A quiet revolution is brewing on the banks of the Mersey. For the first time in a leading British fine art gallery there will be a major exhibition devoted to work made in clay. Throughout the 20th century, as this exhibition will show, significant numbers of European artists experimented with clay. Chronologically from Gauguin to Gormley, but also geographically from the Russian Malevich to the founding father of American ceramic art, Peter Voulkos, leaders of almost every western art movement of the last 100 years have turned to this messy and humble material for new inspiration, sometimes in rebellion, sometimes in pursuit of recuperation. Paul Gauguin, who turned to ceramics in the 1880s at a moment of personal crisis, declared pottery “a central art” and in 1931 the art critic Herbert Read found it “so bound up with the elementary needs of a civilisation… that a national ethos must find its expression in this medium.”
Yet we in the anglophone world have largely obliterated this history from our understanding of modern art. We have seen clay only as a servile adjunct to the nobler arts of cast or carved sculpture, and clay objects as mere playful diversions from the serious business of painting or conceptual art. When sculptor Isamu Noguchi exhibited his ceramics in New York in 1954, the critic Hilton Kramer decried their “high unseriousness”; and in Britain, in 1975, Tim Hilton could write: “From 1947 Picasso took a serious interest in ceramics, in so far as a great modern artist can be serious about such matters.” We even forget that Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917, while a great idea, was also a urinal, made of porcelain.
There could hardly be a better place to right this distortion of art history than Liverpool, where Josiah Wedgwood’s patron Thomas Bentley made his fortune and where, in 1993, Antony Gormley worked with local communities to make Field for the British Isles, a vast carpet of terracotta figures.
But while Tate Liverpool curator Simon Groom is highlighting how much good work is being made by artists who use clay – Ken Price, Cindy Sherman, Grayson Perry, Jeff Koons, Joan Mir? – it will also, for almost the first time since the 1930s, be showing such work alongside that of ceramicists – such as Tullio d’Albisola and Richard Slee – who make art.
Undoubtedly, the Turner prize win of artist-potter Grayson Perry…