The Clark and Del Vecchio Collection

I have never understood calling a book a doorstop. Who would use a book to stop a door? Stack your books on the floor, yes. Let a door bang into a treasured tome? Never. But it is customary to call a big book a doorstop and Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics: The Garth Clark & Mark Del Vecchio Collection is big. In fact, it weighs close to seven – SEVEN – pounds and is four hundred eighty three pages. Before reading it, you must wash your hands, leave your teacup in the kitchen and for goodness sakes, make sure there is no clay on your jeans. Now, sit up straight with the book before you on a sturdy (and clean) table and begin.

Such trouble is worth it. The book opens with a joint essay in which Clark and Del Vecchio explain that a collection is as much about its omissions as its inclusions and then poignantly tell us, “Some years, instead of making acquisitions, we did the reverse, de-accessing personal art to keep afloat the gallery and a multitude of nonprofit activities.

“This is why there is no major George E. Ohr, Lucie Rie, or Hans Coper in the collection…we have owned masterpieces by all of them at times…but when a crisis hit … their works became rent money.”

The essay is followed by Clark’s brief but intensely fascinating memoir. He describes his nascent interest in pottery as a young man in South Africa, his marriage to the potter Lynne Wagner and his initiation into writing ceramic criticism with his first book on Michael Cardew. “Bernard Leach’s name elicited respect, but that of Cardew caused excitement… One got the impression that Leach was the theorist whereas Cardew was the real thing.” He goes on to describe how his aesthetic turned away from functional pottery, the influence the catalog for John Coplan’s Abstract Expressionist Ceramics had on his sense of works made of clay, his partnership with Del Vecchio and their galleries, and finally the collection itself. Clark and Del Vecchio seem to have known everyone, even potters whose work they did not admire.

There are essays from other critics in addition to Clark’s, which gives added perspective. The largest part of the book focuses on what Clark calls “featured” works in the collection (now at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) with full-page photos and page length essays (remember, these pages are oversized). He talks about the potters’ lives (he still calls them potters), often including bits of gossip, and discusses and describes each piece.

Doing something similar for one’s personal use would be a good exercise for anyone with even a modest collection of pots. What do we know of the potter who made the pot on our shelf? What do we see in the pot? Why do we like it? Such an exercise is clarifying, though I suspect Clark knew what he thought of each before writing.

Far more than observers, Clark and Del Vecchio influenced the direction of American Ceramics through their galleries and Clark’s books. Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics will surely further their influence and  become an indispensable reference book for collectors and ceramic historians. The exquisite and expensive production is such that I doubt the book will be reprinted, so if you are inclined to want it on your shelves, you might do well to acquire it now before the complete print run is sold. It will likely be more costly on the secondary market as happens with many art books today.

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