The question of functionality is one that is raised frequently for artists who work with ceramic materials. The long tradition of vessel-making often leaves viewers with the expectation that ceramic objects will fulfill their implied purpose. The production of ceramic artworks that cannot be used, or can only be used with great risk, even when they meet the formal requirements of functional objects, is one strategy used by artists to examine the legacy of vessels in the field of ceramics.
Adrian Saxe has spent his career exploring the history of ceramic traditions and techniques. His fantastically ornate, often vessel-oriented works push viewers to imagine them in use. With impractical handles, delicate spouts, and decorative lids, many of his works maintain the vocabulary of functional objects but cannot be safely used.
Saxe’s series of Klein Bottles, mounted on raku bases, push the question of the ostensibly functional vessel even further. As a volumetric manifestation of the Mobius strip, the Klein bottle has only one surface. The exterior and interior of these forms are one and the same, as they turn in on themselves. Although a Klein bottle cannot truly exist in three dimensions, these works demonstrate the mathematical concept, while at the same time confounding viewers’ expectations about the purpose of a container.
For the past 35 years, I’ve been going to all kinds of art world events. That means a pretty wide range—everything from really raunchy performance art at the old downtown LAICA to scholarly lectures at the Harold Williams Auditorium at the Getty.
I’ve heard dozens of talks from the podium, endless (and often quite boring) panel discussions, and series after series of conversations, and I’ve seen hundreds of power-point presentations. You might ask, which ones were best? Clearly, the winners in the category of enlightenment were: Kirk Varnedoe (his final tour included a talk at LACMA); Paola Antonelli (recently at the Brown Auditorium at LACMA); and Adam Gopnik (Winter Scenes, at the Getty on February 23, 2012). All spoke without any notes. I loved those talks, and they reminded me of the stimulating power of the interconnected intellect, which I first witnessed in college: genius, in simple terms.
I’m a big fan of every instance of what I like to call a generous intellect—someone who can present fascinating ideas and connections in a conversational manner. But, lately, I’ve been bothered by something that troubles me from time to time, something I still struggle with in myself, and that I can be deeply offended by in others: for lack of a better word, let’s call it prejudice.
Here are three examples:
I once attended a panel discussion, moderated by Paul Karlstrom, about the paintings of Roger Kuntz. Like many such panels, the event was in conjunction with an exhibit of Kuntz’s work at the Laguna Art Museum. Of the four speakers, I knew three quite well—two of them for 40 years, and one for 30 years. At the end of the panel, I wandered up to say hello—a common courtesy. Before I got to my old friends, though, the museum’s Director came up and greeted me. Then he asked, “But what are you doing here?”, to which I replied, “Two of the panelists were my teachers, one is a friend, and Paul is both a friend and a colleague.” But what I meant to say was, “Isn’t this an educational event for the public to learn about art?”
Around the same time, I attended a talk at the Getty Research Institute, given by Lawrence Weschler (an elaboration on themes first developed in his 2007 book of convergences, Everything that Rises). Weschler is an author, and was in those days the Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. At that time, though, he was on leave from NYU, serving simultaneously as scholar-in-residence at Occidental College and a visiting scholar at the GRI. I’ve often been in the audience for Ren’s talks, going all the way back to our time together in the early seventies as undergraduates at Cowell College of UCSC, when for example he gave a series of talks on his grandfather, the Weimar émigré composer Ernst Toch. For this one, held in the Getty’s smaller auditorium beneath the museum, I arrived early to find a seat. And, as I wandered down the aisle, a Senior Researcher from the GRI said hello, shook my hand and said, “But what are you doing here?” I replied, simply, “I’ve known Ren since college.” But what I meant to say was, “Isn’t this an educational event for the public to learn about art?”
Probably the most disturbing instance was a few years back, at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. In conjunction with Otis College of Art and Design, the City of Santa Monica and the Broad presented a lecture by the annual Otis artist-in-residence. I arrived early, my usual strategy, to get a seat in a packed auditorium. As I walked down the left-hand aisle, I saw the speaker, whose work in art criticism we all know quite well, and who has been a frequent visitor to my own gallery. He said, “What are you doing here?” That time I didn’t even respond at all.
What are these people saying? Are they saying that, since I am identified as an art dealer, I shouldn’t have an interest in scholarship? Since I am identified as a specialist in ceramics, that I can’t possibly have an interest in other forms of literature, history or art? Are art dealers necessarily limited, in their minds, to just being shopkeepers? Why can’t art dealers also be thought of as people who are passionate about art?
If there is one thing I’ve made perfectly clear at my gallery, our educational mission is about communication between the artist and the public, our exhibition program presents the legacy of artists in the history of West Coast art, and as part of that mission and legacy, our scholarly publications have employed several significant writers. Someday, I hope that such heterodoxy and such commitment is more widely recognized, is in fact taken for granted—especially by those who should know better.
(Special thanks to Lawrence Weschler for his clarifications about his work.–F.L.)
In early 2000, the Getty presented an exhibition of commissioned works by Los Angeles-area artists called Departures: 11 Artists at the Getty. Organized by guest curator Lisa Lyons, the show invited artists to create works in response to the Getty’s collections. Adrian Saxe was one of the participating artists, with his wildly popular contribution, 1-900-ZEITGEIST.
Using an eighteenth century French table from the museum’s decorative arts collection as a base, Saxe produced an outrageously ornate set of vessels, riffing on the idea of a classic garniture set. Produced in bright colors with exaggerated decorative techniques, the porcelain objects synthesize a number of historical and contemporary references. With forms suggestive of Chinese scholar’s rocks, handles based on French Rococo designs, and finials made of plastic action figures, the work represents a collision between high art and popular culture. Saxe’s decision to use a treasured object from the Getty’s collection as the support for his own work contributes to the genre-defying nature of the piece.
Departures: 11 Artists at the Getty was a considerable success for the museum, as it explored the surprising ways in which contemporary art is informed by art history. It was a critical success as well, with a favorable review by David Pagel for the Los Angeles Times, praising the efforts of the museum and the individual artists.
Sometimes I look for unifying themes within the gallery’s exhibition program. It’s obvious that we specialize in contemporary ceramics, and we clearly favor a sense of place—the West Coast of the U.S. But what’s fascinating to me is that several of the gallery’s artists have a connection to France, and to French culture.
How? Let me explain.
Adrian Saxe was influenced, even early in his career, by Sèvres porcelain. He saw examples at the Huntington, when he was in his early twenties. Saxe was attracted to the soft-paste porcelain characteristic of the factory,as well as the inventive forms, delicate painting, and skillful gilding. Then, in 1983, Saxe was selected by Georges Jeanclos to be the first resident at the Atelier Experimental de Recherche et de Création de la Manufacture National de Sèvres. Saxe returned to Sèvres in 1987 for a second residency, where he continued his explorations of the factory’s traditional techniques and materials.
Craig Kauffman made many trips to Paris. His first was right after his graduation from UCLA’s master’s program in 1956. During his six month stay, Kauffman took classes at the Alliance Française and visited museums and galleries. He returned to Paris in 1959 to 1961, while also traveling to other cities including Copenhagen and Ibiza. During this more extended visit, Kauffman met Darthea Speyer, who would later become his Paris dealer. Kauffman went back to Paris in 1973 for a solo show at Galerie Darthea Speyer, and lived in a studio in the Cité Internationale des Arts through the fall of 1975. After spending the spring of 1976 in California, he returned to France, to work in his studio and exhibit new works at Galerie Darthea Speyer.
Three years ago, Larry Bell was honored by the Carré d’Art de Nîmes with a very significant survey exhibition. Yet this is not the first time Bell’s work was shown, or collected, by the French. History shows that Larry Bell exhibited in France many times, including at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in 1967 and 1974, the Palais du Luxembourg in 1993, the Centre Pompidou in 2006, and the Galerie Daniel Templon in 2010. It’s interesting to note that Larry’s brother, a famed economist, maintains a residence in Paris.
The gallery has also shown a major French artist: Georges Jeanclos. It was an honor to exhibit the work of such a renowned international artist on two occasions. His emotional work profoundly affected visitors, as the artist’s deft handling of his terra cotta materials evoked a powerful sense of the tragedy of human experience.
Visitors to Adrian Saxe’s 2011 show GRIN – Genetic Robotic Information Nano (Technologies) were delighted by the artist’s use of digital technology. He created marvelous imagery linked by QR codes placed on his ceramics. Now his fans (and anyone with an internet connection) can take a look at his entire career. The gallery has launched a new website: www.adriansaxe.com. Here, visitors will be able to access images of artworks, selected exhibitions, archival publications, and a biographical chronology.This website will serve as a resource for students, curators, and critics, as it brings together an unprecedented amount of information about the artist.
Using the platform of the decorative arts and the history of ceramics, Saxe has formed a complex body of work that draws on an incredibly diverse set of influences. Pulling from baroque decorative traditions, contemporary popular culture, historical modes of presentation, and futuristic technologies, Saxe’s oeuvre is as conceptually challenging as is it visually appealing. His unmatched technical skill facilitates the creation of fantastically ornate vessels that seduce the viewer while at the same time offering sharp commentary on a number of themes.
Saxe will deliver a lecture at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts on June 21st. Named a 2014 Regis Master by the Northern Clay Center, Saxe will contribute to their ongoing oral history project, which seeks to document artists that have had a major impact on the development of 20th and 21st century ceramics. His exhibition at the Northern Clay Center will run from May 9 – June 29, 2014.
The gallery’s next exhibition will present works by Beatrice Wood (1893-1998) alongside those of Gustavo Pérez and Cheryl Ann Thomas. Opening on May 24th, this show will be the fourth time I have shown Wood’s ceramics.
This selection of work will feature vessels as vibrant as Wood’s famous life and personality. With ties to the Dada movement in New York, the theosophy community outside Los Angeles, and the West Coast Crafts revival, Wood developed a personal vision of art that drew on myriad influences. The pieces on display artfully contrast simple forms with richly complex surface treatments. With her signature in-glaze luster technique, Wood created artworks that shimmer with vivid color, reflecting the changing light.
Although I have not had Wood’s work on view for several years, her work was recently the subject of a Pacific Standard Time show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Called Beatrice Wood: Career Woman – Drawings, Paintings, Vessels, and Objects, the exhibition offered a survey of Wood’s long career, from her earlier Dada inspired drawings and paintings through her more well-known ceramic works.
Artist’s Estates are charged with the responsibility to protect the legacy, be caretakers of the artwork, and preserve the reputation of the artist. Estates, of course, come in many different sizes and forms—from the large and well-funded Warhol Foundation, to the smaller and penniless widows of the unrecognized. Reputations are placed in trust. I’ve had the sometimes sad—but necessary—task of working with family and friends of several artists after a death. There are the inevitable meetings with lawyers, accounting and record keeping, and there is a significant job of responding to the queries of museums, curators, and collectors. But in the digital age, there is another important position: the protection and presentation of the images and information online.
I’ve written about the prevalence of the internet in the art world before, and it’s something that continues to interest me. The online presence of a gallery or artist can make a big difference in how they are perceived, by the general public, students, critics, and museums. I’ve observed that the first step by many during a research project is to do a quick search on Google or Wikipedia. Unfortunately, it seems that not many people go beyond this cursory overview of a topic. That needs to change.
With that in mind, the Estate of Craig Kauffman, working with my gallery, has launched a new website: www.craigkauffman.com. It features images of artworks, a selected exhibition history, primary-source documents and a chronology to guide visitors through Kauffman’s life and work. It is our hope that this website will be a resource that helps people look beyond the mythology to see the broad scope of his career. We made use of extensive archival materials and interviews, to try—again—to set the record straight.