Nicheless de Waal

Edmund de Waal (Photo: Andrew Testa for The New York Times)

Mr. de Waal’s inspiration comes as much from poets and musicians as it does other artists: the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto “because of the abstract way he deals with an image”; composers like Steve Reich and John Adams, for their serial, repetitive music which “allows me to think about slow, incremental change”; poets like Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, “because of their cadences and passionate abstraction.”

–Carol Vogel, New York Times

Edmund de Waal first caught my eye when I read his bestselling (and only) book, The Hare With Amber Eyes. A ceramist who can write that well? Not what you would expect.

My interest was piqued further when I started seeing several articles about him prior to his show at Gagosian Gallery in New York. When I read the paragraph above I stopped short: every person he listed as an influence has had a major impact on me too. Hiroshi Sugimoto. Steve Reich. John Adams. Wallace Stevens. John Ashbery. How often is the list a perfect match?

In an interview with Iain Millar, de Waal speaks words that could have come out of me:

One of the really interesting things in contemporary art is about the loss of time. The process is neutral, it’s not a good thing or a bad thing, but long looking and long making do something different from short looking and short making.

He also addresses his discomfort when the making and the selling are too closely aligned, and more boldly, of his dislike of art fairs:

Millar: I was wondering what would bring you out in hives again.

de Waal: When I discovered that I don’t agree with art fairs, that an artist going to art fairs make me ill…

Millar: You’re a refusnik?

de Waal: The brutality and the commodification of what you’ve just done is just too total for me. I’m English enough to enjoy that separation. I like making stuff, talking about how it’s going to be curated and then finding out later about whether someone’s bought it or not. That interim process of seeing it being sold is a bit of a shock.

Which brings me around to his show at Gagosian. I was very moved by this show, and yet there is a but in my praise. While de Waal’s work has that much needed—and often hard to describe—quality I call presence, it felt compromised, its energy muffled.

My reservations have something to do with the same words de Waal used to describe art fairs: brutality, and commodification. My problem is not with the work but with the context.

de Waal’s work is not suited for the environment of a Gagosian Gallery. I would have had a very different experience had it been installed at the Rubin Museum surrounded by sacral Himalayan art, or in a large non-secular (used here to mean non-art world) space. The experience this work offers is fragile, quiet, delicate and rare. Those nuanced responses are drowned out in a Gagosian where the commodification is steroidal.

As a result the work can be misread and misunderstood. Not surprisingly reviews of the show have been extremely bifurcated. For example Roberta Smith, usually a favorite writer, was very dismissive:

Time spent with Mr. de Waal’s work can teach a lot about the nuances of ceramics, but his work is ostentatiously precious and ultimately naïve. It forces a pastiche of received art ideas through the sieve of a different medium, gaining a physical distinctiveness, but little more. Too bad he found ceramics itself so deficient.

If naïveté is de Waal’s flaw, then so be it. Not knowing where to place his work may also be part of that. Martin Roth, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum said, “He doesn’t fit into a niche, and that’s his strength. He’s not copying 18th-century or ancient Asian porcelain. His work is completely modern, but it is steeped in a great knowledge of history.”

In de Waal’s words:

I make objects out of porcelain, which are vessels. And I put them in different kinds of cabinets and vitrines and then put those into different spaces. So what is it? It’s patently sculpture of a kind, it talks to architecture I hope, it’s very much rooted in poetry and music, it’s pottery at a very real level. But it doesn’t slip effortlessly into a contemporary genre.

The show is on view until October 19.

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  1. madmingei’s avatar

    Thanks for your wonderful reviews of ceramics! To be fair, his past work has often been located in places other than commercial galleries and it was pretty unusual at the time.I admire his willingness to experiment with locating his work in unexpected locations so perhaps a Gargosian is simply part of that long-held experiment? After all, we don’t see ceramics featured very often in commercial galleries! Good on him!

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      I initially was so excited that de Waal had “crossed over” and getting worthy attention, so deserved. And yes, it may have been an experiment. I just found myself lost in the cognitive dissonance of trying to really experience his work in an environment that feels cold, detached and just not conducive. Thank you so much for your comment!

  2. madmingei’s avatar

    I wish I could jump on a plane and come to NY to see the show! I will have to be satisfied with images and your judgement Deborah (your posts on Ken Price’s work won me!!) Is it because de Waal’s work has a certain coldness all by itself? (Porcelain does that to me) Roberta Smith might be right but if she’s suggesting he should show his pots as pots then he would probably not even be accepted into any commercial art gallery anywhere – let alone Gagosian in NY! It’s so tricky trying to be a potter in the contemporary art world!

  3. Olga’s avatar

    I have been interested in Edmund de Waal for many years now. I first encountered his work in what used to be the British Craft Centre, but is now long since renamed CAA: Contemporary Applied Arts. He has written extremely lyrically about ceramics – his degree was in English (although that is no guarantee that one can write well) – often and widely before he wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes. I bought two espresso coffee cups at that first sighting.
    Now, I still love his stuff, but, but, but … like you there is a but. He now exhibits regularly as a sculptor at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and his work sits ill, I find. I can just imagine how uncomfortable the work could feel in a white cube gallery setting. I find that it is work for contemplation, where glimpses in a busy life stop you to take pause, breathe, slow down to appreciate a moment of joy.
    The work is ceramic, but somehow the material should not come first. It is art, but not the art of commerce, somehow, and is sullied by the milieu, just as de Waal himself says that he feels uncomfortable at fairs. But the man has to make a living – so what is he to do?
    I am extremely fortunate in that I live close to a very human gallery in a country house, which also has an artist’s house as part of the gallery complex. I have seen de Waal’s pieces displayed there, and they have been extraordinary.
    I am also fortunate that we have our two little cups to look at, hold, and use.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Olga, Thank you so much for sharing your experience of de Waal’s work as well as the link to a very different display venue. And yes to this–”I find that it is work for contemplation, where glimpses in a busy life stop you to take pause, breathe, slow down to appreciate a moment of joy.” And even though Gagosian is not optimal, de Waal’s visibility will now give him many more options. All good. Thanks again, and I hope you will stop in again!

  4. Diane McGregor’s avatar

    Totally in agreement with you, Deborah, that this work is wounded by the vulgar environment of Gagosian. Indeed, the “brutality and commodification” of the art fair is contributing to the death of beauty, spirit, and wonder in art today. I was also very moved by the fact that his influences are mine as well, especially Steve Reich and Wallace Stevens.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Diane, he definitely drinks from the same stream that you and I frequent. And thanks be to our online community that helps us find each other. I am so glad you and I made a connection IRL as well. Many more visits to come I hope!

  5. Ann E. Michael’s avatar

    I won’t be able to get to the Gagosian for the exhibit, and I wonder if I would feel the same way.

    The book he wrote is quite touching (I had an interest in netsuke already and am a huge fan of Proust and the salon artists/history of that era, so it was a fun read for me). I’d be interested in what de Waal writes about art, HIS art…other than interviews, do you know if he’s written articles? Maybe he prefers to keep silent on that side of things–let the work speak for itself.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Ann, I didn’t dig so deep that I would be able to answer your question. But given his international success I would imagine he has (or will) be speaking up on that topic. Thanks for your comment, and my best to you and David.

  6. miriam louisa simons’s avatar

    I wonder if Roberta Smith has read “The Hare with Amber Eyes”? If she has she is surely ignoring the way the threads of de Waal’s life (small precious objects, netsuke, and vitrines, poetry, music and pottery) come together in this wonderful, soulful work. To call it “ostentatiously precious and ultimately naïve” reveals a poverty of heart on her part.

    For me, de Waal is inspiring in both clay and words, like fellow ceramicist Rupert Spira. Interesting that they share a similar revulsion towards the commodified world of high art. I’m in that camp too.

    Ann – you might find this article by de Waal of interest:

    Thanks for this provocative post D.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Dear L, thank you so much for this, and particularly for the introduction to Rupert Spira. I just spent half an hour on his site and there is so much there to uncover.

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