Clark's Clairvoyance and Ceramic CV

Garth Clark at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO)

The coming of Garth Clark, the editor of CFile Daily, to Oslo in September 2015 was something of a happening within the local community of ceramic artists and people from other craft disciplines and correlate institutions. Christer Dynna reflects on Clark's lecture and the increasing interest in ceramics in the contemporary art world.

Garth Clark spent thirty years as a gallerist, hosting ceramic art shows on both coasts of the USA. With his partner Mark Del Vecchio, he became a key collector of ceramic art and wrote extensively on the topic, producing catalogue texts and more general overviews. The latest career move of this liebhaber of everything ceramic, now in his late 60s, has been to venture into publishing. Now based in Santa Fe, he edits the online magazine CFile Daily. The C can of course be understood as pointing to the topic close to his hearth for so long, but it is also the initial letter of ‘Clark’, the family name he brought with him from South-Africa, his country of origin.

Santa Fe, a long drive from the coast via Route 66, is in a desert environment benefiting from a year-round mild climate and a large community of folk artists and crafts people. As one of the USA's oldest towns, it was originally a tiny civilized spot on a long trade route between north and south. But with today’s communication technology, Santa Fe is as good a spot as any other on earth for keeping track of the art world's latest conquests into ceramics territories.

The online magazine that Clark edits is owned by a private foundation which was set up by Clark and his business partners in answer to “radical changes in art and design and a breakdown of the status quo, [which have] left contemporary ceramics confused, in crisis, and under-informed”, as the wording of the Cfile website testifies. Here one can also read Cfile's description of itself as “a global community of cutting-edge educators, ceramics creatives, critics, curators, collectors, dealers, and brilliant young techies”. Apart from the “news and review journal”, the foundation also owns the CFile Shop, which is profiled as “a non-profit online gallery and bookstore”.

To help finance this partially pro bono project, 158 pieces from the Clark and Del Vecchio Collection were sold at auction in October 2012. Still, the major ceramic event that year was a huge spring-summer show of 160 works from the collection – the very best of the 475 pieces that were acquired in 2007 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). This successful exhibition, called Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics – The Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio Collection, was accompanied by an opulent catalogue co-published by the MFAH and Yale University Press.

«I love ceramics. And what this new situation does; in terms of media, attendance, knowledge of the field, acceptance of the field, it is beyond anything we could do within fortress ceramica»

Garth Clark

"A hydra-headed force in the field"

The coming of the editor of CFile Daily to Oslo in September 2015 was naturally something of a happening within the local community of ceramic artists and people from other craft disciplines and correlate institutions.

The Ceramic Department at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) hosted one of two lectures which Clark presented in Scandinavia (the other was in Copenhagen). According to the CFile website, they were part of “a lecture tour by CFile’s ambassador”, who would be visiting a total of eight countries. Such an ambition certainly justified Clark's long trip to Europe, but his visit to Scandinavian was surely not a random choice since the field of ceramics in both Denmark and Norway is currently robust. The wider European public was however conspicuously truant, and while this could be chalked up to apostasy or bad timing – perhaps logistics were poor – it’s more likely that Clark delivered his message before his target public was ready to receive it.

As Cfile confirms, Clark has been called “ceramics’ great clarifier” by one of his peers in the gallery business. So the crowds attending lectures on ceramics will be a whole lot bigger in the near future. As we speak, ceramic art is on the rise and gaining increasing attention, at least according to Clark himself, who had come to Europe to prove it.

Perhaps it is inappropriate to call Clark an ambassador since his role might just as well be to sit on the throne. First of all, the Clark and Del Vecchio Collection is described on MFAH’s website as “one of the most important private collections of contemporary ceramics in the world”. Second, one can read in CFile's priming for the lecture tour that the writings of its ambassador “have shaped thought about the field of ceramics and indeed the field itself”. The source for this claim was the jury of the College Art Association, who in 2005 gave Clark the prestigious Mather Award. Third, CFile unapologetically categorizes its editor cum ambassador as "a hydra-headed force in the field". Taking all this into consideration, one would expect that he really is able to change the course of ceramics history.

Such prose and praise radiate with more than a wink of pompousness, particularly in a Scandinavian, social democratic setting. Garth Clark nevertheless comes across as well-grounded and willingly adjusting to his immediate surroundings, able to please and to regard others as his equals and next of kin. Still, this kindness doesn't thwart his knack for zesty, good-humoured observations and acidic remarks.

When speaking, he demonstrates a warm sort of self-irony that embraces his own persona and activities as well as the field of ceramics and all those who cultivate it.

There aren't that many self-proclaimed ambassadors with a vigorous will to do good for the community they have made their own through adoption. And the down-to-earth ceramists, despite having a plethora of agendas and views about their art, know their luck and willingly appreciate and embrace the often polemic Clark as their own ambassador.

Garth Clark
Garth Clark
Garth Clark

«You may not like it, it may disturb you, but in terms of craftsmanship, there's nothing wrong with it.»

Garth Clark

“Fortress ceramica”

Clark's Oslo talk aimed at infusing the field with optimism about the current state of affairs: some fine art galleries, for instance, are selling things made in fired (or even unfired) clay for ever-higher sums. This didn’t go down well with everyone, of course. But Clark knew how to silence his opponents and was very clear about where he stands:

“All the criticism I’ve heard about these artist, that their craft is lousy, they don't know how to use the material, … quite honestly that piece (by Sterling Ruby) is as beautifully crafted as any piece. You may not like it, it may disturb you, but in terms of craftsmanship, there's nothing wrong with it.”

So adamant was Clark in his quest to push back old school ideas of ceramic art that he used the metaphor of “fortress ceramica” to structure the lecture. Thus he brushed off the past's ideology, deeply rooted in the modernist epoch and fertilized during the studio craft movement.

50 odd years after its creation, as merely “an art world in miniature”, Clark observes how this fortress is about to be abandoned and crumble away. The enforced separation between “us” and the others is about to collapse – yet this very divide still dramaturgically held the lecture together … Anyhow, Clark sees a major shift taking place before his very eyes: many artists now gain momentum by turning away from the fortress ceramica. The purpose for which it was built, namely to cut all “links with fine art”, is now being questioned from within. In the world we live in today, says Cfile's messenger, the old truth that one should “keep separate the two very important fields of art and industry”, presumably in order to save ceramic production and appreciation, no longer prevails. Those outside the fortress used to shout “terra worthless” at those working on the inside and forever adding to the thick walls. This structure was conceived in the 1950s, in response to being excluded from the field of fine art.

But the phenomenon that began emerging some two to three decades ago, which came about through slow change, is now speeding up: Clark's vigorous testimony of the present situation appraises how the “floodgates are opening” for ceramic art to enter the art Market with a capital M. The re-evaluation of this material that has been part of human civilization for more than 12,000 years is evolving quickly. Clark sees the present situation as the “biggest change in 150 years”. In this pointing back to the second half of the 19th century, Clark seems to suggest that the current change in ceramics is second only to the change that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. This, it must be said, is quite a mouthful from an art historical point of view.

This bold and fustian statement was substantiated through a series of examples from the world of fine art galleries and temporary museal exhibitions. Yet the absence from the lecture of any mention of industrial production and industrial design was noticeable and somewhat surprising, partly because the designer-maker is a theme for CFile Daily, but also because this sort of creator is an enduring figure in today's hybridizing field of art.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles,1988, porcelain:107 x 179 x 83 cm © Jeff Koons © Astrup Fearnley Museet 2015
Ai Wei Wei: Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in 2010

Shifting discourse

What had first “changed the game”, according to Clark, was Jeff Koon's porcelain piece Michael Jackson and Bubbles, “in an edition of three that sold for $7.9 million USD in 1991”. This, Clark said, changed the perception of the maker, as Koons “of course didn't make [the work himself]”. Without mentioning that one of the owners is a private art museum in Oslo, Clark switched positions slightly in pinpointing that Grayson Perry was the one who “changed it so things started to move”. This occurred in 2003, he said, when Perry was awarded the “very prestigious Turner prize”.

A ceramics lecture tour of Europe could of course be used to highlight more than a single instigator of change, but in launching yet another “hero”, it spawned a name-dropping effect. The third giant to shake the world of fine art as well as the ground under fortress ceramica was, he claimed, Ai WeiWei; this now-world-famous dissident Chinese artist (once schooled in New York City), “was first to push the medium to the face of the fine art people”.

Evidently, the level of precision, or the want for it, isn't the most important factor in this story. For to Clark’s mind, the most important lesson to be had is that works like those of Sterling Ruby show where ceramic art “is coming alive in the art world”. In other words, the high-end galleries showing works by artists somewhat omnivorous in their choice of medium, like Sterling Ruby or Nick Cave, represent “a burst of very healthy sperm – it's going out and it’s fertilizing ideas all over the place”. Clark sees an "art world now besotted with ceramics".

All the fun is happening outside the fortress, Clark observed, although he made a disclaimer about artists from the field of fine art who had success in making ceramics. It’s not that they are really better at it than others, since they “are not better artists, but are given resources to be ambitious, and it is when you cross over that this [scaled-up body of work] becomes possible”.

A gallerist willing to give an artist the necessary “resources to be ambitious” helps foster the likes of Darren Waterston. His take on the famous Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery – an installation called Filthy Lucre – took a full “nine months to install”, said Clark. Waterston's version was a painstakingly derelict variant of this famous interior that originally was built in London for a wealthy shipping magnate who, in 1876, hired an American painter to revamp it. It took James McNeill Whistler two years to complete this task, and in 1904 the American industrialist Charles Lang Freer shipped it to Detroit. Freer used the room to display his collection of pots from distant countries and centuries, then bequeathed both the room and his collection to a public museum. This he did on account of his vision of there being “aesthetic connections between art and decoration, paintings and ceramics, and America and Asia”. For the ceramics community as well as for others who care about art, there are probably several lessons to be learned from the dizzyingly fleeting realities attached to the Peacock Room. Having existed on two continents and across three centuries, it is a powerful piece of art history, a story of folly and of empires built and lost. Waterston clearly demonstrates his skill in being able to see the potential of ceramic material and using it to create a powerful expression. In creating the work, the floodgates were gently pushed aside.

«The only three people who count are the famous artist, the powerful dealer and the oligarch collector.»

Garth Clark

Oligarch collector power

The subsequent brouhaha over a once-so-dirty-and-worthless art medium such as fired clay is undeniable, according to Clark. He nonetheless lets us witness a moment of meta-reflection or self-criticism, since he runs the risk of sounding a lot like a “terrible snob and elitist”:

“… these are shows going on in the top 20 galleries on the international scene. … I am interested in it because of the impact it has. I love ceramics. And what this [new situation] does; in terms of media, attendance, knowledge of the field, acceptance of the field, it is beyond anything we could do within fortress ceramica.”

After presenting names of prestigious galleries that have shown ceramic works, Clark's focus shifted to the endeavours of those within the fortress. Edmund de Waal was the first of a string of artists within the field who have been near the heights of the fine art market. Larry Gagosian was also mentioned, as he is currently de Waal’s gallerist. Clark said he could have shared some “salty stories of Gagosian's past in Los Angeles”, but that time didn’t allow it – otherwise neither “pride nor dignity” would stop him from sharing old secrets!

Despite the time issue, he managed to squeeze in the annual sales figure of $ 1 billion USD for the Gagosian Gallery, as well as the price list from de Waal's latest exhibition. The show sold out and there were “literally fights” over some pieces, said Clark, whose gallery had put on a de Waal show in 1989 … then with prices of about $900.

With huge sums of money changing hands in galleries, the art critics are not far afield; and regarding de Waal's latest show, it received only “terrible” criticism, Clark noted, then added that even a string of bad reviews doesn't matter to a hot artist. Critics, he said, “have absolutely no influence. [The only] three people who count are the famous artist, the powerful dealer and the oligarch collector. Museums are not independent of those three, since they run the museums, the print media and everything else in the art world from that point on.”

Clark himself didn't directly embrace de Waal's new body of work, which consists of hundreds of miniature pots placed on shelves (or in wall-mounted boxes). In fact, he found these installations to consist of “uninteresting vases”. He had, he stressed, looked closely and evinced no “art in them. So the art had to be in the box. But then the box was not interesting so that was not art.” Clark showed his audience how de Waal had semi-opaque boxes built to house his vases, and how this staging made the pots semi-visible to the point of becoming “a kind of calligraphy”, that Clark appraised as “interesting” art.

Next on the list of top ceramicists was John Mason, “who never got picked out but was a great sculptor”, and Arlene Shechet, who is reputed in the art world and has the right pedigree since she comes “from the ceramic community”. Clark attested to her having “no fear of pots” plus the ability to give them “conceptual content”, and he percolated his view of how “New York loves her, but I don't know why”.

Garth Clark

«Clark sees a major shift taking place before his very eyes: many artists now gain momentum by turning away from the fortress ceramica. »

From resistance to acceptance

The tone became more serious as he attested to Ken Price being “the most important artist in America [whose work is mostly] in ceramics, and he has gone right to the top of the canon”. Price, however, has not married the ceramic medium, just as those big guys in the fine art world use ceramic techniques alongside other materials. Like them, Price is not a purist devoted to only one material.

As for the veterans born and bred within the fortress; some have become household names in the artworld. At this point in the lecture the likes of Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson served as examples. Orthodox art of the fortress had hitherto not been “paid attention to or written into the art story. But now it is a whole different story; the insiders of fine art embrace it, whilst before it was pushed forth from the outside – and it got [only] resistance”.

The need to clarify why the ceramic material’s status has shifted seems as strong as ever, but at this point in his talk Garth Clark did not utter much of an opinion. Still, he was adamant that the shift was “more than just a flash in the pan”. The times we live in give rise to a topsy-turvy zeitgeist and uncertainty on many counts. The big picture Clark's lecture drew up seems as much about how the richest one percent of us spends money on art as a gesture of extravagant squandering, while simultaneously embracing the logic of speculation and the desire for profit, since there might be someone else out there willing to paying even more.

If we're witnessing a flash in the pan that will cool off at the next whiff of another trend in the art market – well that remains to be seen. Clark is perhaps too close to the movers and shakers to tell, since what he says might as well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But as another gallerist who is active in today's volatile art market relates, “There just happens to be a craze now, so you see a lot more people showing ceramics than ever before. I think it’s hard to determine how trends are changing in time, but if the peak is midnight, I would say we are still around eight o’clock.” This observation was made with regard to the Design Miami art fair of December 2015, so quite fresh off the blocks (as opposed to the fortress…).

At what time midnight will strike remains to be seen of course. Once this fire in the art market pan is fully felt on the old continent, with prices to match, the audiences hankering for reviewers such as Clark will be larger. Either way, it’s worthwhile recognizing both the ebb and the flow in the moat surrounding fortress ceramica: it is a community endowed with a multitude of capital Cs – even if in the end there's also a C that stands for Cinderella, who left apace at the height of the party.

«Clark seems to suggest that the current change in ceramics is second only to the change that occurred during the Industrial Revolution.»

Christer Dynna is a free-lance art critic and regular contributor to Norwegians Crafts. From 2008 to 2014 he was editor of Kunsthåndverk, the sole Norwegian magazine devoted to crafts. He holds a master’s degree in art history from the University of Oslo (2003), doing part of his studies as an exchange student at Sorbonne, Paris. In 2014 he was a member of the international jury for the biannual film festival on crafts in Montpellier (FIFMA), and in 2013 he sat on an artistic committee that prepared the first edition of Révélations – Fine Craft and Creation Fair held at Paris' Grand Palais. He enjoys collecting functional ceramics and other wonders that come his way.