October 28, 2011

Put In My Place

Don Pilcher lives in Champaign Illinois where he taught for many years at the University of Illinois. A gifted potter, thinker,and provocateur, Don shares his unique views on the field of contemporary ceramics. Visit Don's web site where you can read more of his stories.

When Ralph Bacerra wanted to deliver his final dismissal of some piece of work he’d say, “What is it, Don? Just a pot with a glaze on it.”

I thought this summation was much too inclusive. He couldn’t possibly mean to excuse the great Sung Dynasty, a hundred and fifty years of American salt glazed jugs, Swedish porcelain made under the name of their King and even some fairly recent wonders by Ken Price. And then I thought about the source; this was coming from Ralph Bacerra, who never let an empty space pass for very long and whose brushwork celebrated even the inside of his elevated foot rims. Reluctantly, I concluded he was just asserting his personal creative terms and that a pot with a glaze on it simply didn’t do anything for him. Turns out I was wrong.

Earlier this spring I received a letter from the Director of the Racine Art Museum, a small but very nice museum on the western shore of Lake Michigan. He was writing to tell me that some of my work would be on display throughout the summer in an exhibition of recent acquisitions to their permanent collection of American ceramics. He closed by inviting me to drop in and see the collection.

As luck would have it, I had scheduled a trip to Milwaukee that very June. My wife would be along and she has a real interest in these things as she’s the one who got me to return to ceramics twelve years ago. Racine is only a few miles off Interstate 94. Parking was easy. The exhibition was in several galleries on two floors. You could see the first and largest gallery as you approached the entrance.

Lots of major work there by a Who’s Who list of American potters. In addition to Ralph, there was Betty Woodman, Don Reitz, Beatrice Wood, Adrian Saxe and more. Not mine. Not surprising.

The second large gallery, adjacent to the first, had equally fine work by folks with a little less reputation; people like Paul Dresang. (How does he do those leather satchels? They look as if they are grown rather than made.) But no Pilcher. There was another large gallery upstairs and we struck out again. I was ready to skip it and get on to Milwaukee but Linda insisted that we ask someone and just then a museum assistant appeared. I told her my story, said we couldn’t find my work, and she said, “It must be in the intensities.”

INTENSITIES? I’ve been going to museums for six decades but I’ve never heard of an intensity. She assured me I’d find the intensity cases at the end of the hall. So out of the galleries, down the hall, past the restrooms, past the office spaces, past the janitorial closet and, finally, we reached the intensity cases. Still in the museum, but just barely. These are glass front cases, about chest high, the size of a huge office aquarium. Inside were about sixty pots - as tightly packed as any bisque kiln you ever saw, tighter than white on rice. Mine, a porcelain bowl with a black glaze, was larger and near the back, partially hidden by a Sandy Byers jar, a Heino bottle and a Natzler bowl. I think there was also a McKenzie pitcher nearby. The fact that you couldn’t see all of my pot was just as well; certainly not one of my best. Well, that happens.

But here’s the kicker. All of the pieces in the intensities, as Ralph would have it, were just a pot with a glaze on it. Not a mark of overt decoration anywhere. So prescient. What’s going on? Could it be true that a straight forward, finely made pot, beautifully, even exotically, glazed can no longer entertain, inform and gratify in today’s larger world? Or at least the cultural world inhabited by people like Ralph and this curator? Was the canon tossed while I was away? Does anyone still teach Yanagi’s theology about the unknown craftsman? I’ve been letting this museum experience turn in my mind for several months now. I have concluded nothing. The questions mount.

Do simple pots like this need an app to sufficiently and dramatically amplify the potter’s art? In this case, somebody thought so. For this collection, the museum boldly aggregated our expressions and then, like those photos of hundreds of nude people on London Bridge, intensified the viewing situation into something as curious as “Where’s Waldo.”

I’d love to share this experience with Ralph, but he’s gone now. Still, his caution remains and it resonates while I consider my place at the back of the pottery bus. After all, I was warned and it seems appropriate to ask oneself why this has happened.

Is it the pots? Is their sin simply one of being small and undecorated? Or is this a new time and place? Does America now move so quickly and loudly that we have no eye or ear for the inaudible yet very real chords of form, weight, color, texture and function? Maybe. These are qualities that were indispensable when most of the pots in the cases were made. But in the last fifty years, most Western nations have been overtaken by disposable containers. Time was, at most gatherings where a beverage was involved, the party ended with twenty minutes of kitchen time - washing, drying and putting away the china or glassware. Seems quaint now. As a result, we are living with a least two generations who know almost nothing about hotel china much less Royal Copenhagen or Rose of Canton.

If simple, quiet containers are now seen as simply dull, should I be moved to respond? At my age, do I want to be jacked around by overcrowding in Racine? Some good company there. Maybe I should be happy to be in any collection at all. And how much mind-time do I want to yield to this curator?

Then again, to think more ambitiously, every day that I walk into the studio is the first day of the rest of my life… as it is for all of us. I am retired to the extent that artists ever retire and I work primarily for the fun of it. Rascal Ware actually has a license from the State of Illinois to make whatever we goddamn well please…as long as they can collect sales tax. What’s to be lost with some new and very decorative moon shot at ceramic extravagance? (Whatever extraordinary hand skills might be necessary have now been lost to arthritis -and mine were never a match for Ralph’s - but there are ways around that.)

In a world of no coincidences, the current issue of Time magazine has an article on the “secret” that every parent has a favorite child. The gist is that the better looking child is usually favored over the plain child. I’m guessing the plain child is just a pot with a glaze on it.



So I conclude here with photos of two pieces; a Japanese cocoa pot that came to me via my great grandmother and a yunomi by Shoji Hamada that I bought directly from him in San Francisco in 1963. I have an obvious attachment to both. I leave the intensity question to you. The apples/oranges problem is clear. But be certain of this, in the actual museum world of Racine, all the oranges wound up in the intensity cases, gasping for air and light. What might we draw from that?