New York

William Daley

American Craft Museum

For nearly forty years William Daley has pushed the boundaries of the ceramic tradition. Daley’s recent retrospective reflected his sustained exploration of the vessel form, focusing on the dynamic relationship between his drawings and works in clay. Comprising 45 pieces, dating from the mid ’50s to the early ’90s, this collection of both studies and finished works enabled the viewer to trace Daley’s ongoing effort to place the ceramic tradition in an expanded context—to explore its origins in the ancient ritual forms of diverse cultures, as well as to forge a relationship with architectural and industrial design.

Daley’s earliest ceramic works of note are characterized by a quirky mixture of the ancient and the modern. Body Form, 1954, for example, synthesizes the formal properties of three diverse traditions: the biomorphism of Kandinsky and Miró, the clean lines of contemporary Scandinavian design, and the simplicity that characterizes the bronzes of the Shang dynasty used in religious rituals. During the early ’60s, Daley began to explore the possibilities of natural form in works such as Seed Form and Pod Form, 1962, whose stylized organicism is ripe with a Willendorfean eroticism. Toward the end of the decade, Daley had distilled such experiments into a vocabulary of minimal, geometric forms—such as the square with rounded edges of Reptilian Chiclet, 1968—that would form the basis of his oeuvre for the next twenty years.

The impulse to respond to the history of spiritually oriented art that had always subtended Daley’s work became a primary concern for him by the early ’70s, during which time he became deeply interested in the Native American architecture of the American Southwest. Daley set himself the task of transforming the vessel form into a meta-architecture; pieces like Mesa Pot, 1972, express universal notions of nurture, shelter, and cosmic order. Throughout this decade, he repeatedly plundered his own repertoire of forms in his quest to construct a personal holy grail; if he can be said to have reached this goal, he did so with Cryptic Oval, 1989, a tightly knit marriage of geometric and traditional shapes that summarizes the concerns of his career. Daley’s drawings from the ’80s are charged with a restless visionary energy that nonetheless reflects a search for a spiritual order, and are the most fascinating of those he has produced.

Dense and at times repetitive, this survey challenged the viewer to follow the formal and spiritual development of an artist in tune with the contemporary yet utterly absorbed in the traditions of his craft.

Jenifer P. Borum