When clay came into its own as art

Up to roughly the mid-1950s, a ceramic pot was simply a container made to hold things. There were beautiful pots and there were ordinary pots, but what they all had in common was that they represented a craft, and never art.

Clay, as a matter of fact, was hardly considered a legitimate medium. Whatever respectability it had derived from the fact that sculptors used it to make life-studies of terra-cotta figures, or used it in the creation of bronze sculpture. The notion that there could be such a thing as ceramic sculpture, and that it could be taken seriously as art, hardly crossed anyone's mind.

Fortunately for the enrichment of American art, there were a few individuals who didn't feel that way, and who put their feelings into effect.

Chief among these was Peter Voulkos, who was instrumental in removing much of this prejudice against ceramic art. He stimulated others to branch out with him into this new creative arena.

Proof of how influential Voulkos and others were in expanding clay's role in the creation of art can be seen in the Whitney Museum's exhibition here: ''Ceramic Art: Six Artists.'' Included in this show, in addition to Voulkos, are John Mason, Kenneth Price, Robert Arneson, David Gilhooly, and Richard Shaw.

For me, Voulkos and Arneson steal the show. Voulkos for the sheer quality of his art, his uncanny ability to monumentalize something as fragile as clay, and for the extraordinary physical actuality of his pieces. Arneson for his great good humor and delicious sense of irony. The latter's numerous (and generally large) self-portraits reign over this exhibition with a kind of benign regal presence.

I was also impressed by John Mason's powerfully iconic works, amused by Gilhooly's pieces (most especially those portraying humanized frogs), and moderately taken by Kenneth Price's smallish and brightly colored sculptures.

Richard Shaw's assemblages, on the other hand, left me cold. Not only because they struck me as extremely self-conscious, but also because I found them little more than clever or cute.

Unfortunately, this exhibition is not quite what it could have been. Although it is the first real attempt to familiarize the public with clay's achievements as art during these past three decades, it actually fails to provide a full, in-depth accounting of all that has taken place in this field. When all is said and done, the visitor to this show leaves it with the impression that clay, after all, hasn't ascended to the realm of art to quite the degree that its advocates claim it has, that what has occurred in this area has actually been lightweight, frivolous, and, to an extent, trivial - Voulkos, Arneson, and Mason notwithstanding.

The problem is that this show reflects a West Coast - and particularly Californian - post-1960 attitude toward art that is more iconoclastic and self-indulgent than is acceptable to the rest of the country - most especially New York. Also, there is a lack of balance in the artists chosen. Although they are discussed in the text of the exhibition catalog, James Melchert, Stephen De Staebler, and Ron Nagle are not included in the exhibition itself - with the result that our perception of ceramic art is narrowed to the weightily formal and monumental on one hand, and to the light-spirited and frisky on the other.

It might have been better had the entire show been given over to Voulkos and Arneson; that way the two extremes would have been more evenly represented. As it is, we come away from this exhibition with a somewhat lopsided understanding of ceramic art. The truth of the matter is that the field is broader and richer and more legitimately art than this show leads us to believe.

It is still, however, an impressive and important exhibition which at least clues us in to what has been going on in this field - and introduces us to at least three exceptional artists. After its closing at the Whitney Museum Feb. 7, it will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be on view from April 8 through June 27.

And anyone in the Midwest wishing to see more of Peter Voulkos's recent works can do so at the Exhibit A Gallery in Chicago. Exhibit A is a pioneer and leading gallery in this field. It opened in 1971 with an exhibition of clay art, and has continued to battle for this form of art ever since. I have not seen this show, but the fact that it is being presented by this gallery argues strongly for its quality. It will be at 233 East Ontario Street in Chicago through Jan. 22.

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