We spent some time debating the headline because getting the Puddly from CFile is not a “win” in any conventional sense. The prize’s full title is “The Puddled Cone Award for Exceptional Illiteracy in the Ceramic Arts”. It is partly tongue in cheek. But only partly.
Above image: Cones, courtesy of the Edward Orton Jr. Ceramic Foundation
The cone we speak of is a pyrometric device, three ceramic cones that are placed in a kiln and designed to melt at specific temperatures. One can track temperature increase by looking through a spyhole in the kiln. As the pointed cone spikes begin to slump one can tell when the firing has reached its peak heat. A cone set that turns into a puddle tells us that the firing was a heinous disaster.
Here is a little cone background, courtesy of potters Forrest and Jeni Gard:
“The pyrometric cones that we use in ceramics today were developed by Edward Orton Jr. His father Edward Orton Sr. was the first president of Ohio State University. Edward Orton Jr. started the first ceramic engineering school in the United States at OSU, later the fine arts ceramics program started as a branch of this program. Orton developed his cone system by gathering research from the work of Seger Cones originally developed in Germany. The cone is an important part of firing ceramics because it measures the heat work in the kiln. Heat work relates to the effect of time and temperature in the kiln, not simply the temperature that could be measured with a thermocouple.”
The Whitney and all future recipients will receive an actual puddled cone donated by our readers. We see each as an individual conceptual artwork. This one was gifted by Benjamin and Bonnie Burns in the North Carolina pottery town of Seagrove, N.C. The prize will shortly arrive on the desk of Whitney director Adam Weinberg.
We have more Puddlies to send out so if you have one that records a moment of grand pyrotechnic mayhem send it on to CFile (with the date of the disaster) and you will get the award winning book, Dark Light: The Ceramics of Christine Nofchissey McHorse, signed to you by the authors as a thank you. (Send to 223 N. Guadalupe Street #274, Santa Fe New Mexico, 87501.)
So why does the Whitney Museum of American Art have the great dishonor of being the first to receive this award? It is in response to their inaugural exhibition America Is Hard To See. The show launches their new home on New York’s Hudson River and surveys about a century of American modern and contemporary art.
This kind of show is always a problem; broad surveys end up making few people happy and they are a punching bag for omissions. One accepts this to a degree.
However, ceramics in America is Hard to See is virtually invisible despite its current acceptance in the fine arts. The Whitney banished an entire medium to the darkest recesses of its warehouse. There is not a single tipping of the hat to the post-war rise of ceramics in contemporary art. This is unforgivable curation.
There are two ceramic works on the show. Both are pre-WW2 One is a small glazed bull by Carl Walters, a minor sculptor. The work is not a masterpiece of his (that would be Cat in Tall Grass (1939), which resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The other is a carved terracotta head, admittedly handsome, Head (1947) by Elizabeth Catlett.
After that…nada, zip, nothing. There are a few ceramic works that have been smuggled in in 2D form via other media (thanks to Adam McEwen and Jasper Johns who includes a George E. Ohr pot in painting). The Whitney’s survey of art in America bypassed the oldest art medium during an era that had some glorious flowerings. And since ceramics has been embraced by the fine art establishment, featuring such works would not have been a risk for the exhibition.
The fact is, and Christopher Knight nails this perfectly in his Los Angeles Times review, that this is not a survey of Art in America, but a survey of American art viewed myopically from Manhattan. It reeks of incestuous provincialism. More than that, the exhibition is basically a painting show with sculpture dotted here and there to fill empty space. Visiting was still a pleasure because of the sense of occasion, the opening of New York’s most visitor friendly institution. And there are the gems in the collection one never grows tired of seeing.
Seeing as the work is all drawn from the Whitney’s collections, could it be that they do not own any ceramics of quality? Depending on your point of view that would either provide them with get-of-out-jail-free card or still entitle them to a second Puddly. While the Whitney’s holding of post-War ceramics is meager they have several that are masterworks.
They have three Ken price works, one a cabinet from Happy’s Curios and a very handsome vessel form. They have a major Robert Arneson, Whistling in the Dark, and one of Peter Voulkos’ top ten artworks, Red River. So those by themselves could have covered two California movements from the 50’s and 60’s, Otis clay (Price and Voulkos) and Funk (Arneson). Two excellent Betty Woodman pieces could represent post modernism.
Knight, in one of his Facebook posts, suggested that placing Voulkos’s Red River next to Warhol’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles would have been an act of curatorial genius. We agree. Alas, acts of genius are not to be found often in the installation of this inbred, committee-driven presentation.
If the Whitney was worried about these artists not being boldface enough (ridiculous in the case of Price, the most unforgivable omission) they had several major ceramics by their holy and canonized artists. Isamu Noguchi’s Queen, a large terracotta sculpture, inspired by chess, is one of the museum’s real masterpieces. The museum has an installation of 18 stoneware works by Louise Nevelson that is remarkable.
In my 30 years running a gallery I found the Whitney to be the most aggressively anti-ceramics organization in the city. I endured more patronizing attitudes and downright insults from Whitney curators (the curator of drawing is a notable exception) than from all the other museums put together. It seems to be a culture thing and, again, it is an old school New York provincialism that keeps curatorial decisions in a yesterday mode. Maybe it is a consequence of being an American museum for so many years that these oft-hermetic attitudes are encouraged at the Whitney.
Yes, there are some exceptions in the Whitney’s history. Even a blind monkey finds a banana sometimes. There was the troubled pottery-phobic exhibition Ceramic Sculpture: Six Artists (read the full exhibition catalogue text here).
There was a Viola Frey solo show in the small ground floor gallery (the show was much maligned within the institution itself). Yes, ceramics was evident at the last Whitney Biennial (with bizarrely uneven choices) but that does not count. The biennial does not reflect institutional politics as the current exhibition proves.
There is good news, however. Renzo Piano’s building is a delight. I loved being there for so many reasons. I was surrounded by the busy and buzzy restaurant scene in the Meat Packing District on a Friday evening. Being there was a connection to life. Putting the building up against the beloved High Line was a genius move on the part of the museum board. How often does on read the words “genius,” “museum” and “board” in a single sentence?
Piano’s building makes the most sense if it is viewed as a grounded ship. Its metal railings bend perfectly with the waterfront, suggesting cranes and derricks. The patios are like open decks, while the very top floor deck has the feeling of a captain’s bridge. It’s a building that enjoys its visitors and calls them back. The metaphor of a ship sailing the seas of art could not be more perfect for the City. It would help if the museum’s curatorial mindset could voyage further than the New York harbor. If you feel that you can help pull the Big Apple out of the museums’ vision, keep checking their job listings for a curator position.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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