Shoji Hamada – Bowl / 13 x 21.5cm / private collection UK / image – Michael Harvey, Oxford Ceramics
I have long enjoyed the variously attributed quote that observes – ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ Its pithy truth about the perpetual failure of the intellect to come up with anything meaningful to say about an artwork occurs to me when I hear many artists try to speak about their work. Potters though, seem in general to suffer from no such trauma of expression. A potter will mention specifics – clay bodies, glaze recipes, firing ranges and multiple failures leading to modest successes. I like to think that this concentration on the medium and the skills involved in pottery allows for slow and meaningful innovation.
In 1953 ceramic artists Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach delivered a lecture tour across the US. The tour contributed to the shift in American pottery from being a staid and functional craft to an artform. At the same time in the States, Anni Albers, through textile weaving, was showing a healthy disregard for any debate around functionality and art. For Albers, coming from the Bauhaus, and for Hamada, one of the leading potters of the Mingei movement in Japan, there had never been any question of a distinction between craft and art – enough said.
Ryuji Tanaka, Nature ’89, 1989, Mineral pigment on panel, other materials 60.7 x 72.6 cm (23 7/8 x 28 5/8 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London / New York
It may seem odd that, no sooner had so many artists in the latter half of the nineteenth century begun to successfully assert their independence from established art institutions, such as the Beaux-Arts in France, than there was a rush to form new groupings, to gather together under new rules and with new criteria for entry. Many artists in subsequent generations would come together to form alternative collectives – the artistic movements with which we are familiar such as Dada and the Surrealists, and other later movements which are less well known, such as COBRA and Gutai. So many of these collectives were underpinned by manifestoes in which, ironically, one variety or other of artistic independence was declaimed. But they were often loosely held together communities of thought and any efforts to keep all participants on the same page failed. By the 1970s, the need for artists to identify collectively under a shared set of written principles had become the exception.
Ryuji Tanaka, installation view of exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery London, image courtesy Simon Lee Gallery London, 2017
The Japanese group of artists known collectively as Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Concrete Art Group – formed in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara ) cited in their manifesto an artistic kinship with certain Abstract Expressionists who were working almost contemporaneously – most notably Jackson Pollock. What the Gutai artists saw in Pollock was a singular emphasis on paint itself – what they recognised as “the loud outcry of the material” – at the expense of any imagistic possibilities in the medium that the artist might be tempted, by force of habit, to explore. The hyper-individualism in American art which was emerging through the Abstract Expressionists, would reach its accelerated apotheosis in the 1980s – an acceleration which would see the focus move away from painting.