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A Visible Crack in a Fragile Art

Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

An inescapable sense of unease began to be noticeable somewhere near the final gallery of the exhibition “Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000.” This otherwise absorbing show relies on the increasingly fine pottery collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to survey the major stylistic movements in the history of ceramics during the past 50 years.

It’s easy to get pulled in by the abundance of exemplary individual works that have been assembled. There’s the oceanic sexiness of Ken Price’s “Echo,” a big yellow undulation of luxuriously painted and sanded clay that rises up and folds in on itself, like the sinuous pinna of a human being’s ear. In the modest four-piece table setting by the late Beatrice Wood, the sometimes social, sometimes private, always necessary act of ingesting food is magically consecrated by a combination of lumpy homeyness and a shimmering, lustrous glaze the mysterious color of an Egyptian scarab. Dusty solid-color glazes are fused to sleek, chic, impossibly elegant forms--cylinder, cone, cylinder turning into cone--in the hyper-refined vessels of Dutch ceramist Geert Lap. And more--much more.

The uneasiness that arose was palpable, though. By the time I’d finished the last gallery, devoted to contemporary interpretations of drinking cups and pouring vessels for the venerable practice of serving tea, its source had finally become clear. Something big was missing from the show.

Where, I wondered, was the next generation of great ceramic artists? Specifically, where was the next generation from L.A.?

This is more than a question born of parochial pride. For without the stunning sequence of watershed developments in the studios of artists working here, from Venice to Highland Park, there would be no “major stylistic movements in the history of ceramics” since 1950. “Color and Fire” itself is proof of that, if any proof were needed. But the great adventure may be over.

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Look carefully at the exhibition and you’ll find something daunting: Of the show’s 122 artists, only one was born after the baby boom generation that spans 1946 to 1964. (Japanese potter Keisuke Mizuno, who now teaches in Minnesota, is 33.) The two who were born on the generation’s cusp--Britain’s Edmund de Waal and Montana’s David Regan--work far from the flourishing artists’ studios of L.A. Currently, those studios are filled with scores of thirtysomething, post-baby-boom painters, sculptors and media artists, who are making waves internationally. Ceramics seems to have been left behind.

The story is complicated because, when it comes to clay, there are really two stories to consider, and they unfold on simultaneous tracks. One is a story of crafts, the other of art.

Craft represents an anxiety born of the Industrial Revolution. Before the late 18th century, there was no category called “crafts,” because everything was handmade. A categorical definition would serve no purpose.

After industrialization, though, things like pottery split in two. Ceramics were either manufactured in factories for mass consumption, or else pottery was a handicraft to be indulged by the refined studio practitioner and the amateur hobbyist alike.

For nearly 150 years, ceramics in Western society followed one of these two routes, factory production or handicraft. Art was not an option--until Peter Voulkos made it one.

The radical change came in the wake of Voulkos’ 1954 arrival as a ceramics teacher at the old L.A. Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design). The timing was right. The war was over, soldiers were streaming into school--including art school--thanks to the GI Bill, and American optimism and its dark twin, paranoia, were high. Change was inevitable, including artistic change.

For ceramics, the possibility of a third way opened up like a bolt from the blue. After World War II, Picasso began to draw and paint on ceramics, turning his winsome reveries in the south of France into clay vessels appropriate to a primitive idyll on the beach. Most mainstream Modernists were aghast. Painted clay vessels were ancient art, not modern. Yet, that was part of the point. Culturally speaking, Picasso’s playful handmade pots carried a profound sense of starting over. Produced on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, cradle of Western Civ, they stood in stark contrast to the vast wreckage of modern Europe, wrought by the industrialization of warfare and the mass production of genocide. Being modern had turned out to be a problem, not a solution.

Because of Picasso’s inarguable stature as an artist, his controversial example with clay also gave a kind of permission. Voulkos was the one who took it. The revolutionary story of what has come to be called Otis Clay, after the school where he taught, is now well-known. In the LACMA show the lively ceramics by Voulkos, John Mason, Paul Soldner, Jerry Rothman and others of their cohort underscore the radicalism of what happened.

What’s sometimes overlooked, though, is that their work also represents the first full-scale movement of major consequence in postwar L.A. art, edging by a hair (as well as sometimes feeding into) assemblage sculpture, the fetish for excruciating craftsmanship in painting and other developments. The brilliance of Otis Clay represented the birth of a new artistic tradition.

Ken Price, who is 11 years Voulkos’ junior and who worked for a while as his studio assistant, became its next unrivaled standard-bearer. LACMA’s show includes amazing work by Price from each of the past four decades, all of it marked by a keen Pop sensibility. In addition to the magnificent 1997 “Echo,” which is as fine a sculpture as any being made today, there are two witty cups from the 1960s, a revealing 1978 installation piece based on Southwest tourist ware, and a luscious 1980 twist on De Stijl and Constructivist ceramics.

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With ceramic art established as a new and viable practice, young artists in L.A. gravitated to it. After Voulkos’ 1959 departure for UC Berkeley, the collapse of the ceramics program at Otis was followed by the rise of one that had been established earlier at downtown L.A.'s Chouinard Art Institute. By the late 1970s Chouinard’s graduates included Adrian Saxe, Elsa Rady, Mineo Mizuno, Peter Shire and others. Their works are among the highlights of “Color and Fire.”

Saxe subsequently emerged as the most important artist in this younger group, as his drop-dead retrospective at LACMA handily demonstrated in 1993. Individual artists of great talent have made their mark elsewhere, but nowhere has a ceramic art tradition flourished as it has in Los Angeles. From Voulkos to Price to Saxe, the legacy is nothing short of astounding.

It also seems to be--dare I say it?--over. The end of the road might be hard to see, since Price and Saxe are now working at their peak. And Voulkos, long resident in Northern California and lately slowed by ill health (he’s 76), still managed a masterful gallery show in L.A. last year.

But where are the kids? Voulkos was 30 when he began the department at Otis. Price was still in his 20s when he had a series of three definitive solo shows at Ferus, L.A.'s leading art gallery in the early 1960s. Saxe was in his 30s when his dazzling vocabulary of historical and international ceramic styles meshed into an unparalleled polymorphism. If “Color and Fire” is a reliable guide--and there’s no reason to suspect it’s not--no comparable artists of a similar age are working with clay in Los Angeles today.

Maybe the absence of a next generation is to be expected, since the whole dilemma of craft versus art represents an anxiety born of the Industrial Revolution and we’re now busily speeding into a postindustrial world. Whatever the case, the defining moments in studio ceramics all seem to be behind us. The end, apparently, is nigh.


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