If you looked through Artsy’s selective lens of 3,229 works and 286 dealers you would assume that ceramics had all but disappeared from the 45th edition of Art Basel in Switzerland. But on the floor it was there in abundance although not as much, nor as dramatic a presence, as in Basel Hong Kong where Korean artist Yeesookyung’s Thousand (2014), (ceramic shards rejoined with golden epoxy) was a show stopper.
There were works by Josh Smith, Thomas Shutte, Rosemark Trockel, Hannah Wilke, Takuro Kuwata, Lucio Fontana, Leonardo Leoncillo, Allesandro Pessoli, the Haas Brothers, Cameron Jame, Waltercio Caldas, John Isaacs, Mai-Thu Perret, Rachael Kneebone, Lynda Benglis, William O’Brien, Thomas Dane, Dan McCarthy and others. If one adds clay to the list that includes Mark Manders and Rebecca Warren (who showed a giant formless breast sprouting pudding in what is described as self-firing clay, although I am not sure what that is).
The quality was uneven but that was true of all media. Basel is still a powerhouse but it’s getting threadbare on the fringes and B works are on the increase. Work by the Haas Brothers, Cameron Jamie, Dan McCarthy, and Alessandro Pessoli was better suited to a regional craft fair.
The nadir was surprisingly Ordinary Plate with Two Rubber Bands (1978) by Waltercio Caldas. It is surprising because he is a great Brazilian artist known for his excellent spatial drawings in stainless steel wire of everyday objects. CFile will profile this artist in a later issue. At least this work (and blame the dealer for selling it, not the artist for making it) wins a prize for truth in advertising.
Mark Manders, who never disappoints, showed two handsome works in unfired clay but then transposed into painted bronze- a head and torso- fissured, cracked and rich in earthy texture. Lucio Fontana’s formidable ceramics were represented by one mediocre, overworked plate, but a small terracotta from 1943 by his friend Marino Marini, was a gem.
Anna Maria Maiolino had strong work, panels made in clay and then cast in concrete, a latter material which is rapidly becoming the new bronze. There will be two posts about this remarkable artist ‘s clay-based practice in a few weeks. And I have admit to being a sucker for any remake of Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, so I was drawn to John Isaacs’s rainbow version, Ngorongoro (2013) which sold for $60,000.
That raises the only two things that matter at Basel: what was sold (and for how much) and what was unsold. It is, after all, a bazaar. And ceramics did very well.
Julia Halperin in an excellent article, “Perfectly Unfashionable to be Fashionable Again” for The Art Newspaper, tested the response for ceramic art at the cash register on preview night. What irked me was her opening sentence, “Are ceramics, long relegated to the realm of craft, finally getting their due?”
That boat sailed a decade ago. Did she not get the memo? Does every article about ceramics and art for next century have to begin with that tired line?
Business was brisk: the untitled orange ceramic basin by Rosemarie Trockel, sold at Sprüth Magers for €120,000; Lynda Benglis’s sculpture Oriental Cuckold, (1993), sold at Thomas Dane for $65,000; two untitled glazed totems by William O’Brien sold at Marianne Boesky for $55,000 and $65,000. Tomio Koyama Gallery sold all their works by the brilliant ceramist Takuro Kuwata between $15,000 and $30,000. Halperin noted:
“Artists such as Walead Beshty and Janine Antoni have recently begun to work in the medium for the first time. La Belicosidad (2013), which Beshty created during a residency at the Cerámica Suro in Guadalajara, Mexico, sold on Thomas Dane’s stand for $85,000. [Personally, I find his ceramics to be too dated, underdeveloped and cliched at this point to be taken seriously, yet alone at $85K.] A pelvic-shaped ceramic from Antoni’s latest series, Gertrude (2013), sold for $15,000 at Anthony Meier Fine Arts.
“Historic examples also drew interest; San Sebastian (1960), by Leoncillo, an Italian ceramicist who exhibited alongside Lucio Fontana at the 1954 Venice Biennale, was on reserve at Galleria dello Scudo for €130,000, for example, and an American institution placed a reserve on an early terracotta work by Hannah Wilke— Five Androgynous and Vaginal Sculptures (1960-61), priced at $300,000 offered by Alison Jacques Gallery.”
She asked opinions and some of those were interesting:
“We’re seeing artists incorporating ceramics into their work more and more. Art students today are encouraged to experiment with a variety of media, he says, and ceramics are faster to make and cheaper to produce than works in bronze or aluminium”, said Jed Morse, the chief curator of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. “For artists the appeal of clay has never really diminished”, he added.
“Ten years ago, many artists worried that they would be dismissed or pigeonholed if they made ceramics. Now, they don’t think of it as a secondary medium,” offered Renee McKee of McKee Gallery.
“Although artists and curators seem to have fully embraced the medium, collectors have been slower to come around. Ceramic is a challenging material for some people to collect,” says the art adviser Wendy Cromwell. “There is still some resistance to thinking of it as fine art.”
“Ceramic is such a classical practice, it is interesting to see it being brought back to life,” says Adam Lindemann, who has teamed up with Simon de Pury, the former chairman of Phillips auction house, to organize an exhibition of contemporary ceramics at Venus Over Manhattan, Lindemann’s New York gallery, in September.
“At its most basic, the same appeal that attracted Picasso and Miró attracts Sterling Ruby; working in clay is like drawing in sculpture.” Now, the rest of the art world is catching up. Ceramic was once seen as pottery. Now it’s contemporary art,” was the closer from Alison Jacques.
And what is more, it sells. Seeing as we no longer have an art world (its been replaced by an art market) that is, for better and worse, all that matters.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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Above: John Isaacs Ngorongoro, 2013, glazed ceramic 28.35 x 18.11 x 14.57 inches. Galerie Michael Hass, Berlin.