Who would have guessed that New York City would become the major center in the world for contemporary ceramic art? There was no doubt that ceramics would eventually find parity as a medium in the fine arts, but what is a surprise is that NYC would seize upon it with such enthusiasm. To quote Roberta Smith, New York Times art critic, as I frequently do (she was one of the prime architects of the medium’s current ubiquity), “ceramics is the new photography.”
Above image: The Ceramic Tube Clad New York Times building by Renzo Piano.
The comparison is instructive. Both media were bogged down in the “is it art or is it craft” debate and now both have largely (but not totally) escaped that argument and classification.
Whatever the vagaries of art taste might be, New York is Ceramic Gotham; it has the largest number of ceramic clad architecture, hundreds of them, (and the largest examples) anywhere in the world. This includes the Woolworth Building and other classics. Mainly these are 19th century and pre-WW2 structures, but a few have arrived recently. Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building and Brad Cloepfil’s redo of the facade of 2 Columbus Circle for the Museum of Art and Design are standouts.
When Mark Del Vecchio and I opened our New York Galley at 24 West 57th Street in 1983, the city’s art dealers and curators were hostile to ceramics. Among their unkind nicknames for the medium was “terra worthless.” For the next three decades we fought for equality and scored some successes. For example, it used to be that ceramic reviews in the New York Times ran alongside pudding recipes on Thursday. After years of work, these reviews were moved to the art page on Friday. We later became members of the exclusive Art Dealers Association of America.
In 2008 we closed our doors, realizing that the drift of ceramics into multimedia galleries was well underway and that the relevance of the medium-specific gallery was fading. We decided to leave before the funeral.
What provoked me to write this commentary is that the number of ceramics exhibitions in the marketplace over the last two months has been impressive. During this time we have seen more than 30 ceramic shows at major galleries. More than 200 ceramic artists were featured in art fairs and in higher-end art auctions during the same time period.
This includes solo shows for Daisy Youngblood at David McKee, Francesca DiMattio at Salon 94, two exhibitions at Barbara Gladstone (Andrew Lord and Cameron Jamie), Michele Oka Doner at Marlborough, Steven Montgomery, Malcolm Mobutu Smith, and many others. Many have received rave reviews and hardly a “best of” list in the art media has been published without a ceramic component.
At auction, fairs and other venues in the last 60 days one encounters Sterling Ruby, Ai Weiwei, Betty Woodman, Theaster Gates, Ken Price, Arlene Shechet, Joana Vasconcelos, Viola Frey, Robert Arneson, Jeff Koons, ablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Lucio Fontana, Dan Flavin, Richard Slee, the Haas Brothers, Jeremy Hatch, Mariana Castillo Deball, Grayson Perry and this is just the short list. Add 150 more artists and you get a sense of the scale of the ceramic takeover.
It is not all perfection, of course. There have been some tragedies in the last 60 days. The show, Vessels, at Blackston Gallery is beyond redemption (part of a sad “look I just made my first ceramic” trend) and the new Whitney Museum has proved that its old prejudices against the medium are still being rigidly adhered to. But I do not want to rain on the party now, so my knives are being sharpened and the dark side of this trend will be addressed next week.
For the next two weeks CFile will focus on New York as the Ceramic Gotham. We hope you’ll enjoy it. Perhaps, given that it has taken about 65 years to reach this point, ceramists and ceramophiles will enjoy this warm embrace.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile
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