Gifts from the Fire: American Ceramics from the Collection of Martin Eidelberg, is worth a visit, at a minimum to appreciate the five pieces (four vases and a pitcher) from the hands of George E. Ohr (1857-1918), the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi.” While there are other pieces that capture the eye – the extraordinary glazes, and incandescent surfaces of Adelaide Also Robineau’s Three Vases (1905) come to mind – Ohr’s work is the jewel of the show. His pottery was the most advanced, rebellious, fruitful, and original of its time – and there is little wonder Ohr is now regarded as prefiguring “modern art movements as diverse as Dada and Abstract Expressionism.” His use of traditionally functional forms that he then transformed into something completely afunctional (if not dysfunctional), was genuinely avant-garde. His deformed, abject, and unusable pots defied prevailing norms of order and beauty; pitchers and bowls could not do what was traditionally expected of them. “Their distorted shapes seem to provoke existing canons of beauty, while at the same time creating a strange new beauty of their own.”
“When I discovered the potter’s wheel,” Ohr recalled “I felt it all over like a wild duck in water.” While his early wares were characterized by Victorian ornamentation, Ohr soon began to manipulate traditional ceramic shapes into more sculptural, less utilitarian forms and apply boldly irregular glazes. He was nothing if not a master of the entire ceramic process: from digging the clay to marketing his wares. Part of what distinguishes Ohr and places him on a higher tier relative to contemporaries is that his pottery excels as pottery. That is, for Ohr, the ceramist creates shapes the way a poet creates verses. “My creations…” he would insist, “have an intrinsic value,” as shape. His ceramics are not simply a vehicle for something else; not merely a ceramic canvas for a painting, molding or design. Or even a glaze. Ohr would create “some of the most original and remarkable patinas in the history of American pottery” – and although Ohr labored hard over his glazes, he would also emphasize that he was first and foremost, “a shape creator and maker.”
In the exhibited pieces, we get a sense of the techniques and decorative motifs that Ohr introduced into art pottery. For example, crumpling, which makes the pot look as though it were falling or sagging, collapsing on itself, melting. A wonderful example of this is Ohr’s Vase (1897-1900), a piece that also highlights how impossibly thin Ohr manipulated his pottery. The unconventional surface of Vase is another marvel, with its glazed over blisters and intricate mottling, an exacting process “meticulously controlled” by the artist. It is yet another example of Ohr embracing features that would ordinarily be regarded as an accident, or mistake, and making it a valuable part of the ceramist’s repertoire.
Ohr also made use of ruffling, twisting, tubing and surface snakes. There are two examples of such snakes on display: including Vase (1897-900), with its curlicue “ears” for handles, and a mouth-like serpent near the base; and the strange, erotically charged and wonderfully twisted Pitcher (1896) with its delicately curling lips, and serpent extending upward from the base of the handle to the mouth. These snakes, so evocative of the snakes and serpents of Chinese vases, are not meant as realistic renditions. They tend to either encircle the pot once or, as in the case here, rest atop a curvature in the form. We also find Ohr using long, thin, snake-like handles on two vases, both of which reveal just how serenely elegant, impeccably balanced, and graceful his pottery could be.
Ohr remains timely because his work remains radical – its rebelliousness, its hooliganism (to use a word borrowed from the painter Adrien Ghenie) is still palpable. Clement Greenberg famously argued that the essence of modernism lies “in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” This made Kant the quintessential, or the first real modernist thinker, because “he was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism.” Manet became the Kant of modernist painting – that is, the first to create “[m]odernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted.” By extension, George Ohr is likewise the first modern ceramist. He subjects pottery to the same critical self-evaluation; reassessing its conditions of possibility not in terms of what can satisfy a practical interest, but solely in terms of the medium itself, the possibilities inherent within this material stuff, this clay.
That it should have taken somewhat longer for ceramics to come into its own is perhaps understandable given its close association with utilitarian objects, and hence its exclusion from the realm of fine art. With Ohr, ceramics unequivocally declares its autonomy, and its indifference to functionality, if not outright opposition. For the first time, pottery is about pottery, and not about what use that, at least in principle, could be made of it. Ohr is the father of modernist ceramics – precisely in Greenberg’s sense: Ohr turns ceramics back upon itself. Ceramics is now a process of critical self-reflection: he uses the traditional methods of ceramics to criticize the discipline itself, precisely to clarify and enrich ceramics’ special province, namely, shape.
Largely ignored during his lifetime, George Ohr produced some of the most advanced and daring ceramics of the nineteenth century. His pottery would seem to confirm Baudelaire’s suggestion that “strangeness forms an integral part of beauty.” One of the important features of his work is that he does not turn his back on the ugly, the grotesque, the deformed. With Ohr, the work of art is explicitly rendered an abject and misshapen thing. In Pottery, Politics, Art (2003) Richard Mohr writes: “[Ohr’s] rending and splattering… suggest a deeper signification…The theme is that of abjection.” This affinity for the rejected, the refuse, for what would ordinarily be judged as irredeemably flawed, and without value, is also, for Ohr, the outspoken socialist, a kind of metaphor for solidarity with the marginalized or subjugated groups of society, those that are brutalized and damaged by an inhumane system.
Gifts from the Fire: American Ceramics from the Collection of Martin Eidelberg will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, through October 30, 2022.
Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.