It was comforting to see that some of the greats of the 20th century ceramic movement were among the best performers this year and that this important legacy is being both recognized and rewarded. Indeed, the record price for a ceramic at Art Basel Miami this year was set by Robert Arneson at $450,000. But there were other highlights noted here, a clay artifact from Marcel Duchamp, a divine crucifix by Lucio Fontana, vessels and tiles by Beatrice Wood, and John Mason’s geometric tomes were among the best work from last century. Then there was the pleasure of “discovering” Hannah Wilke’s ceramic work.
Dada scholar Francis Naumann’s booth was superbly curated with a bevy of delights, a stunning large goblet ($30,000) and tile panel ($70,000) by Beatrice Wood and two surprises from Marcel Duchamp. One was the catalogue he designed for Beatrice Wood’s 1955 solo show of ceramics at the American Craft Council’s gallery, America House, New York. (No other potter could have enlisted Duchamp as her graphic designer!)
In addition, there was the ultimate 20th century ostracon. An ostracon is a ceramic shard on which notes were written in ancient Greece and Egypt (paper was too costly for this purpose), think of it as the Post-it of 500 BC. (It also happens to be the name of CFile’s critical journal that will be arriving later next year.)
A slab of clay containing nothing more that Duchamp’s signature had a $47,000 price tag, but is a worthwhile trophy. Duchamp’s art was so ephemeral that anything he touched has mystique. The potter Mike Mikkelson described its birth this way, “I was an MFA student at the University of Minnesota in 1965. A group of us in the art department had heard that Marcel Duchamp was in town for an opening at the Walker Art Center, and that he would be on campus for a tour of the department. I was in the ceramics studio with a friend at the time, and, as soon as I saw him coming through the studio, I flattened a lump of clay with my hands, handed him a stick tool, and asked him to sign the clay, which he did. I fired the piece and kept it tucked away.”
Galerie Karsten Greve delivered, as always, on Lucio Fontana ceramics with three glazed works, a Madonna with Child and two vases with flowers, all dated around 1955.
84-year-old John Mason is finally getting cudos for his remarkable career. I represented him during my gallery years and have been an admirer since 1973, when I was given a copy of the 1964 Abstract Expressionist Ceramics catalog. He was elegantly presented on David Kordansky Gallery’s impressive, spacious booth. Kordansky is a young Los Angeles Gallery that is quickly becoming a major player. The grey sculpture, shown below, was sold on the first day and the next day replaced by a new piece that was already on reserve by the time I saw it. Price? A very fair $70,000.
Speaking about the first piece, David Kordansky said, “most people just look at it and say it’s grey but when you get close, look at the glaze, look at the depth and complexity of colors.” Clearly he was in love with his artist’s mastery of his medium. It was a good moment.
My “find” was Hannah Wilke’s ceramic work, which I am embarrassed to say was new to me. Of course I knew of the famous, early feminist artist (born 1940, died 1993), but mainly for her photographic body art (S.O.S. Scarification Object Series) from the mid 1970s in which she posed as a pinup but with tiny vulva sculptures made from chewing gum stuck to her body to resemble scarification. But I should have known the ceramics, the vulva art began in clay and was her signature work from the 1960s and continued through her career. She also taught both sculpture and ceramics at high schools and from 1974 to 1991 at the School of the Visual Arts in New York. Somehow we never crossed paths.
Andrea Rosen had three excellent pieces on her booth. Yes, at first glance the work may seem a little too basic, too crude and unformed. But the longer one looks at the work, the more it weaves a spell with its gentle folding and lightness, as if the layers were formed by air. There is no direct asserting of will, just coaxing with an erotic tenderness.
The Alison Jacques Gallery from London had a large work comprising 77 brightly painted terracotta vulvas (or Venus Mounds as they more discreetly titled them) from 1985-86. It was my art epiphany that I took from Miami, a powerful whisper with a vibrant palette that even now haunts my mind. I visited it three times and its sincerity was my antidote to the soulless art manufacture that was everywhere.
One feels that John Cage would have loved the atonal poetry in her work, and who knows, maybe he did.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile who apologies for his photography.
Above image: A slab of clay containing Marcel Duchamp’s signature was set at $47,000 on Francis M. Naumann Fine Art’s booth at Miami Basel. Courtesy of Francis M. Naumann Fine Art.