Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 4, 2017
Jenni Sorkin Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 304 pp.; 8 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226303116)

This excellent book by the feminist scholar, critic, and curator Jenni Sorkin exemplifies the value of incorporating craft and other forms of applied art more fully into the history of the avant-garde. Sorkin reveals the important role played by women ceramic artists of the 1950s and 1960s in shaping collective and performative experiences of art. Women ceramicists built alternative communities of practitioners while exploring issues of form and process, and Sorkin argues that their work anticipated avant-garde collectives and participatory art forms of the late twentieth century.

Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community participates in a growing effort to historicize the relationship between craft and modernism. As contemporary artists have increasingly engaged with media once excluded from the domain of high art, scholars have sought to theorize how an art/craft binary has informed the production and consumption of art in the twentieth century. Sorkin makes an important contribution to this developing literature by adopting Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s term “beside” to characterize the place of ceramics alongside the Happenings, experimental art schools, and video art with which Sorkin’s readers will likely be more familiar. Thinking of craft “beside” avant-garde art allows for a wide range of relations between the two, including mutual desire, rivalry, parallel influence, and disidentification. Sorkin respects, and is highly informative about, the unique history of twentieth-century ceramics while still doing more than any previous scholar to fully situate that history within the debates structuring modernism and postmodernism.

Sorkin focuses on three women artists of the postwar period, Marguerite Wildenhain, M. C. Richards, and Susan Peterson, all of whom worked before the rise of the feminist art movement. Sorkin argues that they practiced a kind of proto-feminism that pioneered post-studio production and alternative-institution building. Valuing their independent livelihoods over conventional art-world success, these women ceramicists adopted both masculine and feminine personas as their circumstances demanded, and they often worked with and for more famous men such as John Cage and Peter Voulkos as teachers and collaborators. Sorkin insists on the value of biography in making these women’s lives visible and relevant to contemporary artists who may struggle with teaching loads, discrimination, and lack of resources. Sorkin argues that these and other women created the communities that sustained both amateur and avant-garde artists over the course of the century.

Craft plays a leading role in Sorkin’s account of that community formation. She highlights the prominent role craft played in the twentieth century as a mode of therapy, particularly for male veterans. From turn-of-the-century settlement houses to postwar art programs sponsored by the G.I. Bill, female teachers and social workers used craft to help men reenter the wider community. Sorkin argues that craft’s emphasis on collective skill building counters the individualism and competition of conventional artistic training, while its emphasis on sound workmanship and functionalism forces makers to consider the social value of what they produce. At the same time, Sorkin presents ceramics as an exception within crafts, in that women ceramicists of the postwar period placed a new emphasis on process rather than product. The nature of working with wet, malleable clay makes ceramics a relatively fast and hands-on practice. Ceramics comes closer than any other craft to being a performance art, in which live throwing demonstrations form the basis of pedagogy.

For the women artists Sorkin considers, ceramics was a “live form.” The term is a period one, taken from Wildenhain’s 1959 book Pottery: Form and Expression (New York: American Craftsmen’s Council), which describes how the form of a wheel-thrown pot is manipulated and determined by the body of the potter. For Wildenhain, the form of the ceramic vessel is “live” as an index of the artist’s actions, such that the artist embodies the ceramic form and, as Sorkin describes, “the artist’s body produces an immediate form in real time” (11). This notion of live form has obvious parallels with action painting and other avant-garde art practices, but Sorkin is most interested in the notion of “live form” to describe the performative and heuristic qualities of ceramics pedagogy. By moving “live form” from a description of art making to one of art learning, Sorkin emphasizes the social value of ceramics beyond purely formal concerns. For Sorkin, Wildenhain’s greatest achievement is not the perfection of her ceramic vessels or the evocative photographs that documented her skilled hands at work for LIFE magazine (and thus brought her to wider recognition), but rather the pottery summer camp she established at Pond Farm, in northern California, that created an alternative community of ceramicists building their skills collectively.

Wildenhain forms the first of Sorkin’s three case studies. After a first chapter that deftly narrates the debates that structured ceramics practice over the course of the twentieth century, Sorkin turns to Wildenhain’s Pond Farm in chapter 2. Wildenhain was a secular Jew who trained at the Bauhaus and had a promising career in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power. Wildenhain thus enables Sorkin to complicate the familiar narrative of Bauhaus refugees bringing modernism to America by examining the status of craft at both the Bauhaus and in the Jewish community. Sorkin argues that despite Wildenhaim’s modernist emphasis on the perfection of form, her ceramics pedagogy stressed the process of making rather than the finished product. Wildenhain ritualistically destroyed her students’ pots to reveal and critique the students’ technique, bringing to them a different kind of Bauhaus rigor.

Sorkin’s second case study, Richards, forms the subject of chapter 4. Richards is best known as either one of the figures reading poetry from the top of a ladder in John Cage’s 1952 Theater Piece #1, or as the author of Centering: On Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1964). She began her career as an English professor and joined the faculty at Black Mountain College in 1945, eventually becoming its chairman during a turbulent period. She resigned in 1951, but returned as a summer student two years later to learn pottery. Sorkin argues that Richards made crucial contributions to experimental theater at Black Mountain and subsequently in New York. Richards had a unique familiarity with experimental French theater, providing early translations of works by Artaud and introducing John Cage to the Ballets Russes. Sorkin even contends that Richards had a “pottery Happening” in New York in 1958. She thus situates Richards’s ceramics practice as an outgrowth of her interest in performance and social engagement.

The final chapter, chapter 5, focuses on Peterson, a Los Angeles-based artist who popularized ceramics through her television series, Wheels, Kilns, and Clay (1964–65), which Sorkin positions at the intersection of popular cooking shows such as Julia Child’s The French Chef and later feminist artists’ engagement with the kitchen and video art. Peterson performed a dual role on camera as a hyper-feminine housewife and knowledgeable professor happily making art in a kitchen-like space. Peterson thus enables Sorkin to recover the history of “women kitchen potters” and to show how television helped create another kind of alternative community.

Amid these artist case studies, Black Mountain College emerges as the book’s connecting thread. Wildenhain went to the school in 1952 to help teach its Pottery Seminar, Richards was both a teacher and student there, and Peterson helped bring Black Mountain’s Pottery Seminar to the Chouinard Art Institute. Sorkin focuses on Black Mountain in chapter 3, a particularly fascinating section of the book that examines the Pottery Seminar. Sorkin deconstructs the seminar’s efforts to bring ceramics “from East to West” by hosting (along with Wildenhain) Shōji Hamada, a Japanese ceramicist associated in the West with Zen; Yanagi Sōetsu, leader of the Japanese mingei craft movement; and Bernard Leach, an English ceramicist who idealized the East. Sorkin also makes an important contribution to our understanding of Black Mountain by situating the school within its rural North Carolinian surroundings and exploring how the Pottery Seminar intersected with local efforts to revive Appalachian crafts. Here, as throughout the book, Sorkin shows how attending to craft transforms our view of an ostensibly familiar avant-garde.

Live Form is an important recovery project that makes exciting connections between the early twentieth-century legacy of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the avant-garde practices of the 1960s and 1970s. Tracing an alternative genealogy is a longstanding feminist strategy, and Sorkin’s matrilineal line of women ceramicists draws attention to the craft community organizers whose impact on twentieth-century art has been both crucial and overlooked. Yet Sorkin is by no means uncritical of her subjects. Rejecting the hagiography and connoisseurship that characterizes much of the extant scholarship on craft, Sorkin also moves past episodic, anecdotal accounts that treat craft as an exceptional component of modernism. Sorkin offers instead a fully fleshed-out exploration of the integral role that women ceramicists played in developing the art of the last century. Her masterful work suggests how many more unrecovered stories of modernism have yet to be told.

K.L.H. Wells
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee