Live Form

Read: Jenni Sorkin’s Live Form

Over the break I read Jenni Sorkin’s recent book, Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community. Sorkin, who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, looks at the intersection of gender and artistic labor in the immediate post-war. She focuses on three case-studies: the Bauhaus-trained Marguerite Wildenhain who set up Pond Farm pottery in California; the author M. C. Richards who wrote Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person in 1964; and media innovator Susan Peterson, who demonstrated ceramics on television in the sixties.

One of the most interesting aspects of this study is the rural nature of both Wildenhain and Richard’s work. Yet, as Sorkin demonstrates, they were able to gather both students and fellow professionals to them. Their influence on generations of ceramicists remains impressive. As someone who teaches in a rural, western NY, I find this aspect timely and exhilarating.

Sorkin argues that these trailblazers directly contributed to our current notions of social practice. Specifically, she states that it was mid-century craft (and especially ceramics) that “originated non-hierarchical and participatory experiences.” While she overstates their breadth of influence on contemporary discourse, this book is a welcome and much-needed study of three under-represented practitioners and the cultural context in which they worked.

Postscript: I read this book before seeing the visually dynamic exhibition on Peter Voulkos at the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC. Sorkin’s re-ordering of ceramic history was very much in my mind as I walked around the installation and examining Voulkos’ raw cuts and scrapped surfaces. His energetic demonstrations of making these thick, totemic forms now hold an iconic place in the ceramic community; his vessels are now part of standard art history surveys, a sign that they have gained a foothold in the modern canon. Yet, his indebtedness to women potters and the contemporaneous work of Wildenhain and others—is just now being explored. And, more importantly, we need to question our received ideas and broaden our vision on how craft practitioners have contributed to the contemporary art discourse, We owe Sorkin a debt of thanks.

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