The potter reflects on how art can change the worldby Andrew Dickson / July 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the colonnaded central courtyard at the Frick Collection in New York, Edmund de Waal seems a little agitated. It is morning on an early summer Thursday; gauzy light filters through the glass roof on to the glossy marble floors beneath. Perched on a metal chair next to a decorative fountain, De Waal—all gangly enthusiasm and English manners—is attempting to explain how intimidating it was for him to create a new installation for this place, perhaps the most perfectly formed Old Master museum in the world.
“Dammit, I just don’t want to fuck it up!” he exclaims. A pair of elegantly clad women pause to gawp. One guesses the Frick isn’t used to F-bombs, especially at 10.13am.
His new work, Elective Affinities, is the first American museum installation of De Waal’s career, and the first time a contemporary artist has been invited to create work for the Frick. When we met he had just got off the plane from the Venice Biennale, where another major piece was unveiled in May: an epic two-part installation, half of which has been erected inside a 16th-century synagogue in the Venetian Ghetto. As well as being, again, the first time a living artist has been exhibited in that space, it is one of the largest projects he has ever done. He calls it “the most significant sculpture of my life”—significant not just because of its scale, but because it is more directly engaged with politics than anything he has so far created.
On the face of it, De Waal doesn’t seem like anyone’s idea of a political animal. His name has become inseparable from his exquisitely crafted ceramics, usually small and white (a colour that, as his 2015 book The White Road reveals, has a special intensity for him). Often these “pots”—his preferred term—are serried on shelves or arrayed in artful, almost musical, configurations: clusters, rows, loose gatherings by size or type. Minimal, beautiful, inviting rapt contemplation, they seem more of an escape from the world than part of an attempt to change it.
But perhaps things have always been more complicated than that. The project that brought De Waal to much wider attention was his bestselling…