Clay Conversation

Three exhibitions currently on view in DFW highlight work in clay by three artists spanning four centuries.  C.D. Dickerson is Curator of European Art at the Kimbell Art Museum and curator of Bernini: Sculpting in Clay. Olivier Meslay is Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the Dallas Museum of Art and curator of Chagall: Beyond Color and Jed Morse is Chief Curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center, currently showing Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective. They got together for a conversation about the changing use and meaning of the material.

Jed Morse: Bonnie Pitman [former director of the Dallas Museum of Art] had a great idea that we take advantage of this rare opportunity where our three institutions are featuring works in clay and have a discussion about the medium. What Bernini is doing in clay is very different than what Chagall or Ken Price is doing, but there are certain commonalties.  There is also, I think, a dramatic shift in what has happened over the intervening 400 or so years.  Starting at the earlier end of the chronological spectrum…C.D., maybe you want to talk a little about Bernini’s engagement with the material, where it fit in his working method?

angel_ftw copy

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Angel with the Superscription, c. 1667–68
Terracotta, 111⁄2 x 63⁄8 x 51⁄8 in. (29.2 x 16.2 x 13 cm) Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

C.D. Dickerson: For Bernini, clay was a preparatory material. He used clay to create small models to help him develop his ideas for compositions, what we call sketch models, or bozzetti in Italian.  He would also use clay to create larger modelli that he would pass to his assistants that they would use to transfer his design to the larger work in marble. Or he would use clay to create presentation models that he would present to patrons to win the approval for a commission. Where Bernini differs from previous generations of sculptors is that he created multiple sketch models, perhaps even upwards of twenty to twenty-five for a particular sculpture, adjusting the tiniest of details, then working that design detail over and over again.  It is very different from what a sculptor like Giambologna or Michelangelo would have done—where maybe one sketch model would have preceded the much larger model, a foot or two high.  But like any great artist, Bernini was obsessed with detail and clay was the medium in which he expressed this.

JM:  A lot of artists talk about the allure of clay being the kind of immediacy you get in terms of being able to engage the material very directly, work out your ideas and change it very quickly as you’re working the material…

angel_ftw_detail copy

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Angel with the Superscription, c. 1667–68
Terracotta, 111⁄2 x 63⁄8 x 51⁄8 in. (29.2 x 16.2 x 13 cm) Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

CD:  That’s the beauty of looking at these models.  You feel the instant of creation, the close connection between the sculptor’s hand and mind.  You feel like you’re standing in the studio with Bernini as he works, which isn’t so strong in the finished works, which were given over to assistants for execution and look a little more labored. Then, of course, carving hard marble as opposed to bending soft clay:  very, very different technical sensibilities. Bernini derived a lot of inspiration from clay.  I don’t think the Apollo and Daphne or the Pluto and Proserpina would look the way they look if there wasn’t a material like clay where he could experiment with bending and creating these very plastic compositions.  If he was just given a block of marble and told to create the Pluto and Proserpina, it would be very different.

JM:  You mentioned that Bernini worked with assistants in his studio and you can often tell the difference between the modelli or bozzetti that Bernini did, or identify the hands of his assistants.  That kind of collaboration often happens around sculpture but particularly around work in clay and ceramics. Ken Price did almost all the work himself, and was sculpting directly in clay, not to enlarge it in another material, but as a finished work of art, but he did have studio assistants to help him with the labor-intensive finishes for his works.  Towards the end of his life when he was painting these with up to 70 layers of paint and then carefully sanding them down, you would have a number of works with various layers of paint on them in the studio at one time.  He had studio assistants adding paint to some, and he’d be looking at others, or sanding them. Collaboration is also crucial, particularly where Chagall is concerned, because he was not a sculptor.  He was coming at ceramics and sculpting in clay from the perspective of a painter.

chagall vase front

Marc Chagall, Sculpted Vase (Vase sculpté), 1952
Ceramic, engraved with a knife, oxides and glaze with a brush
© Archives Marc et Ida Chagall. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Olivier Meslay: There are two aspects with Chagall and clay. One is that clay is coming at the moment when Chagall is trying to extend his fields of creation.  He starts with clay but quickly moves also to sculpting in marble, working on stained glasses. Clay for Chagall is part of an extension of his world of creation. There is another aspect: Chagall is really in desperate need to be rooted in France.  He was born in Russia, he fled Russia after the end of the Revolution, he was in France, he was exiled in the US.  He was in sort of a perpetual exile, and in the 50s when he comes back to France, clay is not only a technical aspect of his creation, he wants to work with clay from France.  I think for him it’s…

JM: Put his hands in the earth…

OM: Put his hands in the earth, exactly, the soil…

CD: The terroir…

OM: Yes, the terroir. And he’s looking also at French Romanesque sculptures; he’s lured by all this long tradition of French sculpture and ceramic.  He is working with people who’ve been making ceramics forever. They are working in a very traditional way, making very traditional shapes and he’s using them to bring to him tradition.

JM: The fact that you said he turned to clay because it was something he didn’t know and it was a new challenge resonates with what I’ve read about a number of other artists who were turning to clay around this time as well.  It was for Picasso, who seemed always, particularly later in his career, interested in trying to regain that kind of child-like wonder about the world in his work. I think his engagement with clay and ceramics around that time had a lot to do with the fact that it was something very elemental, it had that kind of directness. The naïveté was genuine for him because you know, he was not a potter, he was not trained as a ceramist.

CD: I started my lecture at the Bernini symposium with images of my kids playing with Play-Doh, which were intended to make the point that we all have this visceral response to mashing around soft materials. We found certain details on some of the models by Bernini that show that even though these were very functional, preparatory models, really tools, that he did derive a great deal of visceral response from working in clay. There is a beautiful detail on the feathers of one of the wings for one of the angels for the Ponte Sant’Angelo where he’s left a thumbprint and then succeeded to do six sequential movements of his thumb through the clay that leaves an absolute impression of the texture of a feather, but no one could see the texture unless light strikes it from precisely the correct angle. No one had noticed the pattern before we began to research the models very closely, which helps to prove the pattern was very much a private pleasure for him; he seems to have appreciated the feeling of his rough thumb sliding across the surface of the soft clay.

OM: There is a childish aspect of clay, a playful aspect, which is important for these artists, at least for Chagall, who is at this time already 65.  I’m not saying he is going back to childhood, but obviously there is something, as you both were saying, there is an immediacy of clay which is probably not possible in many other media.

CD: There were practical concerns as well.  Bernini, and he was working up until his death at the age of 82, could only really work clay and make drawings up to a certain point.  Banging on hard marble with a chisel just was not possible for him at a certain age practical. And so he kind of had to revert back to a childlike, easy medium like clay and really use that as his communication vehicle.

OM: Clay is something you really build without any other tool than your hand.  When you paint you have a brush, when you sculpt on marble, you have a hammer and a chisel.  Clay is about your hand, and only your hand.  Even Pollock is not painting directly with his hands—some Japanese artists in Gutai are doing this with their feet, or their hands; but clay is probably the most immediate and oldest medium.

JM:  I think for Price that immediacy was most important primarily for function, in that he was more easily able to make the forms that he was interested in making. But, particularly in his later work where you have these beautiful curvaceous forms, you do get the sense that he’s reveling in the kind of sensuousness of the material.

Ken Price, Balls Congo, 2003. Fired and painted clay, 22 x 18 x 18 in© Ken Price. Photo © Fredrik Nilsen.

Ken Price, Balls Congo, 2003. Fired and painted clay, 22 x 18 x 18 in
© Ken Price. Photo © Fredrik Nilsen.

CD: There is a lot of technical sophistication in his work as well, though. These sculptures had to be hollowed out, for instance, and it was probably no easy matter trying to figure out how to hollow them and still to preserve the impression that they look like one solid blob that has been beautifully shaped with one’s hands: that’s a great feat.

OM: There is no painted terracotta by Bernini?

CD: No, and that raises the point of the reception of his models and how that changed over time; they weren’t necessarily appreciated at first.  We don’t have any terracottas from his first thirty years. Even Bernini himself was probably looking at these as tools and then pitching them back into the clay heap once he was done with them.  There are some later ones in the exhibition that have coatings. Perhaps these would be models that he created and the patron might want them as a souvenir of the commission and maybe he would put gilding or bronze colored paint on them to dress them up.

OM: But, they were not all fired…

CD: Exactly.

OM: They were staying in the primary stages.

CD: The sketch models, at a certain point, were probably being secreted out of the studio by some aspiring assistant and fired as a preservation of the master’s work.  But I don’t think Bernini himself was necessarily interested in them until later in his life, when he may have started to appreciate his legacy, that he was ‘the great genius’ and that he should preserve these relics of his preparatory process.  But that was probably slow to come. There were only some forty odd models that we’ve been able to identify as his but he must have produced hundreds and hundreds….

OM: Yes, because if he was doing twenty in one day…

CD: Exactly.

JM: Well, color was so essential for Chagall, and for Ken Price as well.  I’m interested to know, with a lot of artists who come from other media to ceramics, that shift, particularly if they are painters and color is essential to their work, that shift can be difficult because the application of color in ceramics is not straightforward.  When you apply a glaze, it’s not the color that it’s going to be once it’s fired because the coloring is part of the firing process.  I wonder if that was difficult for Chagall to overcome at first.  He seems to have overcome it beautifully.

chagall A Mid-Summer's Night Dream_Chagall copy

Marc Chagall, 1887–1985, A Mid-Summer’s Night Dream (Le songe d’une nuit d’été), 1952. Ceramic, painted with slips and oxides, engraved with a knife and drypoint, part glaze with a brush, lined covered inside
© Archives Marc et Ida Chagall. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

OM: Yes, I think that Chagall was not technically proficient.  The people who were working with him were professional ceramists, and were sometimes horrified by the way he was working.  I’m not talking about the sculptural aspect of it, but the painting aspect, the enameling aspect.  He was doing things that nobody else was doing because he was unaware of the technique, and he also did not care about it.  He is painting the clay directly with real paint and then covering it in paraffin, and then putting enamels around, and then firing it. The paraffin evaporates and leaves the clay with this sort of powder of colors that were not really cooked, or fired.  And when everything is done he starts to scratch everything again; there is a sort of perpetual reworking on it, which is quite bizarre and at the same time incredibly beautiful.  For a professional it was probably unpleasant to see Chagall working because he was breaking all the rules.

Ken Price, Pastel, 1995. Fired and painted clay 14 1/2 x 15 x 14 in. (36.83 x 38.1 x 35.56 cm) © Ken Price. Photo © Fredrik Nilsen.

Ken Price, Pastel, 1995. Fired and painted clay 14 1/2 x 15 x 14 in. (36.83 x 38.1 x 35.56 cm) © Ken Price. Photo © Fredrik Nilsen.

JM: Right.  Because it was so new to him, he was willing to experiment in ways that the craftsmen he was working with never considered.  Ken Price produced glazed sculptures for most of his career until about 1983 when he made a series of geometric works that are brilliantly, brilliantly colored.  I can imagine how frustrating it might have been for him to try and get those colors just right.  In fact, he talks about having to put these objects through up to twenty firings just to get the kind of color and depth he was looking for.  And it was after that that he said he would never glaze another work in his life, and he started working in acrylic. He started painting the objects, but again with that same kind of obsessive nature.  I don’t know which is more time consuming: glazing and firing an object twenty times, or putting up to seventy layers of paint on an object and then meticulously sanding it down to reveal the layers of paint underneath.  They’re both incredibly labor intensive, but I think that the thing about the paint that Price really liked was that there was this element of discovery.

OM:  There is a predictability in painting which is almost impossible to have in the firing process.

JM:  One of the interesting things for me is this notion of tradition. Bernini was essentially following accepted practice for making large-scale sculptures in other materials, but making his own sort of radical adjustments to it by using the clay as kind of a drawing material.

bernini lion_detail copy

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Model for the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain (detail), c. 1649–50 Terracotta
Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome (258)

CD: It’s a more complicated story.  There was this long tradition of clay sculpture in Italy, but it had sort of died out in Rome.  In Florence, there was a more deeply rooted academic tradition that prized model-making. Bernini grew up in Rome, where there were not a lot of sculptors making models.  He was living in a little bit of a modeling vacuum. Hearing stories about Michelangelo being a proficient modeler, and about Giambologna, I think he was inspired to teach himself how to make models and to learn what model-making could bring to his marble carving. His father, Pietro Bernini, was criticized because he never prepared for his sculptures, he would just attack the block of marble without making any models, and this showed a lack of ingegno, or creativity.  In my essay in the catalog, I have tried to show, in fact, that Pietro did have more of an academic sensibility.  He came out of a Florentine tradition where he probably did make models, and we have some documents that show this in fact.

OM: I think you were very right at the very beginning of the conversation when you said that the fact that Bernini was modeling was generating a very different sort of sculpture than someone who was thinking in marble.  Michelangelo is probably another topic, but with Giambologna there is a strong relationship in the use of void, for example, between the two sculptors, because they are thinking with clay, which is a very tactile and ductile material.  And you can go against the weight, which is not the case with marble. You can elongate things…

CD: With Bernini, the fascinating thing is he would probably make his composition, whatever he wanted in clay, and then his challenge was to figure out how to realize that composition in marble, whereas Michelangelo would have thought very differently.  He would have created a model that worked only in marble in a single block.  As for Bernini, he would use multiple blocks, and then stick them together in an additive way, just like the clay itself.

OM: Yes, in fact, in Michelangelo, there is nowhere…

CD: Indeed, it’s very columnar.

OM: Yes, everything in Michelangelo marbles has been thought as marble, and each movement is part of the block.  And people sculpting the marbles for Bernini were probably challenged a lot by that.  He was against any tradition…

JM: I thought it was really interesting when you said that Chagall felt free to break from time-honored tradition in ceramic technique.  With Ken Price, broke away from ceramic tradition very early, and, to a certain extent, he benefitted from the radical break from tradition that artists like Picasso, like Chagall, like Miró, made when they turned to ceramics themselves.  In 1959 in his graduation lecture, Price talks about how impactful seeing the ceramics of Picasso and Miró was to him, and particularly the realization that ceramics could be a medium for expression and not just to serve the traditional, utilitarian functions.  It was like beating his head against a wall, in the very prominent ceramics department at Alfred University. It was difficult for people in the ceramics community at the time to accept that kind of notion.  And then Peter Voulkos came along; Ken Price came along, and started taking fired clay in a completely different direction.

OM: The tradition of ceramic was very strong when he started, but in a very traditional way that meant others were making bowls, they were making plates, they were making vases.  But, even if they were among the best ceramists ever, they were not working as sculptors, which is something completely different.

bernini saint_Jerome copy

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Head of Saint Jerome, c. 1661 Terracotta, 1313⁄16 x 115⁄16 x 9″ Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

CD: Can I ask about his later sculptures that are executed in bronze composite?  Was he making clay models for those that were cast?  Smaller versions that were then enlarged by an assistant?

JM: At the end of Ken Price’s life, he actually decided to give up his battle with cancer because he wanted to go back to the studio to pursue this new method for creating.  He was taking smaller models that he’d made by hand, enlarging them mechanically, and casting them in another material. The majority of the exhibition are fairly intimately scaled, hand-sized to table top-sized objects, and then all of a sudden in 2011 and 2012 there are these very large scale objects that are produced in what he calls a bronze composite, which is actually a very lightweight material.  In these, he was really focusing on the scale of the object and, as he always did, the finish-they still have that wonderful depth of color.  It’s interesting that he did one entirely as matte black -completely devoid of color- where he seems to be focusing entirely on the form itself as a physical presence.

CD: That’s where he comes closest to Bernini, in fact, because Bernini would create a little model and then hand it over to an assistant to enlarge for execution in bronze.  But being able to judge that relationship between a small object, and how that object would look enlarged twenty times over in, say, the apse of St. Peters, that it would hold that space, was a remarkable talent.
JM: Well, I think that brings the chronology around. It’s probably a good place to stop.  Thank you both so much for coming to lunch and talking today.

CD: Thank you.

OM: Thank you.

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay at the Kimbell Art Museum is on view through May 5
Chagall: Beyond Color at the Dallas Museum of Art is on view through May 26
Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective  is on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center through May 12

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2 responses to “Clay Conversation”

  1. Great discussion, and congrats on these handsome exhibitions! I’ve seen all three and am so glad to hear you guys chat. The vitality of each artist’s ceramic expression is what floored me. Bernini’s having fun here, in the midst of pleasing picky popes, and it is so cool that you recognize his squishing and squeezing for what it is, his finger strokes pointed out in the way that art historians usually reserve for the facture of paintings. It is heartening to see Chagall in his sixties still experimenting with new materials, doing clay mash-ups of medieval, Gauguin, pre-Columbian, etc. He’s better than I expected, though he should’ve eased up on the glazes, which Ken Price could have told him had they overlapped. Price’s precision is remarkable, not only because such sharp edges and vibrant surfaces are difficult to get in clay, but because his work doesn’t have the fatal flaw of most contemporary ceramics–that of being just too proud of itself.
    In many ways, clay is the best medium for the metaphor of being human. These three shows give us the key hints. Thanks again.

  2. Fantastic – wonderful to read this published. Also relevant: James Elkins, “Two Ways of Looking at Ceramics”

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