Garth Clark has taken an impresario’s approach to ceramics. Not content to run two galleries of contemporary ceramic art, in Los Angeles and New York, he has written eight books and more than 100 articles on ceramics; co-organized a major traveling exhibition, “A Century of American Ceramics 1878-1978"; founded the Institute for Ceramic History, which sponsors international symposia, and lectured and taught throughout the United States and Europe.
“Ceramics really is a 100% obsession; I can’t imagine living without it,” said Clark, rather sheepishly, during an interview at his Spanish-style home in the Fairfax district.
He relishes working on his subject of choice “at all levels” but now that his galleries have gained a large following, he has determined to give up writing--just as soon as his next four books are published.
Three of them are already written: “The Eccentric Teapot,” which was undertaken for “pure fun,” and collaborative books on artist George Ohr and the Everson Museum’s collection of American ceramics. The fourth, still in the planning stages, is a history of British ceramics, commissioned by Abbeville as a companion volume to Clark’s “American Ceramics: 1876 to the Present,” published in 1979 and released this summer in a revised, greatly expanded edition.
The 1988 revised edition of “American Ceramics” was to be a simple update of a book produced in conjunction with the “Century” exhibition, but it turned into “a monstrous project,” Clark said. During a five-month break from gallery management, he rewrote part of the text, added 50 biographies and 25 colorplates, replaced most of the original photographs and provided a 1,200-entry bibliography.
Boasting encyclopedic scope and high-production values, “American Ceramics” is a far cry from Clark’s first book, “Pottery of South Africa,” which he now considers a minor embarrassment. “I buy up every copy I see, not because of the writing but because the objects are so bad,” he said.
A native of South Africa, Clark cultivated an interest in ceramics while working in public relations and financial journalism. The deeper his involvement became, the more he realized that pottery existed in “a vacuum” without scholarship. He and his former wife, Lynn, eventually decided to go to Europe and research the subject.
They backpacked for about a year, then settled in London, where he had decided to study ceramics. Having started a book on English ceramist Michael Cardew, Clark won a coveted place at the Royal College of Art and got a master’s degree in what his professors called his “overspecialization.”
“I had already seen that contemporary ceramics in the United States was superior to what was being done elsewhere,” he said, so he headed across the Atlantic, hoping to support his family by teaching, lecturing and writing. He landed in San Francisco because friends told him he would love it.
“I hated San Francisco,” Clark said. “It was so mannered, so self-conscious.” Los Angeles, on the other hand, was “raw and energetic. You could do what you want to do here.” Also Peter Voulkos’ seminal ceramics work at Otis Art Institute provided “a spiritual connection.”
With a growing reputation as a ceramics authority and modest backing from an investor, Clark opened his first gallery in 1981, near the Craft and Folk Art Museum on Wilshire Boulevard.
At first the Garth Clark Gallery handled only “blue chip” artists, but Clark didn’t like the fact that they arrived “ready-made.” After about six months, he began to search for young, unknown artists and older ones whose work was undervalued.
Now located upstairs at 170 S. La Brea Ave., the gallery continues to exhibit contemporary ceramics and an occasional historical show to provide context.
Clark’s Manhattan gallery, opened in 1983 on 57th Street, presents a similar program, but the two operations cater to somewhat different audiences. Los Angeles has never warmed up to highly cerebral, didactic or early modern ceramics, Clark said, while insisting that it’s not because his adverturous California clients lack intelligence or education.
“On the East Coast, people are more cautious. They want to look over an artist’s resume,” he said. But the New York gallery has paid off in sales to museums and art professionals (including dealers Irving Blum and Charles Cowles and artists Jasper Johns, George Segal and Claes Oldenburg).
Both galleries focus on ceramic vessels rather than sculpture. “I think most ceramic sculpture is bad sculpture,” he said, largely because the people who make it tend to be trained as potters rather than sculptors. A self-confessed “pot-freak,” he believes in the power of vessels whose anthropomorphic and symbolic qualities make them endlessly fascinating.
Assessing his seven years as a dealer, Clark said he has witnessed three generations of collectors. The conservative, craft-conscious crowd was succeeded by a younger, fresher group eager to learn about ceramics. Now his clientele has shifted to collectors who do not restrict themselves to ceramics.
“Two stories circulate about me,” Clark said. “One is that I am fabulously wealthy, the other is that I have backers who pour endless amounts of money into the gallery.” Neither is true, he said. “Our success is the success of survival.”