Return to Earth: Ceramic Sculpture of Fontana, Melotti, Miro, Noguchi, and Picasso, 1943-1963 (Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, September 21, 2013 through January 19, 2014) is an exhibition of extraordinary quality. Thus far, it is the most important exhibition held in America of work by the leading modernists who worked in ceramics during and just after WW II. The Wall Street Journal rightly calls it “astonishingly beautiful” in an excellent review by Tom L. Freudenheim.
The only wrong note is when he anoints Picasso as the most facile of the artists when it comes to ceramics. Picasso worked in a very narrow technical range (low fire earthenware with unimaginative facilitators) and barely touched the clay. Actually, all the other artists on the show considered Picasso’s ceramics to be a poor use of the ceramic medium. The true ceramic master of the group is hands-on Lucio Fontana. For the record, Fausto Melotti was the only artist of the group who worked without a ceramics facilitator.
Jed Morse, Nasher Sculpture Center’s Chief Curator and the curator of this exhibition, describes how the historical forces during the given time period affected these titans of Modernism and their ceramic practices:
World War II imposed significant disruptions and displacements on each of these artists, and clay offered them a way to reground themselves while moving their art forward. Fontana, who had sought refuge from the war in his native Argentina, returned to Italy and began a radically new path in ceramics and clay related to his burgeoning ideas about Spatialism. Melotti, who stayed in Milan, emerged from the conflagration to become one of the primary proponents of architect Gio Ponti’s populist agenda making high modernism an accessible part of everyday life. Miró, who had returned to France at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, only to be forced back to Spain by German bombs, longed to establish roots and dreamed of a large studio in which to pursue his expanding artistic interests and efforts to move beyond painting.
For Noguchi, who voluntarily spent seven months in a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans in Arizona after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, ceramics became a medium through which to explore the Japanese side of his cultural heritage. During the German occupation of Paris, Picasso decamped to the south of France where he enlivened a quiet industry of potters, reconnecting with his bohemian roots and pursuing a more seamless integration of art and life that offers an unexpected precedent for avant-garde modes prominent in the later 1960s and 1970s. Despite their disparate contexts and circumstances, the artists featured in Return to Earth were drawn to clay as much for its immediacy and tactile responsiveness as to its commonplace status, metaphorical associations, and broader cultural implications.
What makes the show so exceptional is Morse’s peerless selection of the ceramics themselves. This is one of my primary areas of scholarship, so it was a pleasure both to be introduced to old chestnuts (Fontana’s Il Guerriero (The Warrior), glazed in what seems to be kryptonite, was worth the journey to Dallas by itself) and some new objects I have not seen before. He even managed to omit most of Picasso’s painted pottery clichés. Often exhibitions of work by these artists comes through as a hodge-podge of whatever was available (the exhibition of Fontana’s ceramics a couple of years ago at the Aspen Art Museum being a case in point). I am sure that Morse did some of that too but this assembly felt carefully considered and each artist’s representation was a balanced and significant.
To close, I have two quibbles; the first of which is with Nasher director Jeremy Strick that this work is “little known.” This judgment may have been true fifteen to twenty years ago, but not today. Later in the press release for the exhibition it is bemoaned, “their pursuit of ceramics has for the most part received scant attention.” Again, not true, and this tendency to continue to speak of the medium as though it is still imprisoned in the art orphanage bears no relationship to its open celebration today—it is as tiresome as it is uninformed. I will revisit this claim in my forthcoming commentary, “Stop Winging about Ceramics.”
The second is with Morse. He is on record saying that Fontana was in Argentina “to avoid the Second World War.” This unfair canard has followed Fontana into the present; while I am sure that Morse was not suggesting this, the allegation has been used by Fontana’s detractors to suggest that the artist was an unpatriotic Italian and a coward.
First, Fontana served in the Italian army with distinction during the First World War; he was wounded and decorated. After the War, he returned to military service for about a year. Secondly, he was too old to serve in 1943. Thirdly, he went to Argentina before the war broke out, planning to stay for only one year to undertake some projects and only after incessant badgering by his father to return to his birth country. Fourthly, once he arrived, the public commissions that he was promised did not come through and his wealthy father withdrew financial support and Fontana was left even poorer than he was in Milan. Then Italy entered the war and return became impossible. It was only in 1947 that he was able to scrape together the price of his return voyage to Milan and escape Argentina, which he heartily detested.
Supposedly, this exhibition will produce a major book. And that will be the litmus test of the Nasher’s scholarship. I say “supposedly” because several attempts to contact the Nasher in recent months have gone unanswered. The title does not appear on the mighty, all-knowing Amazon book early-warning list and the museum has no online store. Indeed, their website is the worst I have encountered for any major cultural institution; it is a true digital relic. When CFile gets a review copy we look forward to revisiting this exceptional project.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Isamu Noguchi, The Policeman (detail),1950. Seto stoneware. 13 3/8 x 8 3/4 x 5 1/8 in. Courtesy of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.
An interview with Jed Morse, Nasher Sculpture Center’s Chief Curator and the curator of Return to Earth, in the exhibition space. Video by Art This Week.