Thursday, October 27, 2011

David Smith: Ceramics by Twelve Artists

How did David Smith get to paint the exquisite nude on a plate that is in our current auction (David Smith Plate with Nude 1964 Porcelain, Estimate:  $35,000-50,000)? In December of 1964 the editors of Art in America posed a compelling question to their readers, "What would happen if a group of prominent American painters and sculptors were asked to work in ceramics?" Painter Cleve Gray had been invited earlier to provide the answer by enlisting a dozen artists to make ceramics. Richard Anuszkiewicz, Milton Avery, Leonard Baskin, Helen Frankenthaler, Seymour Lipton, James Metcalf, Louise Nevelson, Ben Shahn, David Smith, and Jack Youngerman all participated. Forty works, the fruit of several kilns, were exhibited at the Federation of Arts Gallery in New York under the auspices of Art in America from November 30 through December 11, 1964. Thereafter the show traveled to museums across the U.S.

 David Smith Plate with Nude 1964 Porcelain, Estimate:  $38,000-50,000

Visitors to the exhibition were able to see what these well known artists would do, metaphorically speaking, with a ball of clay. Most selected plates as their format (which allowed for easy replication as the project criterion was that all objects were to be made in affordable editions of 12 to 40 priced from $25 to $900 each). Smith’s plates are hand painted and unique. Ceramics by Twelve Artists was part of an ongoing program at Art in America, enlisting artists to explore all kinds of new media and crossover design areas. With various "project directors," the magazine featured coin and stamp design by artists as well as experiments with the then new printing technique of photo-offset lithography. Ceramics was the next fringe activity to be investigated. 

 Helen Frankenthaler, Glaze Painting on a Kiln Shelf, 1972.  

Gray turned for assistance to his friends Gloria and David Gil who ran Bennington Potters in Bennington, Vermont, a modest but energetic enterprise producing ceramics in a designer-craftsman milieu. This was an easy project for the Gils in one sense. Many of the players were already part of their social circle, which centered on their close friend David Smith or those from Bennington College's art department. This group included Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Bernard Malamud and Paul Feely. Smith loved coming to the pottery, something he had done ever since he and the Gils began their friendship in 1951. As a mid-westerner with a strong work ethic he enjoyed the productivity he witnessed in this small but dynamic operation. Despite his frequent visits, Smith had never worked in ceramics until Gray proposed the project. 

Left to Right, Helen Frankenthaler, David Gil and David Smith 194 Bennington Pottery, Vermont.

The late David Gil continued to work with artists, drawing them into the ceramic medium and producing major murals with the likes of Larry Rivers and Romare Bearden and other pieces with Frankenthaler and Jenny Holzer. 

Day in the News

This is a rare opportunity to acquire a terracotta work by Paul Day. He creates editions in resin from the ceramic master and no longer sells the clay original. This rich red terracotta is a superbly rendered and quietly erotic maquette of four figures in a car. It shows why Day is considered one of the leading clay modelers of our time. 

Passengers, 2000 Estimate:  $3500-5500

He lives in France, a comfortable fit as he has always felt closer to the European figurative traditions as early influences included Giacomo Manzu and others. In addition to his smaller scale work for galleries, Day has been sought out for major public commissions in bronze that include the thirty-foot high Battle of Britain Memorial and the controversial The Meeting Place for St Pancreas Station both in London.  

Meeting Place, St Pancras, London  

Day has been attracting a lot of attention. He was chosen to design the Diamond Jubilee Gold Sovereign to celebrate the 60-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  This is an impressive example of Day’s unequalled relief modeling skills in a smaller scale. Also Day has had his L’Alle Paul Day opened by Mayor Alain Suguenot as part of a new theater, La Lanterne Magicque in Beaune, France, an entrance hall featuring a gigantic work by the sculptor. The work was unveiled in the presence of the famous French actor Frabrice Luchini and seven hundred guests. 

Diamond Jubilee Gold Sovereign, Royal Mint

L’Alle Paul Day, Beaune France

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ménage a Trois: Pollock, Guston and Alice Crosby in L.A. 1929

Jackson Pollock in 1929

Jackson Pollock Bookends

Writing in the New York Times about these 1929 bookends Eve Kahn comments that “Jackson Pollock occasionally found solace in making useful objects out of ceramic and copper. He turned to those materials when he was distraught and desperate for ideas.” She found a reference in the historian B. H. Friedman’s 1972 biography of Pollock that confirms his ceramic activity at the time. In 1930, while still at the Manual Arts High School, he wrote to one of his brothers in 1930; “I have started doing some things with clay and have found a bit of encouragement from my teacher, my drawing I will tell you frankly is rotten. It seems to lack freedom and rhythm. It is cold and lifeless. It isn’t worth the postage to send it.” 

Jackson Pollock drawing of Alice Crosby
 But the bookends tell a bigger story involving another great American painter. Pollock was involved in a battle to win the heart of a fellow student, Alice Crosby, in competition with his close friend at the school, Philip Guston (then still Philip Goldstein). To woo her, he and Guston drew portraits of Alice and gave them to her as gifts. Three of these drawings, one by Pollock and the other by Guston/Goldstein are part of this lot. Pollock decided to up the ante and made her a pair of bookends in the ceramics department, which remained in her possession with the drawings until acquired by the current owner in 1984. While neither the bookends nor the Pollock drawing is signed they have been scrupulously researched. Everything has connected perfectly.

Philip Guston drawing of Alice Crosby

Philip Guston drawing of Alice Crosby

Examination of yearbooks and files from the Manual Arts School confirms Crosby, Guston and Pollock did attend the school at the same time. The drawings are indeed by Guston/Goldstein. Also the fact that little money was involved in the purchase adds to the veracity of Alice’s account. In a brief letter that she wrote authenticating the work Alice points out correctly that he was calling himself Jack at that time and not Jackson. This was not Pollock’s only involvement with ceramics. He made ceramic work (often featuring fire as his theme) between 1939-1941. Rita Benton, the wife of Thomas Hart Benton, one of Pollock’s teachers, got him to decorate pottery hoping that it would break a painting block he was suffering from at the time. He made the pieces for a small shop Rita ran in Greenwich Village, New York (where Pollock was living at the time with his brothers). It was a small basement space where she sold crafts by artists, hoping to provide them with a financial lifeline when art was not selling. Both Rita and her husband made ceramics for the shop as well.

Ceramics by Thomas and Rita Benton

Jackson Pollock design for bowl 1938-39 MOMA, NYC

He made his last ceramic works in 1949-50. These were in his Abstract expressionist mode and are fascinating, painted with black and white with writhing tendrils. Scale suggests that they were maquettes, exploring the sculptural possibilities of his abstract language. 

These works were all made in his figurative style and even some that seemed abstract were actually flame patterns. The latter had to do with the artist’s interest in Dante’s Inferno and similar themes by artists such as El Greco. Also, Pollock painted with china paint, a popular technique with ceramic hobbyists at the time that was known jokingly as “The Devil’s Art.”  What is revealing is that that he did not approach this task casually. Pollock made surprisingly detailed preparatory drawings for his bowls and pots. An example dated 1939 is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Ceramic Sculpture by Jackson Pollock

Finally, there is an obvious visual relationship between these bookends with their running glazes and Pollock’s LATER drip paintings. Not too much should be made of this. Certainly, something about this surface might have stayed in his mind and come out in his paintings. But that would be speculation not scholarship.

References: Eve M. Kahn, “Pollock’s Art Therapy”, New York Times, July 28, 2011. M. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, Cambridge Ma: Da Capo Press 1995 (originally published in 1972).  Francis V. O’Connor (ed.) Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonne of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works London: New Haven and Yale University Press, first edition 1978.