In the crown of studio pottery there is one jewel that sparkles more than most, the singular talent of Ralph Bacerra. Indeed, seeing him as both jeweler and potter is instructive; exquisite glaze and overglaze set in fields of gold, silver and platinum and of course, the Imperial “white gold” of porcelain (although he also worked in earthenware and stoneware at times).
Above: Installation view, Ralph Bacerra: Exquisite Beauty. Courtesy Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design.
His achievement has been handsomely celebrated in Ralph Bacerra: Exquisite Beauty at the Ben Maltz Gallery of the Otis College of Art and Design (Los Angeles, September 26 – December 6, 2015) and if you have not seen the exhibition do whatever it takes to visit this essential show: beg a ride, hop on a airplane, ask your college for travel funds, navigate L.A’s loopy public transport system but get to this exhibition before it closes on December 6.
This is a moment that any self-respecting ceramophile should experience and also this exhibition will unfortunately not travel so you have only one shot. It is not on the well-traveled paths of L.A.’s culture circuit at the newish Otis campus near the LAX airport (an excellent spot for a fly-in, fly out visit).
I met Bacerra during my first visit to the US in 1974. We were introduced by the legendary collector Fred Marer, while touring the country on a three-month whistle-stop lecture tour. Bacerra viewed me, a young unedited volcano of opinion, with cautious curiosity, as he might a new species of plant he had not previously encountered that might be mildly toxic or worse, artificial. Later I moved from London to L.A. and a friendship began to grow, lasting until his death in 2008.
For decades, with Mark Del Vecchio (they got on like a house on fire), we watched orchids thrive in his greenhouse, enjoyed the exceptional table he set, witnessed his disciplined studio life and in later years, during tougher times, were there when he lost his exquisite and beloved home and then his longtime partner.
He was a tough interview. While a great conversationalist and a sharp wit, when it came to his art was almost mute aside from stating that he was seeking beauty, a desire that played less well then than it does now. I would argue he did more, unleashing magic, a kind ceramic rapture from the kiln. But he would never have made the latter comment although it might have produced an amused sardonic twinkle in his eye and a shy smile.
Bacerra was plainspoken to a fault. He disliked pretentious artspeak and loathed writing that conceptualized his art practice. He was an opponent of the cerebral bias in art, particularly in ceramics. This was not surprising coming from a sensualist and hedonist.
This was perfectly summed up in a review of his 1999 exhibition at our New York Galley by New York Times writer Ken Johnson:
To look at Ralph Bacerra’s gorgeous ceramic vessels is to wallow in visual hedonism. Mr. Bacerra, an immensely skilled craftsman based in Los Angeles, does not try to express any important meaning, social, psychological, philosophical or otherwise. His works are witty and sophisticated in their manipulation of influences ranging from Japanese to early modernist to Pop, but mainly he wants to delight the eyes of his viewers.
These objects are zany and almost visionary in their play with pattern and decoration, as are several wonderfully elaborate teapots, also on view. Each jar also has a lid sporting a funky sculptural assemblage of cubes, cones and spheres, a nod to Cezanne. When you take off the lid, you discover not a deep vacant interior but a shallow dish, good for nuts or car keys or whatever.
Sometimes one wishes avant-garde art could be so unashamedly sumptuous.
Japanese pottery of the Edo period was his favorite, with Imari, Kutani and the princely Nabeshima wares high on the list. The latter was, for me, the rosetta stone of his art. Production of these wares began in Japan in the early 17th century when the Nabeshima lord took Korean potters back to his province of Hizen on Kyushu, and encouraged the making of painted work that even today seems remarkably modern and extraordinarily sophisticated. It was made for an elite audience of nobles and warlords.
In the Nabeshima wares one sees his decorative schema, except that he took this input into a new realm, layering complex decorations one over the other before computers made such layering simple. Imagine ten different plates overlaid then skillfully morphed into one and one has an inkling of his planar complexity.
He would draw his complex decoration in pencil on the bisque ware that disappeared in the first of as many 20 glaze firings. These took place in strict rotation as he applied layer after layer of glaze with the highest firing glaze first then in descending firing temperature thereafter. The mental snapshot of that design remained in his mind until completion. His loss rate in the process was close to 50 percent, mainly because of his constantly innovative slab forms that could rupture their seams, and he would destroy anything that had the tiniest blemish or crack.
Bacerra had a supernatural sense of volume that distinguishes the work as much as surface élan. As a teacher at Otis he would do a demonstration for incoming students, saying he would throw a one-quart pitcher. He would then make an absurdly complex shape and after it came out of kiln, having lost more than ten percent of its size to shrinkage, he would fill it with water and it would contain precisely one quart. Bacerra spoke volume fluently.
His inspirational relationship with his students, some of whom showed in the Garth Clark Gallery in Los Angeles and New York, was intense and life-long. I would place him alongside Ken Ferguson and few others as one of the top educators in American ceramics during his tenure. And what is touching it is his students who drove this tribute, lead by Joan Takiyama Ogawa and the show’s curator Jo Lauria. Credit also goes to Frank Lloyd who showed him in LA after our gallery there closed while we continued to represent him internationally and show him in New York. Also Peter Held gave support in the formative days of the project.
His relationship with Otis, continuing the ceramics department infamously begun by Voulkos that set off the Southern California Clay Revolution, adds a touch of rich irony. During a brutal conceptual sweep of Otis, the ceramics department was closed in 1996. It is described as a voluntary retirement in the exhibition catalog but that was not the story that Bacerra told me. He was deeply hurt by the school’s actions. When the director walked into his workshop and gave him the news of his dismissal, Bacerra asked why, “Because what you do is too real”, she replied.
I am sure that she had no idea that Bacerra had just been given the ultimate praise, if inadvertent. It is his blend of pragmatism, lack of pretension yet feeling for opulent beauty that was the magic mix in his art. And, unlike many who followed his path before and after, he had a sixth sense, knowing when to stop before the pleasure of excess descended into chaos or unbridled decadence.
The catalog is impressive and comprehensive and again I would argue for urgency, rush to buy this unless you want to pay hundreds for this on the second-hand book market. It is published in a modest edition and will be sold out soon.
Lastly, a personal note if you would allow me a moment of sentiment: death has a way of revealing the full depth of human relationships in a way that life cannot. Mark Del Vecchio and I worked closely (and partied) with Ralph for three decades, endured his difficult partner, and while we knew that we loved this charming man, we did not realize just how much until he was no longer alive. He has not left our lives, however. And this review has sharpened our feeling of loss. We understand why his students made such a heroic and successful effort to mount this show and we applaud them for it.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of cfile.
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