunderstood genius becomes the historical key—the hysterical meaning—to Ohr’s work, it serves to prove that we, here, today, are somehow smarter than people in the past, who, blinded by madness, could not appreciate genius when they saw it.

The Mad Potter of Biloxi: The Art & Life of George E. Ohr, the book published to coincide with the exhibition of Ohr’s sculptures at New York’s American Craft Museum this fall, accepts, without question, the conventional explanations of the madness of this mad potter. Although the three detailed (and repetitive) essays by Garth Clark, Robert A. Ellison, Jr., and Eugene Hecht give ample evidence to the contrary, Ohr’s main contribution is portrayed as less intrinsically work-related than a matter of artistic prophecy: Ohr was a seer, “ahead of his time,” “seventy years too soon,” anticipating everything—Surrealism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Funk. The history, however, is otherwise: as Ohr himself might have written, his is a different st-Ohr-y.

Ohr preferred to hoard than to sell his “mud babies,” as he affectionately called them, but his achievement hardly went unrecognized. If he felt himself a failure, how many artists get all the respect and admiration they think they deserve? And Ohr participated in numerous important exhibitions, most of them by invitation. He was represented in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta; the Paris Exposition Universelle; the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition in Saint Louis, where he won a silver medal in competition with highly esteemed representatives of the Arts and Crafts Movement; and other such. He exhibited next to displays of Tiffany glass, books from the Roycrofters, and Mucha posters. In effect, Ohr was a contender at more than a few of the Whitney Biennials and Documentas of his time.

Neither was he ignored, or particularly scorned by the press. The book makes more of small slights and petty misunderstandings than it does of the extensive praise for his work. Ohr was written up in most of the important books devoted to his craft until the middle of the century, including The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States, 1901, a major survey, in which Edwin Atlee Barber remarked that Ohr’s pottery “is, in some respects, one of the most interesting in the United States.” In 1909, Della McLeod commented, “Artists from all parts of the world make pilgrimages to this queer little spider-webbed rookery,” the Biloxi Art Pottery Unlimited. His work was owned by Louis Comfort Tiffany, was acquired for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was accessioned by the Delgado Museum in New Orleans and by the Smithsonian. His obituary declared, “Mr. Ohr’s work has been the marvel of the thousands of persons who have either purchased of him, or who learned of his genius.” He taught at a major center of Arts and Crafts activity, Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans. And he knew more than how to pass along technical information: Ohr was familiar with ceramic history, and was particularly inspired by the great 16th-century French eccentric Bernard Palissy.

This is not the résumé of an obscure or underappreciated artist, a story of public indifference and dismissal. On the contrary, Ohr was notorious—a notoriety that the essays in The Mad Potter blame on bouts of flagrant egotism. (“Greatest Art Potter—You Prove the Contrary” was a favorite motto.) But his reputation is no more likely to have been based on self-promotion than Andy Warhol’s was. Ohr certainly had an enthusiasm for carnivallike self-advertisement, and we can become rather weary of it. His son Oto related, “The townspeople thought he didn’t have no sense—that he was crazy. He looked like a wild man at times. He’d let his hair grow and he wouldn’t shave. He’d take his long hair and tie it in a knot in the back of his head.” Yet Ohr’s extraesthetic weakness was to behave in the way he thought genius artists should act. He seems to have been rather a poor businessman, but he read his money problems as proof of his genius: “Every genius is in debt,” he wrote. To this end, he demanded enormous sums for his pieces, and a degree of flattery on the part of potential clients. Every mug was “worth its weight in gold.” When Ohr stopped making art, around 1907, it may have been because of his notion of what constituted an artist’s “career.” To one contemporary he said, “‘You think I am crazy don’t you?’ I told him that . . . I did not think he was crazy and with that he stopped his act and remarked ‘I found long ago it paid me to act this way.’"

Is there any way to speak of this madness which “pays,” and keep it separate from the work? Like most romantics, or those with great egos, if Ohr received extravagant praise (for his spectacular glazes) he disregarded it (insisting, on the contrary, that he could be loved only on the basis of his innovative forms). The hokum runs thick: the lonely individualist, rejecting and rejected, uncompromising and demanding acceptance only on his own terms, is a role that modern sadomasochists from Howard Roark to Richard Serra love to play. It’s a mad, impossible double bind, both to crave and to reject approval. And keeping up the act, the facade, must be exhausting. Like Marcel Duchamp, who also dropped out of sight, Ohr may have found it easier to retire than to continue the public display required to perpetuate a myth.

Yet what better fodder for great mythmaking than this sudden, mysterious disappearance, like an ascetic spurning the material world and vanishing into the desert?

SINCE THE ADVENT OF PHOTOGRAPHY and the mass media, there has been no such thing as an unknown genius. An artist like George Ohr may go in and out of favor, in and out of style, but he’s not unknown. (Today it’s success that brings isolation.) The historical fact—and the missing link that the authors of The Mad Potter fail to mention—is that Ohr’s fall into obscurity had little to do with any supposed public neglect, or with the difficulties of genius, and everything to do with a change of taste that swept over ceramics within a few years of Ohr’s death, in 1918. Under the sway of the ceramist and theoretician Bernard Leach, pottery became a matter of unarticulated, symmetrical, somber, one-colored pots in strict imitation of two or three “perfect” historical models. Nothing could have been more antithetical to Ohr than these anonymous, humble, characterless wares.

Leach’s conservative, regressive style dominated ceramics until the late 1950s, when Peter Voulkos, influenced by the form-shattering, paint-slinging Abstract Expressionists, broke away from the simple brown bean-pot. His slashed, punctured, violated vessels signaled a change in taste, but Voulkos did not know about Ohr, and, contrary to Clark in The Mad Potter, the two sculptors could not be more unalike. Ohr was not an expressionist; he was quite clear about that. When he spoke of “his” mud babies, he was not referring to any expressionist intent, any self-expression—that inviolable individual self that imposes its own emotions and desires on an object. “I want every vase of mine to be itself,” is what Ohr wrote, a formulation that is rigorously antiexpressionist, for it transfers all meaning and expressivity to the object’s own character. Voulkos’ project was a willful, violent, masculinist attack on the metaphorically feminine vessel form. This emotionally self-centered content is nowhere to be found in Ohr’s work. If Voulkos’ violations appeared crazy and anarchic in the ’50s, they nevertheless had embedded in them a traditional psychological premise: the mastery, dominance, and power of the (male) creator over the (female) material of the created.

Although Ohr’s technical prowess remains unrivaled, it does not dominate his work. His manipulations of the ceramic material do not feel or look forced or invasive. His contemporaries correctly assessed the work in terms of “daintiness” and “delicacy,” as something “quaint” and a little “foreign.” These feminine adjectives cannot be dismissed as sexist, for they were not necessarily meant as terms of opprobrium. They may lead, however, to a different revisionist interpretation of Ohr’s “madness.” This other revisionism would not have as its goal the therapeutic cure of a madness in proximity to femininity, nor would it attempt to secure Ohr’s place within the tradition of modern ceramics. Ohr’s place needs to be reinscribed at the margins of another history—a history of sculpture.

OHR’S “REDISCOVERY” IN 1972 occurred at an important juncture in the history of sculpture, at the ascendancy of Post-Minimalism, a style supported in this magazine by John Coplans, who was also an early and influential Ohr enthusiast.2 Post-Minimalism synthesized two opposed strains in American art: the serious, “high” style of abstract painting, Minimalist sculpture, and Conceptual art, with their emphasis on the systematic, the rational, the literal, and the predetermined; and the Pop esthetic, characterized by off-key color, allusion, sex, humor, informality, and a relaxed attitude toward the common everyday object. The first great Post-Minimal sculpture was Eva Hesse’s, which combined the seemingly irreconcilable practices of Sol LeWitt and Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd and Warhol. A viewer of Ohr’s thin-walled, thin-skinned, gently crushed, folded, and dented vessels cannot help but be reminded of Hesse’s fragile, tensile sets of bruised and bumpy cylinders. It is in this sculptural context that Ohr “makes sense”: Lynda Benglis’ sexy, hard/soft polyurethane “turds,” her pinched torsos and pleated, writhing fans; the torn, cut, layered, drooping felt pieces of Robert Morris; Keith Sonnier’s delicate, flaking, flocked walls; Serra’s twisted jumbles of rubber, nonchalantly attached to nails; and, most pertinent, Bruce Nauman’s bulging, deflated, slouching anthropomorphic sculptures, which led him to the autoportraits of facial and bodily disfiguration.

In the early ’70s, the rigid, repetitive forms of Minimalism—all those uptight hollow cubes and tubes—were abandoned in favor of abandonment. All that was rational became irrational, accidental; purity of means was replaced by a mix of odd materials and impure actions; the hard and stiff went limp and pliable, like skin being massaged. The alienating turned into the inviting. Like Ohr’s bodies, handles, and spouts, things started to relax, recline, wiggle and wrap, ruffle and ripple. For Hesse, repetition led to “absurdity,” and it may have been such absurdity that led to a Minimalism gone mad. Clean, regular edges suddenly sagged and buckled; forms dropped off the wall, to fall, scattered, onto the floor. The systematic collapsed into (sexual) exhaustion. Similarly Ohr, bringing the clay up from the wheel to an impossible thinness, had allowed the material body to disintegrate, rip, tear, waver: exhausted mud, an entropic earthwork. In his art the dissolving, superior power of the material ruins the master plan, the master’s plan, and falls apart, goes awry, out of control.

For Ohr, it was the idealism of the Arts and Crafts Movement—his Minimalism—that had gone awry. Initially, William Morris had seen a return to the handmade crafts as a way of instilling pride in the alienated worker, who, by reclaiming the means of production, would realize his or her creative potential and fashion quality designs. But the movement Ohr knew only imitated the industrial enemy, producing the inert, repetitive objects demanded by the middle class. These objects were required to be identical, machine-perfect, “tasteful”; above all, they were to be functional. Ohr reviled the assembly-line approach not only because it could not result in art, but because the wares were produced by enslaved workers (mostly women) engaged in tedious tasks. For him, factories of good taste like the Rookwood Pottery were modern plantations: “Capitalized Companies Servant’s Work.” “No real ART Pottery is now CREATED,” he wrote, “the MACHINE ART Works—is a fake and Fraud.”

And: “All pottery, when it comes to glazing, owes its beauty to accident.” Beyond the control of either industrial capitalism or the artist’s will, there will be mistakes, chance effects, problems, places where things happen unexpectedly, where there is improvisation, unforeseen twists, beauty. If there is anything that the system cannot accommodate, it is the esthetics of accident, which lead to disfiguration and dysfunction, to a disruption in the smooth, rational progress of the system’s perpetuation. This potential for disruption implicit in pottery, a dysfunction that might seem perfectly mad, allowed Ohr to divest ceramics of its reasonableness—of the reason for being, for being made, that is its use. Ohr’s ribbony handles are often too cramped for fingers to hold. Teapots do not open, or sprout two spouts; mugs, three, four, five handles. Openings are deformed, too irregular to pour from. Lava glazes, with their sharp, broken glass bubbles, deter the touch. Put something in the vase, it tips over. Pottery becomes something other: when it no longer need function in the system, it is mad “Pot-Ohr-E,” as Ohr called it. Unreasonable pottery is beautiful sculpture.

Penis envy in girls and castration anxiety in boys have been overemphasized, and a possibly much deeper psychological layer in boys has been relatively neglected . . . a complex of desires and emotions which . . . might be called “vagina envy”. . . . in addition, envy of and fascination with female breasts and lactation, with pregnancy and childbearing.
—Bruno Bettelheim

Woman has sex organs just about everywhere.
—Luce Irigaray

“Each piece of pottery I make is a baby,” wrote Ohr. Perhaps his “madness” concerns a male artist believing in his maternity, and, further, producing works of a delicacy associated in our culture with femininity. This would not be a question of the male artist taking over the female’s place, but of the female taking him over, overcoming him, the male succumbing to his own femininity.

If Ohr’s madness was more than canny mythmaking, if he did feel his sanity threatened, was it because he sensed a cross-gender slippage in his work, and in his attitude to it? Was he frightened by that possibility, the Ohr who took his own photograph, flexing biceps pumped up from years as an apprentice blacksmith? Perhaps he experienced as insanity the fall into the obscure, bottomless depths of the material/maternal womb, a place fraught with difficulties, but utterly magnetic. Certainly the small-town America of the turn of the century gave him little license to imagine it as anything else. If the identification disturbed him—mother to his babies, an identification of difference—it produced what had to be disturbing children, outcasts begotten of a strange birth out of the mud:

According to the Good Book, we are created from clay, and as Nature had it so destined that no two of us are alike, all couldn’t be symmetrically formed, caused a variety to be wabble-jawed, hare-lipped, cross-eyed, all colors, bow-legged, knock-kneed, extra limbs, also minus of the same. . . . I make disfigured pottery—couldn’t and wouldn’t if I could make it any other way.

FAMILY LEGEND HAS IT that Ohr was asked to leave Newcomb College for conduct unbecoming a potter teaching decorous young ladies. His studio demonstrations must have been extraordinary, including the complex of “disfiguring” techniques observable in his mature, sexualized sculpture. The revisionist reading of this apocryphal story would have it that the threat Ohr posed to impressionable female students was the threat of masculinity run amok. But more likely it was his sculptures’ feminine morphology, their female sexuality, that was upsetting and disruptive. For it is never aggressive male sexuality that comes as a shock, but female sensuality unleashed, aroused, no longer repressed.

Ohr’s “madness,” if madness it is, or if he experienced it as such, is woman’s sexuality taken to that place where it exceeds masculinity in multiple sites of pleasure. This pleasure is not a purely verbal or cultural construct; rather, it displaces singular construction, as shapes lose their form, break open, crack, fold in on themselves, flap and shudder. If Ohr is a womb, his work is vulva, labia, clitoris—all that which is aside from reproductive function, decentered and dispersed. On the periphery, around the margins, in multiple mouths and undulating handles, the vessel, self-caressing, fondling, self-manipulating, becomes the female masturbating body. Oblivious to male province, this body is a dangerous example, for it is self-sufficient, exhausting and exhaustive—complete and “just about everywhere.” As void, eroticized by peripheral excess, the vessel shimmers with glaze as the blush and bliss of pleasure. The productive capacity of the “hysterical” womb, the “mad m/other potter,” is supplemented and surrounded by reticulated hidden spaces, enveloped and enveloping.

In Ohr’s universe, masculinity is a joke. The tokenlike trinkets he made to sell at county fairs (in order to live up to the image of the good provider) belong to a class of crass verbal/visual puns: “GOOD FOR ONE [image of a screw],” “LET’S GO 2 [image of a bed],” “U HAVE A FINE [image of a pear (pair)] OF [image of two balls].” Male language is composed of the named and represented. Legible and literal, masculinity is external and thus incapable of creativity, for it communicates information in a single, unambiguous reading. Symbolic, phallic masculinity rarely appears in Ohr’s sculptures, but when it does, it takes the form of snakes and lizards, uncharacteristically crudely made, which crawl and creep over the feminine form: invading presences, but impotent in their obviousness, and in the face of the work’s "unnameable forms”3 and unspeakable sexuality. On the one occasion when Ohr used language to title a sculpture, the joke got nasty: Nine O’clock in the Evening and Three O’Clock in the Morning, ca. 1900, are two top hats, one firm and erect, the other crushed and spent. The second, upside-down hat, drunk after a night of debauchery, cannot perform—unlike Ohr’s art, which, in another manner of speaking, is at its peak when it relaxes into its own joy. She cannot use or be explained by his language.

In a sense, feminine “madness” is a loss of words, of representation, of reality; the impossibility of representation and realism, of the fixed, legible, one-to-one correspondence. Or: a unified gender. Ohr, finding himself overtaken by the pleasures of his works’ femininity, crossed over from a stable, centered masculinity into something decentered, allover, irrational, without words, “mad.” As in Hélène Cixous’ woman’s language, where she "divides [her]self, pulls [her]self to pieces, dismembers [her]self, regroups, remembers [her]self,”4 Ohr dreamt of a place where his work would be regrouped, remembered. Piece by piece, this work is mad; altogether, as a body, it makes another kind of sense, understands itself, and is remembered as art.

Jeff Perrone is an artist who lived, in New York.

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NOTES

1. All quotations of and about Ohr are from Garth Clark, Robert A. Ellison, Jr., and Eugene Hecht , The Marl Potter of Biloxi: The Art & Life of George E. Ohr, Ness York: Abbeville Press, 1989.

2. Many well-known artists and art dealers collect Ohr’s sculpture. but his name—if not exactly his work—came into prominence when Jasper Johns exhibited paintings in 1984 depicting some of the Ohrs he owns. One of these, a mug, is included in the Craft Museum retrospective. It has three handles, one rectangular, one round. and one triangular; and three colors, red, blue, and green. Its appeal to the artist who has done the most to dissect the formal elements of painting is clear, but the Ohr-Johns connection is mostly extraesthetic. Both came front the South. Both lost bodies of work in studio fires. In the Johns literature, much is made of the twins he grew up with, and of his penchant for doubling; Ohr often used trick photography to turn himself into the “Ohr Twins.” Ohr’s simple verbal/visual punning games remind one of the similar word/image conundrums that continually appear in Johns’ paintings. (Ohr loved alphabet games. His initials, G.E.O., were also the first three letters of his first name; he named most of his children so that they, too, would have as their initials their first name—Oto, Clo, Ojo, Flo, Geo, Leo, and Lio.) Ohr’s erotically suggestive “bawdrywares,” especially the “You have a nice pair of balls,” might have a special meaning for the painter of Painting with Two Balls, 1960. Johns, a student of Marcel Duchamp, would appreciate Ohr’s “My name is Mud,” with its implied relation of mud to excrement, and the proximity of “Mud” to Duchamp’s signature, “Mutt,” on his urinal. Ohr often wrote “MD” after his name; it stood not for medical doctor, although that is part of the joke, but for “mud dauber.” They are obviously the initials of Marcel, the maker of erotic trinkets. Ohr frequently “signed” his sculptures with printer’s type impressed into the wet clay. Johns, the artist of prefabricated imagery and stenciled lettering, who used a hot iron to make impressions in his encaustic surfaces, might well sense an affinity to Ohr in this; and in many other ways.

3. The phrase is Lyle Saxon’s, a visitor to Ohr’s storehouse in 1922. To give but a partial list of his descriptions is to restate the argument that Ohr was not misunderstood in his own time: “misshapen; strange; irregular shapes you cannot name; uncanny; grotesque; fantastic; futuristic; weird; awry; bizarre,” etc.

4. All quotations not of or about Ohr are from Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore, eds., The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gentler and the Polities of Literary Criticism, New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

“George Ohr: Modern Potter 1857–1918” remains at the American Craft Museum until January 7. It then travels to the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., February 9–June 3; the New Orleans Museum of Art, June 23–August 12; and subsequently to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, and the Everson Museum, Syracuse.