To appreciate the amazing range of clay objects now on display at more than 20 locations in the Boston area, one might well focus on two exhibitions that are physically 100 yards apart, yet conceptually thousands of miles away from each other.
One exhibit, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, is a juried show of works by members of the National Council on Education for Ceramic Arts, the organization whose annual conference here has inspired such a timely bloom of clay art.
At the Museum School Gallery, one is immediately aware of the powerful roots of ceramic tradition and the imaginative authority of contemporary artists who are creating objects out of that legacy. One feels a direct sense of ''family,'' and of organic integrity.
Both Marvin Bjurlin and Joy Hanken breathe new life and meaning into traditional forms, the vessel and the cylinder. Mr. Bjurlin's ''Northern Song'' joins two pots that expand and close on each other with firm and lyrical gravity. In ''Totem No. III,'' Miss Hanken assembles three slender cylinders in the form of a shaft, tipped like an arrow and decorated with abstract, organic motifs, thus transforming a primitive weapon into a powerful instrument for contemplation.
On the other hand, at the Museum of Fine Arts, one is not invited to share the evolution of an inner core of ancient experience, but rather to be dazzled by the ''authorities'' of today's Pop and Abstract Expressionist modes and their excursions into clay.
Anthony Caro is a sculptor who works in steel; Friedel Dzubas is a painter. As clay artists, neither one has really confronted the challenge of working in that medium. For Caro, clay turns out to be a limp, pale substitute for steel. For Friedel Dzubas clay is a way to thicken strokes of paint. Their earnest intentions fall short of meaningful transformations.