June 9, 2021

At the Met: Wondrous Clay

George Ohr, Vases, 1898-1910

Clay is a mundane, common material, in use for millennia. Its characteristics allow it to be transformed into shapes both ordinary and extraordinary: into objects of everyday use or into fine art sculpture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted a thrilling exhibition that shows us the range of lively possibilities present in the medium: Shapes From Out of Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection. Mr. Ellison has made a generous donation to the Met of 125 works from his modern and contemporary ceramics collection and we are all richer for it. 

Looking at the George Ohr vases, I might think that they were made by a contemporary artist, but no, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi" (see link above) was pushing the boundaries of ceramic art over a hundred years ago. 

George Ohr, Vase, 1898-1910; Elisa D'Arrigo, Blue Dyad 1, 2015

Ohr's folded forms are eccentric and beautiful, and have a sense of pulsing life. I very much enjoyed the installation of this show, especially when there was a conversation like this one between's Ohr's vase and Elisa D'Arrigo's writhing sculpture, with its pipe-forms reaching upwards. The surface appears pitted, irregular, as though pushing against a simple idea of beauty. 

Kyoko Tonegawa, Asteroidal Last Gasp, 1985

As with D'Arrigo's piece I'm not sure if this work by Kyoko Tonegawa is functional, or a sculpture...but does it matter? The bulbous form with its lush surface does ask for a touch, a caress. It could also be an ancient life form, whose texture and shape has softened over time. 

Rudolph Staffel, Light Gatherer, 1988

This is the first Rudolph Staffel piece I've seen in person, but I've loved the work I've seen online. He worked with porcelain, and in many of his Light Gatherers the clay is so thin that light shines through it, making it look magically lit from within. 

Kathy Butterly, Pony Boy, 2111

Kathy Butterly is another artist who seems a descendent of Ohr in her draped forms and the modest size of her work. This piece looks to me like it's dancing in a floppy rhythm, with a foot forward and arms upraised. The looseness is held in check with a sharp vertical line and other soft lines emphasizing curves. 

Ken Price, Untitled (Vessel), 1957

There were several pieces in the show which were built using thin slabs of clay, as with this Ken Price vessel. Price is such an interesting artist, whose work ranges across ceramic categories, from biomorphic sculpture to useful or geometric cups. I love this vessel that for me is a figure, with a head divided into shapes. It feels very cubist to me. 

Harris Deller, Suppressed Volume Series, Stacked, Vase with Key Hole Pattern, 1990

This vase by Harris Deller is another slab-built work. I admire the subtle shift in the volumes of the parts. The surface decoration doesn't seem to have anything to do with the form underneath, yet its movement and clarity enhances those minimal volumes. The lines are like contour maps, describing an imagined landscape. 

Chris Gustin, Pink Teapot with Slit #9015, 1990

Wow, I said to myself when I spotted this wacky teapot, whose spout I couldn't find. It's a fleshy accumulation of forms, looking soft and squeezable, like babies' bottoms. (Sorry, couldn't resist that metaphor.) It's just marvelous that the artist made a sculpture of fired clay, which is hard, look like we can push our finger into it and leave a dimple.

Amara Geffen, Arhkaiokurios, 1991

I sometimes have the strangest reactions to work that I assume is abstract, so odd as to wonder if I should admit to it. But here goes: when I saw this Amara Geffen piece I immediately responded to the repetition of the rounded forms, and to the slightly different form held up by the six below. I saw a worship ceremony, with figures elevating a prized member of society, or like the worship of the golden calf. Whatever the interpretation, it's a compelling piece. 

Arnie Zimmerman, Vapor I, 1992

Although I can't really say that I like this sculpture by Arnie Zimmerman––it's pretty far from my usual formalist leanings––but I truly admire its exuberant shapes and its color relationships. I think the color is quite gorgeous, and the choice to have a more neutral central color-shape is perfect. 

Stanley Rosen, Untitled, 200s

Stanley Rosen has a unique approach to making sculpture, with an accumulation of small rolled pieces of clay, one atop another and another, until the form is built. Because the pieces of clay are irregular, the result doesn't have a clear pattern, but rather a quirky description of volumes. A result of this technique is a sense of movement, with the energy of all those elements marching forward or swaying from side to side. 

Anne Marie Laureys, Cloud Unicus, 2017

I think I can say that this sculpture by Anne Marie Laureys was my favorite in the show. I was moved by its soft, billowing forms, seemingly impossible to have created, and by its subtle color. The surface appears brushed, like a velvet cloth. There is something very tender about this work; perhaps it's the deep folds gently turned in upon each other. It's a beautiful work, among many other wonderful pieces in this exhibition that I feel lucky to have been able to see. 

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  1. Thank you Altoon Sultan! It's hard to take not being able to hold these pieces. Rose Cabat got it right:

    1. I totally agree: I wanted to touch these works, and hold the smaller ones. But at least I got to see them.