Shifting Status Quo
About a year ago, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion about the change in status of contemporary ceramics. The position and ranking of ceramics in the world of contemporary art has been shifting for over 60 years. Great artists have made the biggest difference in overcoming prejudices, and have been quite blunt about their assessment of how the art world perceives their work. Ken Price, for instance, succinctly noted that in the middle 1950s, the material hierarchy was established, saying that, “In those days, clay as an art medium was dead and buried.”[i]
The first task for the panel, I thought, would be to enumerate the ways that such a lowly ranking was overcome. In the current environment, a viewer can see contemporary ceramics in major museums and hundreds of galleries. How and why has this happened, and what were the forces for this change? I believe there are some clear reasons:
First, the lack of material hierarchy in the work of young artists made it clear that a new attitude about media exists (this is especially evident in curated exhibitions such as the award-winning show at the Hammer titled “Thing”, or the traveling show from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia titled “Dirt on Delight”). This seems to be coming from two sources: university and art school-trained artists who are the product of interdisciplinary programs; and the popular culture at large. Younger artists have adopted the contemporary music world’s sampling techniques—piecing together disparate parts and re-mixing them. Old school ideas of purity and media specificity just don’t apply anymore.
Second, critical acceptance has accelerated profoundly. These days, art journals and newspapers have major critics such as Roberta Smith, Christopher Knight, Dave Hickey, Christopher Miles, Leah Ollman and Peter Schjeldahl championing both ceramics shows and individual ceramic artists. Dozens more reviews are being published in mainstream art journals, rather than being segregated into craft-specific publications.
A third reason for the new standing of ceramics in the public’s eye is a burgeoning maturity of curatorial vision and the building of significant collections (both regional and in major encyclopedic museums). This also involves recognition of the rich traditions of other countries. The organization of group exhibitions and acquisitions by major museums including the Met and LACMA are also indications of ceramic art’s rising status.
Fourth, of course, is the fact that the use of ceramic materials continues to grow. Major artists since Picasso have worked seriously in clay, but now it’s nearly ubiquitous, as artists from contemporary art—even Jeff Koons and Ai Wei-Wei—use the medium.
Finally, there has been shift in the historical and curatorial perception of some major artists and their respected position in the overall canon. Just consider the Betty Woodman retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the recent LACMA retrospective of the late Ken Price, which travels nationally to the Nasher and then the Metropolitan, with each venue designed by the great architect Frank Gehry.
We are now in an era when a major critic (Roberta Smith) in the New York Times writes about a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in these terms:
“The show’s determination to integrate ceramics into the art mainstream is nothing new. But its refusal to do so simply by slipping some universally agreed-upon ceramic exceptions into a show of painting, sculpture and so forth is close to groundbreaking. “Dirt on Delight” argues for ceramics as a more than worthy subject. It reminds us that the art form incorporates quite a bit of painting and sculpture, thank you, and has one of the richest histories of any medium on the planet. Ceramics also plays well with all kinds of artistic ideas and needs no propping up by supposedly serious fine art or, incidentally, by much in the way of explanatory labels.” [ii]
[i] Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, A Life in Clay (interview with Ken Price), Artnet online magazine, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/drohojowska-philp/drohojowska-philp10-22-08.asp
[ii] Roberta Smith, Dirt on Delight, New York Times, May 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/arts/design/20dirt.html/