London artist Edmund de Waal’s Fall 2013 exhibition, Atemwende, with New York’s Gagosian Gallery, was something of a breakthrough moment—although the dealer made more of a fuss about his book, The Hare With Amber Eyes, than his art. It is rare for a studio potter to reach the upper branches of the art tree and certainly at this price level: between $70,000 and $500,000. Gagosian rolled out the red carpet but it has not been without its bumps along the road.
Firstly, Gagosian and the artist had to retract the claim in the New York Times and on their website that this was his first gallery show ever in the United States. Garth Clark Gallery, New York held the first solo show for de Waal in 1998. Then Roberta Smith went and made the same claim in her review. Keeping history straight is a difficult road.
Also it seems that Gagosian is keeping a tight reign on his artist. The gallery denied CFile’s request to use images of de Waal’s new work (aside from one close-up) for Eric Zetterquist’s guest commentary on the show, you will find it at the link below, which deals mostly with his black ceramics. It seems pointless as one can download images of the black series directly from the artist and the gallery’s website. Even The Times had to make do with white.
A bigger bump was Smith’s review (New York Times, October 10, 2013). It was short but delivered with her usual scalpel-like precision:
If you like the work of Robert Ryman, Ken Price, Cy Twombly, Giorgio Morandi, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst, among others, the New York gallery debut of Edmund de Waal may appeal. Mr. de Waal is best known for his poignant, beautifully written, if sometimes overly precious, family memoir, “The Hare With Amber Eyes.” He also has a deep training in and love for the art, craft and history of ceramics that, over the last two decades or so, has been overtaken by the ambition to be an installation artist. He is now becoming known for a series of sleek shallow shelving units — large or small in black or white — arrayed irregularly with anywhere from 6 to nearly 500 small delicate cylindrical porcelain vessels, also black or white.
It is an instructive pleasure to study the range of shapes and especially surfaces of the black porcelains: matte, shiny, pocked, striated, smooth, flecked with gold and sometimes accented with a pale rim. The same is true of the subtle contrasts of white, cream and pale celadon glazes that give a suite of four large white pieces slightly different tonalities, depending on which glaze is dominant and the quantity of light coming through the gallery’s skylights. These works also resemble ultrarefined versions of the shelves of finished product in a ceramics studio, or the scores of glaze samples that potters often accrue. Time spent with Mr. de Waal’s work can teach a lot about the nuances of ceramics, but his work is ostentatiously precious and ultimately naïve. It forces a pastiche of received art ideas through the sieve of a different medium, gaining a physical distinctiveness, but little more. Too bad he found ceramics itself so deficient.
Why the groupings? The artist explained his purpose in massing his pots, “I’ve been thinking about new ways to make pauses, spaces and silences, where breath is held inside and between each vessel, between the objects and the vitrines, the vitrines and the room. In working with the vessel, working with porcelain and with colors that express the great history of Oriental ceramics, but also the colors of modernism and minimalism; this seems to be enough material to be getting on with.”
Atemwende comprises a series of vitrines containing thrown porcelain vessels arranged in specific groupings. From simple pairs of pots to complex multitudes in their hundreds, these minimalist dichotomies in black and white suggest the sequences and patterns of a musical score, while their titles cite the poetry of Paul Celan, Wallace Stevens and others.
De Waal’s art, Gagosian claims, speaks to his enduring fascination with the nature of objects and the attendant history of their collection and display.
His poignant memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) is a family biography whose recurring motif through five generations is a large collection of netsuke. A potter since childhood and an acclaimed writer, de Waal’s studies of the history of ceramics have taken him from ancient Japan to late modernism. Confronting European and Asian traditions of intimate craftsmanship with the scale and sequence of minimalist art and music, his new ensembles evoke at once the delicate measure of Agnes Martin’s sublime abstract paintings and the rhythmic pulses of the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
De Waal’s desire to transcend utilitarian pottery was evident in his transition during the 1980s from clay to more refined porcelain, a medium that demands acute focus of mind and eye as well as a swift hand. A new audacity is expressed in the sheer number of pots and their arrangement. Impact is achieved through scale and multiplicity, yet the subtle iterations of the handmade process are maintained.
The exhibition’s title derives from Paul Celan’s 1967 poetry collection, Atemwende, or “breathturn,” a term the poet equates with the moment when words transcend their literal meaning. Set in series and sequences, the pots possess their own evocative power, appearing as characters that touch and huddle, or face isolation. Each of the four large vitrines, breathturn I-IV (all works 2013), hold hundreds of pots, while individual objects and smaller clusters sit within wall-mounted boxes, girders, and brackets “evoking the ascetic constructions of Donald Judd and Giorgio Morandi’s communities of everyday vessels on canvas. By setting intimate handmade works in fabricated aluminum vitrines, de Waal produces a formal tension between tradition and innovation. De Waal imbues the mastery of an ancient medium with a bold new narrative. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by Adam Gopnik.
Perhaps the difficulty is that they do not evoke Judd exquisite understanding of the box. And because the ceramics that are in these boxes hold indifferent pots, his work looks best from a distance and become more mute the closer one gets.
If this group of works, admittedly his best to date, falls short, de Waal is not alone. Increasingly ceramists seem to mistake multiplication for art: it can make for art but it’s not a given. I will be examining this trend later in a series of essays entitled “The Myth of Many” which will appear on CFile under the Commentary heading.
Edmund de Waal was born in Nottingham, United Kingdom in 1964 and he lives and works in London. His work has been shown and collected by museums throughout the world, including Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt; National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh; and Victoria & Albert Museum, London. His recent solo museum exhibitions include Edmund de Waal, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Cambridge (2007); Edmund de Waal: Signs & Wonders, Victoria & Albert Museum, London (2009); and Edmund de Waal at Waddesdon, Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom (2012). His acclaimed memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes was the winner of the Costa Biography Award in 2010 and is an international bestseller.
Garth Clark is the Curator and Chief Editor of Cfile.
Installation views of Edmund de Waal’s Atemwende, 2013 at Gagosian. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Rob McKeever
Edmund de Waal, breathturn, I,. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Mike Bruce
Edmund de Waal , the white road, I–III, 2013. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Mike Bruce
Edmund de Waal, your hand full of hours, 2013 . Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Mike Bruce