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"confrontational clay" exhibition review

updated fri 9 mar 01


Judith S. Schwartz on thu 1 mar 01

To Fellow Clayartists:
I thought you would be interested in reading this Assoicated Press
story about the two year travelling exhibition currently on view at
the American Craft Museum in New York City called " Confrontational
Clay". The exhibition was curated by me, Judith S. Schwartz for
Exhibits USA an organization for independent curators which is a
division of the Mid-America Arts Alliance located in Kansas City.
From the responses I have received it was published in numerous
newspapers nationally and internationally and will continue to be
republished as the exhibition continues its tour around the country.
A 36 page catalog is available from Exhibits USA at

Ceramic Exhibit Gets In-Your-Face
By Katherine Roth
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, Feb. 8, 2001; 12:01 p.m. EST
NEW YORK -- An obese man seething with rage holds a switch he's ready to
crack. A scarred breast cancer survivor carves numbers into her fleshy back.
Sweet little girls in nice dresses and Mary Janes are armed with handguns
and assault rifles.
An in-your-face ceramics show leaves flower vases, pretty tableware and
dainty Hummel figurines in the dust. Instead, there are works that shock,
frighten or amuse - and make you stop and think.
"Confrontational Clay: The Artist as Social Critic," a groundbreaking show
on view at the American Craft Museum, introduces a whole new world of
ceramics. It is a long-overlooked genre that emerged in the 1950s and has
been quietly growing and evolving ever since.
Twenty-eight artists are represented, and the works are roughly divided into
four themes: gender issues and sexuality; war, politics and the human
condition; environmental and social concerns; and popular and material
"Clay traditionally was not used to confront our sensibilities. Usually,
it's a benign material used to eat off of or see pretty flowers in," says
Judith S. Schwartz, who curated what she says is the first show devoted to
the genre.
"In the 1950s, that changed. The artists represented in this show are using
a very common material to talk about things that are near and dear and
really socially relevant to them."
The earliest pieces of "confrontational clay" appeared at the dawn of World
War II. The spontaneity and expressiveness of modern jazz and Abstract
Expressionism - and later the civil rights and women's movements - also
inspired artists working in the medium to take pieces like teapots and
toilets a giant step further.
No subject is taboo. AIDS, tracheotomies, mastectomies, obesity, nuclear
war, guns, physical and emotional violence, drought, racism, sexism,
infertility, the challenges of motherhood, consumerism, pollution, urine and
sex are only some of the issues addressed in the show, which tracks the last
30 years of confrontational works in clay - from the 1970s to 2000.
Perhaps the earliest work in the show is Howard Kottler's 1965-70 "American
Supperware Series," which uses store-bought plates and sliced-up flag
stickers to show images of a fragmented U.S. flag - and a country divided by
the Vietnam war.
"It's a very American genre," Schwartz says. "I don't think any other
country deals with social and environmental issues the way Americans do.
There's no similar movement in Europe. The freedom of speech, willingness to
confront issues and speak their minds, that's what makes this work so
Because the genre is so young, few of the works are in museum collections;
most are on loan from the artists themselves.
The show reveals the evolution of the works, which seem to get gloomier as
time marches on.
"In the beginning it was fun and pun and silly, and now it's gotten very
serious. It's gotten figurative with mastectomies, and a women with nails in
her chest. It's gotten harder and more realistic, where it used to be funky
and satiric and sort of gross. Now it's not gross, it's reality," says
Many earlier works tend to bring a wry smile, like Clayton Bailey's 1979
"Specimen Bowl With Apparatus," featuring a bowl with a brain that's rigged
with a strange sort of gurgling fountain so that it burps and belches. Later
pieces include Joseph Seigenthaler's scary 1996 stoneware and mixed media
"Man With Switch" and 1999 "Speak."
In "Man With Switch," a huge, raging man seems about to take a switch to
himself - or the viewer. And "Speak" shows a person with a tracheotomy,
whose every wrinkle and eyelash seem to work together to emit an aching
Cynthia Consentino's 1999 porcelain "Figurines," shows a shelf of
Hummel-like statuettes set on doilies, holding deadly looking guns.
In "The Gift," a work about nuclear destruction made the same year, Richard
Notkin has fused a wall of white, gray and black smoke-baked tiles. From a
distance, the piece has a photographic quality reminiscent of Chuck Close's
work. Up close, though, you can see ears and skulls combined with melding
shades of smoke; the screams of victims seem almost audible.
Nancy Fried's 1997 terra cotta "Marking the Pain" features a woman's bare
torso with scars from a mastectomy where one breast used to be. The woman is
carving lines into her back hinting at the number of horrors she's survived.

"We're dealing with the human condition," Schwartz says. "This is what's
happening to people. They're getting tracheotomies and breast cancer and the
body isn't as beautiful anymore."
Many of the works aren't pretty. But they say a lot, and the genre's time
seems finally to have come.
"This show has really pioneered the discourse for ceramics, and the works
trace the artists' involvement in the sociopolitical environment of the last
three decades," assistant curator Susan Barry says.
The exhibit, accompanied by a small paperback catalog written by Schwartz,
will be on view in New York through March 16.
It will tour the country through early 2002. Upcoming appearances include
the Flint Institute of Arts in Flint, Mich. (April 6 to May 19); the
Middlebury College Museum of Art in Middlebury, Vt. (June 9 to Aug. 4); and
the Springfield Museum of Art in Springfield, Ohio (Aug. 25 to Oct. 20).
On the Net:
American Craft Museum:
Judith Schwartz, Ph.D. Area Head, Sculpture in Craft Media:
New York University
Dept of Art and Art Professions
34 Stuyvesant St
New York, NY 10003
Telephone:212 998-5733
Fax: 212 995-4320

cyberscape on sat 3 mar 01

A few thoughts on the exhibition review that Judith Schwartz so proudly
offered up for our reading pleasure...

The reviewer begins with descriptions of several pieces of ceramic
sculpture, each of which employs somewhat shocking or unpleasant imagery
using the medium of clay. Then she goes on to state, and I quote: "An
in-your-face ceramics show leaves flower vases, pretty tableware and
dainty Hummel figurines in the dust. Instead, there are works that
shock, frighten or amuse - and make you stop and think." Flower vases,
tableware and probably even Hummel figurines can make us think, but
generally about other things entirely. Frankly, what do the objects in
this exhibition have to do with tableware at all, besides the obvious
similarity of materials? Why does the reviewer even need to draw the
comparison or belittle the work of potters, in order to review an
exhibtion of confrontational sculpture? Perhaps Judith, herself set up
the reviewer with such comments as: "Clay traditionally was not used to
confront our sensibilities. Usually, it's a benign material used to eat
off of or see pretty flowers in." Let's examine that.

Clay has been used as a vehicle for reflecting the mythology and the
sociology of cultures around the world for thousands of years. Those
Mycenaen vases with parades of soldiers marching around their bellies
tell us heaps about the values and the interests of that civilization
and they certainly made me think when I first encountered them!
Classical Greek paintings on ceramic vessels were full of violence,
seduction, religious and sociological references. Precolumbian
sculptural ceramic imagery fairly well made me think, too, when I was
first introduced to it. What do you suppose those ceramicists were
trying to communicate? The beauty of the human body? Maybe, ...maybe
not. How about all that European slipware that mocked and satirized the
events of the day? From my perspective, every one of those old Della
Robbia terracottas depicting biblical references is confrontational
clay. What are those legions of huge, ancient clay soldiers in China
all about. In your face!

The review goes on to say that no subject is taboo. On the
contrary, how well represented are in-your-face acts of kindness or
generosity. Don't get me wrong, here. I do not mean any disrespect to
the work in this exhibition. A number of the artists represented are my
friends, and as some of you know, I used to do monumental, figurative,
topical ceramic sculpture. I gave it up because I perceived that there
was some real need in our culture (and in my life) for grace and beauty,
for subtle reminders of the nurture of the earth, for balance and
harmony, for an alternative to the flash and trash. The vessel became
my metaphor and my vehicle for expression, and as my life has changed,
so has my subject matter. While many of my exhibitions have been
reviewed, the issue of whether they blow confrontational sculpture out
of the water or visa versa has never come up. That is because it is not
even a little bit relevent. It would only reflect a certain disposition
to prejudice aganist one or another vehicle for expression. What is
that kind of hostility about? Richard Notkin's work, and that of many
other artists in the show, stands on its own, and very convincingly. I
would have been more impressed if the reviewer had told us more about
the artists and the pieces in this show and how they fit into the
history (big picture, not just clay) of confrontational art instead of
comparing them to tableware. Malcolm Davis' humble shino cups and Tom
Coleman's energetic porcelain teapots stand on their own, too. They may
help you get quiet enough to hear more subtle, peaceful messages. They
can most assuredly stimulate your mind. You just won't recoil in horror
at what you are thinking. I hope that's OK? Meanwhile, there was no
tableware in this exhibtion, there should have been none in the review.


Harvey Sadow

debkaplan3 on sun 4 mar 01

I have to say I agree with you 100%. Show me beauty, let it fill me up with
joy, laughter, warmth. Maybe as I get older I just don't have the energy to
assimilate the angry messages in this kind of exhibition. As a collector I
want to walk by a piece in my home & smile or be amazed at the skill or
simple beauty of a piece. As a potter I want the clay to teach me how to be
a kinder, gentiler, more giving, less type A kind of person. When it comes
to "Confrontational Clay" I revert to that aggressive hard driving harsh
business person taht I use to be. So this art certainly evokes an emotional
response just not one I care to revist very often.

Debbie Kaplan
In NJ where we brace for a massive blizzard.

-----Original Message-----
From: Ceramic Arts Discussion List [mailto:CLAYART@LSV.CERAMICS.ORG]On
Behalf Of cyberscape
Sent: Saturday, March 03, 2001 5:20 PM
Subject: Re: "Confrontational Clay" Exhibition review

>A few thoughts on the exhibition review that Judith Schwartz so proudly
>offered up for our reading pleasure...

> I used to do monumental, figurative,
>topical ceramic sculpture. I gave it up because I perceived that there
>was some real need in our culture (and in my life) for grace and beauty,
>for subtle reminders of the nurture of the earth, for balance and
>harmony, for an alternative to the flash and trash. The vessel became
>my metaphor and my vehicle for expression, and as my life has changed,
>so has my subject matter.
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Judith S. Schwartz on mon 5 mar 01


This was a newspaper story for the general public, not a critical
review in a professional journal - where a certain depth of knowledge
is assumed by an informed reader or subscriber. The writer of the
story as well as my comment was made to help the average person
understand that clay could be used as a material for social and/or
political commentary. As the show tours, I am continuously surprised
by the public's reaction to its content. It further reinforces my
perception of a public's impoverished understanding of the variety of
expression available in ceramics. The comment made was not meant to
say that pots do not have content or to pit one against the other. It
was merely a hook - so typical of short newspaper accounts. You are
reading much too much into it.

It was not the writer's job to do what you suggest "show how the
works fit into the history (big picture, not just clay) of
confrontational art" If you want that much historical reference and
depth,, come to one of my lectures about the show (the next on April
5th at the Flint Institute of Art in Flint, Michigan) or get a copy
of the catalog which accompanies the show.

Having worked as an educational consultant for the Lenox China
Corporation, I have become convinced of the public's impoverished
understanding of the material. Unfortunately, the average person is
not aware of the political messages in Greek vases nor even who the
"femme fatale," in the Venus of Willendorf was - much less that they
have clay in common,

Perhaps we would all be better off talking to the public than among ourselves.

Finally, while I appreciate your comment about wanting "grace" and
"beauty" in life and Art, I am a bit astonished that as a
professional artist you are implying that if it ain't beautiful it
ain't Art!
* Professor Judith S. Schwartz *
* Director of Ceramics, Glass, Jewelry *
* New York Univeristy *
* Dept. of Art & Art Professions *
* 34 Stuyvesant St. *
* New York, NY 10003 *
* Phone: (212) 998-5733 *
* Fax: (212) 995-4320 *

cyberscape on wed 7 mar 01


No need to be astonished. I never stated or even implied that if it
isn't beautiful, it isn't art. In more than thirty years of artists
statements, interviews, publications and public lectures, I have never
hinted at such a notion. Quite the contrary. I also never questioned
the aesthetics of, devalued or belittled the work in the exhibition and
specifically made it clear that it was not my intention to do so.

My post was about the "article", which contained some shaky art history
and pointless comparisons between tableware and confrontational clay,
and, in fact, contained a good bit of hook and fluff. Glad you agreed
with me on that. I also said that I wished the writer had chosen more
appropriate and relevant comparisons. For instance, there have been
some other in-your-face exhibitions recently in the New York area.
Comparison to the Brooklyn Museum show, for instance, probably would not
have gone entirely over the heads of most readers of such an article and
might have placed the exhibition in a clearer context. I quoted
directly and exactly from your posting of the "article" (didn't you
originally call it a review?). The comparisons that I questioned were
there, and I did not make them up. By the way, I do intend to see the
show and to get the catalog. I suggested to an extremely influential
Parisian exhibition curator, who was visiting with me on Monday, that he
do the same, while he is in the country. I suggested that it would be
important and relevant to his reasons for visiting New York. I did not
suggest that he compare the work in the show to Hummel or Hamada. If we
don't discuss all of these things, for better or worse, how can we
expect anyone else to?

Harvey Sadow