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.

Voulkos Reexamined

When I was in Pennsylvania with Ann Stannard and Maryon Attwood selecting pieces for an MC Richards exhibit, we came upon her small collection of other people’s pots, haphazardly wrapped in paper. She had a Lucie Rie teacup and saucer which I scarcely dared to hold in my hand it was so delicate, so thinly potted, so luminous, white with a metallic band around the rim, a small chip. And she had a very tall, beautifully thrown, covered jar, which was not wrapped in paper it was so big. It just stood out of the way, against the wall. It was by Peter Voulkos. Both were immediately identifiable to me, even though I had never seen more than photos of works by either Rie of Voulkos. Ann confirmed that the pieces were what I thought they were, and of course, with her encouragement, I did touch them.

Later in the year, Yale will publish a book on Rie that I am very much looking forward to. This morning I finished reading a book on Voulkos, Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Pric,e Peter Voulkos 1956-1958, a collection of essays edited by Mary David MacNaughton for The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery of Scripps College.

We all know at least the outlines of Voulkos’ story: his youth in Montana, his extraordinary throwing abilities and the early tall, covered jars that he made and won prizes for; his California years; and his abrupt change from functional, carefully crafted pots to abstract expressionist clay sculpture on a massive scale. The essays are wide ranging and frame the three men in their time period.

Voulkos was invited to Black Mountain College by Karen Karnes and David Weinrib. MC was there then and that’s probably when she got the covered jar. Voulkos was electrified by the Black Mountain College experience, and especially taken with MC, John Cage, David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and Esteban Vicente and the new work they were doing. Speaking of Cage, Tudor and Cunningham, Voulkos wrote, “I had never been exposed to that kind of work at all, and it was sort of eerie… Coming from Montana, I’d just never seen any of it, heard any of it…. And it was so beautiful and so new to me that, gee, I just really got turned on.”

Voulkos was also inspired by Picasso and by Shoji Hamada. Indeed some of his work is reminiscent of Picasso’s ceramics. That Hamada inspired him surprised me. When Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi made their famous tour of the US in 1952 and conducted a workshop at the Archie Bray Foundation, Voulkos kicked the wheel for Hamada. “I was right there,” he said “and had my head down with his, and he’d tell me to kick faster or slower, so I was just watching his hands.” Voulkos was impressed with the economy and looseness of Hamada’s throwing and the spiritual connection he had with the clay. Many young American potters of the time, and in years since, have been inspired by Hamada, embracing the concept of Mingei, even traveling to Japan to apprentice. Voulkos took that inspiration to turn away from pots and craft to make gigantic ceramic sculptures.

The book talks about the relationship between Abstract Expressionist painting and Abstract Expressionist ceramics, about the influence of the East on both, apparently acknowledged by those in ceramics but not by the painters, the reception that each of the men’s work received and their influence on and relationship with each other. I found the essay that discusses the men’s appearance or nonappearance in the press particularly telling and had to smile that early stories would be put in such newspaper sections as Hobbies or Interior Decoration. And I very much like the conceit of an essay that looks at the press coverage of an artist over time. I may have to steal the idea.

There are many full-page color plates of the sculptures plus black and white shots of the artists in various places, but what I enjoyed was reading about the social context for the work they were doing. I do have to wonder what Hamada thought of the work that young man who kicked his wheel for him ended up doing and becoming famous for, or if he thought about him afterwards at all.