American Studio Ceramics

American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity 1940 to 1979 by independent scholar Martha Drexler Lynn is a carefully researched, monumental book that chronicles and examines a tumultuous and groundbreaking period in American ceramics. By necessity and by choice, Lynn focuses on the segment of potters who were intent on and successful at crossing over into the Fine Arts arena, a movement that was given velocity as returning GI’s took college ceramics classes and then became college teachers themselves.

She was inspired to write the book when she received a “nearly complete run of Craft Horizons magazine from 1941 to the 1980s” as a gift (note to self; it’s ok to save stacks of back editions of ceramics magazines). She relies heavily on Craft Horizons, and Rose Slivka, editor and chief writer for the magazine 1959-1979, for her narrative. She apologizes, “In regard to the thousands of potters who worked during these decades, unless their talent was acknowledged at the time through the written or oral record or is testified to by an accessible body or work, their stories have slipped from the narrative presented here.” She is also influenced by the ceramics historian and critic Garth Clark and credits him for the foundational work he did. This then, is a book largely celebrating what she calls “adventurous” work by Peter Voulkos and those who followed.

The book opens with a discussion of the early mid-twentieth century, largely Bauhaus influenced, and includes such potters as Maija Grotell, Marguerite Wildenhein, Gertrude and Otto Natzler, and Glen Lukens. She discusses Bernard Leach and his influence, and gives great credit to the role his A Potter’s Book played, though she asserts several times that he couldn’t throw very well.

She divides the ensuing movements chronologically as Abstract Expressionism, Funk Ceramics, Fetish Finnish, and Special Objects. With extraordinary detail, Lynn tells us who was doing what kind of work, where they did it, who was teaching where, who were their students, who were their students’ students, who was exhibiting and where, and how the exhibits were received. This is an exhaustive study and I cannot imagine anyone writing about this time period in ceramics without referring to it.

I was especially pleased to see the respect she gives to two books that remain in print all these years and which I agree are and were important. “During the 1960’s,” she writes, “the widely praised Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964) by M.C. Richards provided philosophical heft to the field, much as Leach’s book had done twenty years earlier…A decade later, another influential book in the same vein was Paulus Berensohn’s popular Finding One’s Way With Clay (1972) which encouraged low-tech, pinch-formed vessels.”

As I pointed out, Lynn warns us in the beginning of the book of its constraints, and though she does touch on the concurrent ceramics scene that was flourishing outside the academy, she does not give it in depth coverage. She makes it clear that much of the information is lost or unknowable, and clearly deems it of lesser importance. “Meanwhile, “ she tells us, “those who were less adventurous strove to reinforce their connections to the traditional (vernacular) crafts, now transformed into a back-to-the-land, antiestablishment sensibility that highlighted concerns about technological progress, the machine, and how to value things that had once been ordinary.” She tells us that in 1979 “375,000 Americans were making a living selling crafts on a regular basis.”

I, as you know, have a predilection for functional pots, the story largely left out of this book. And I am not as certain as Lynn is that much of the history is lost. Nevertheless, I found American Studio Ceramics fascinating.

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