Catalog text by Ken Price
Ron Nagle is a sweetheart.
Ron Nagle is a sweetheart. I know this because we have been friends and comrades for fifty years. Back in the late 50's Ron and I were like soul mates, both making strange little cups while the rest of the art world seemed to be making huge paintings that were tough & important. For about 10 years it seemed like the two of us owned the cup idiom. The idiom is a good vehicle for ideas, even though the cup is it's own subject and doesn't need to be about anything other than itself. Ron's work isn't only about ideas, it's mostly about physical presence. He has a unique mentality - a splendidly perverse intelligence that includes odd things like rhyming, Charlie Chan, and the number two thirty. He has a quick wit, and manages to make humor in his forms, which is hard to do and impossible to explain.
Another thing that's hard is making small pieces that have power. Little pieces invite you to check them out closer so you can see what they really are. It's been my experience that some people won't stop to look at a small object. But if you examine one of Ron's, there's a pay-off. The work rewards close viewing, being fully resolved formally and beautifully made. I think the standard of quality that Ron aims for in his work comes from the strong but un-seen influence of medieval Japanese pottery. Ron appreciates the fact that Momoyama period Japanese Tea Ware is the greatest pottery ever made, but he doesn't wear the robes. The stuff he makes comes from his own time and place.
Ron belongs in the first rank of clay artists in history. Being grouped by material seems odd in our current times, but it's still in effect. So, he's stuck in this category and he's one of the best. When he's hot he makes magic.
(From exhibition catalog: Ron Nagle, 2008, p.5)
Catalog text by Elisabeth Védrenne
Those obscure objects of desire
One does not regard a ceramic piece by Ron Nagle the way one considers a china vase, however beautiful. Ron Nagle's pottery is so small (something like six inches) so apparently shapeless and hardly spectacular, in spite of strange colorations, that one?s look glides over a totally unidentified object. As soon as you begin wondering, you come to a halt and catch yourself wanting to drill through the enigma and you embark upon the object's luminous optical power, as though hypnotized. Sucked into the desire to venture inside a world, a texture, forms and tonalities so unknown and unsettling that they resist all reason, knowledge or good taste. Such loss of bearings carries with it a murky and obscure desire to even intensify it. Should one indulge somewhat in that game, he would plunge with delight into the floating world of analogies and dreaminess.
These dense little objects, bizarre and flat, oddly painted in garrish colors, which pulsate like real little landscapes, but don't look like anything, these organically shaped residues, these « tricks », tricklike in the way of all self respecting art, open your eyes wide over miniature continents, fragments of seas, of cosmos, of galaxies, of the endless immensity of deserts?
You latch on instinctively to intimate visions, childhood and other fantasies, colored flashes like when closing your eyes after staring into the sun: Instant crumbs from Proust's madeleine, moments of pure emotion. These mossy crusts, these foamy stones and other chalky and porous concretions remind you unmistakably of archeological potsherds left by who knows what civilisations. Cooled off jewels from meteorites, windworn shiny grained desert sand roses, ash colored fragments like the wings of minor bats or the skin of elephants, sunsets over lagoons or the Grand Canyon; Cakes with almond flavored sugar icing or smothered in raspberry juice, spongy rhumcakes, slow oozing Lolita colored sherbets; Psychedelic rocks spiked with orange sea anemones or sheathed in mother of pearl shards of shellfish, pulsating in a technicolor ballet under the magnifying glass of the sea.
These little objects emanate an incredible light, as though cristalized in solidified cinemascope, the kind of surreal light which exists only in deserts.
Those colored areas work like the supporting frames for painted canvasses, with their borders and edges underlined in another color creating an aura around their surface. Reinforcing the colored/discolored look, the pulsating effect also comes from the granular aspect that is visibly due to the way the paint has been pulverised.
The mind starts to wander around the famous « freedom » of american artists, hardly burdened with art history, no complexes, invention galore. Out of our daydreaming and the complex meandering of our memory, there springs another character, however quite distant at first sight : the italian Ettore Sottsass. One will remember his love for Beat Generation poetry, as a matter of fact his long stay in the United States, his return to Europe with the daring designs of the seventies : the Pop colors and mixtures, the fashion in which he unstructured all at once the tastes and european modernistic diktats, in order to follow the postmodernistic american architecture, mixed and served hindu style. The kind of character that would also love postcard sunsets, discolored by the sun or colored over with pastels or spray paint.
Indeed Nagle's work is a true hymn to color : not one instant does one think of a pot, a bowl, a teapot or a mug. No more does one think of a unique compressed object made of all the above. What would rather come to mind is the sort of « whim » encountered in serial music, a musical variation on oniric reflections upon the history of color. Listless variations, but saucy as well, a masterful display of the semantics of pottery.
The eye, till then dreamy and naive opens up suddenly and sees what it has to see : in the tiny compact fragments, in the specs of pure color scientifically elaborated, pigmented, painted over, baked over and over like a meringue biscuit, Ron Nagle offers us an astounding series of little « three dimentional ceramics paintings ». Less geometrical, no longer so smooth and shiny as before, but more and more abstract and mysterious, tinged with a more intimate humor and sensuality, less obvious, these objects go on being cups, albeit « cupped out ». The cup's ear, traditionally sticking out with triumphant pride, becomes sheepishly pendulous and fleshy.
Sensuality has been changed into grotesque sexuality, which, in such a slender minute sculpture, makes for a gnashing vision. All the more so as it is subtle and discreet, albeit in fluorescent color. The cup as deflated balloon. A short cut of a cup, all bunched up. A real « curio », at the edge of monstrosity.
A concentrated, floculated essence of the famous cup, for decades the object of the artist's doggedly declension. The cup as modest archetype, ever and ever changeable. Flattened shrunken cup, empty of its fullness, of its amplitude, of its roundness, cup that preserves funkily etched within, all the memory of the history of art and the history of ceramics. Like a metaphor returning to its origins, to the creation of the earth, mother-earth, container of the memories of all events which fashioned her. Clay, minerals, waters, fire, air. All mixing and exploding : and in the minute and shapeless shards lies the soul of the cup, of the drinking bowl that the hands of men had invented.
A cup, any cup, object of any painting. Like an object from Giorgio Morandi who wilfully negated time by painting nothing but creamy bottles and bowls his whole life? Nagle thus searches for the quintessential painting by transmogrifying it within the most banal object.
How then not to think of the generation of american painters which sprung up after Josef Albers took refuge in the U.S.A. and who taught fiery courses on color associations. To Rothko, naturally, then to Barnett Newman and to Clifford Still. The latter, after giving up the importance of contrasting light and shade, turned to pure color, to the contrasts of pure color values. Their painting divides space into color « fields », thus making relief stand out. Sharp or soft colored edges tighten the color and make it vibrate. Between the late fifties and the early sixties, the painters in this movement sometimes called Color Field Painting, with among others Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, steer into totally new questionings about color, emphasizing its tactile and rythmic qualities, its illusory power. Those are the ones young Ron Nagle discovers through Peter Voulkos, a then great figure in the renaissance of ceramics. It is also probably at the same period that he came across Olitsky's 1965 Spray Paintings : by spraying paint over grainy surfaces, the latter produced an awsome depth within color. Still today, Nagle sprays his earthenware with porcelain paint.
After a time at the California School of Fine Arts and creating jewelry, Ron Nagle joins the Otis group made up of students of Voulkos at the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles (1954-1958). There he meets Ken Price, his friend to be. The experimental postwar quakes within the California artistic and creative scene, are yet little known in Europe. Its famous protagonists are still productive nowadays. Nagle is soon interested in ceramics, full of innovation in those days. Voulkos is the key figure, whose work was long inspired by a type of japanese ceramics, reinterpreted by Bernard Leach and Hamada. He revolutionises the world still very much unprofessional of american pottery with iconoclastic ideas : he piles up volumes one atop the other, sculpts holes, draws within the clay or adds several spouts on a single teapot, in the libertarian line of another genius of american pottery, Georg Ohr. The latter, nicknamed « the mad potter of Biloxi », called himself, not without humour, « the second Bernard Palissy ». He kneaded, folded, pinched the clay and even pummeled it with his fists, with an incredibly sensual and expressive sort of fury, pushing it to its dire possible limits and obtaining in his pottery a kind of fragility, power and eroticism far removed from the expectations of american middle class amateurs of Arts and Crafts in the late nineteeth century. So free and experimental were his pieces that they simply never sold. He was rediscovered in 1972 by a merchant who practically bought out his whole Missouri atelier : over 6000 pieces, some quite extraordinary, handles, paunches and spouts all mingled ! Ohr became the facetious prophet, he was reinstated. Jasper Johns paid him homage by making his pots the center of some of his paintings at the occasion of a memorable exhibit at Leo Castelli's in New York. Voulkos is of the same vein, however he already enjoys great notoriety. He is at center stage, a magnetic pedagogue. He will remain the one who, in the after-war years, has unearthed the energy dormant within the clay. He transmits it, together with the taste for liberty and irreverence, to his students of the Otis group, therefor to Nagle. He educates his eye and sensitivity, makes him discover seventeenth century Momoyama pottery, with all the details of the traditional vocabulary of japanese ceramics, makes him discover and appreciate mediterranean ceramics, from Antiquity to Picasso. And jazz also, as well as those famous New York colorist painters. A cocktail of mixed genres which make a life-long imprint on Nagle's work.
Ron Nagle tries himself out at various styles, vaguely flirting with what is called the fetish-finish style, and observing from afar the drifts in the funk movement, with penises flowering from all the pots in San Francisco Bay. Freedom is there, but also kitsch. At times, he comes nearer to abstract painting (he is mentioned in art magazines like ArtForum) than to popular art, hesitates about where to situate himself, all the more so that the art of the potter begins to look dated, too facile, too intuitive, too materialistic, in short foppish. Nagle, who never ceased to be a musician, jumps in fully as interpreter as well as composer. It is interesting to know that he writes tunes, some for the then star singer, Barbara Streisand, or composes the music for the cult film The Exorcist, thus in total osmosis with the mythical culture of the seventies, with its garrish rythms and crossover genres. At the same time, and before it is the fashion, he pays close attention to the typically California style of a certain architecture of the 20's and 30's : square stuccoed façades, strange unpolished and powdery colors, greys and moss greens siding with corals and turquoise. This love/hate for the visual elements of his personal life, this tenderness for snatches of childhood memories, make him an avant-garde postmodern. This inspiration he will preserve for a long time, up until his pieces of the 80's, becoming over the years, a peerless colorist. He will take his stand observing and admiring the cups created by Ken Price, witnessing his remarkable work and his evolution toward a freeer and more sculptural artform. Nagle makes a show of his bend toward clashing color tones and combinations, keen on making them vibrate to the most, using his acquired mastery of all the techniques then in fashion such as airgraphics and all sorts of « sprays ». With a virtuosity he learnt while repainting the fantastic vintage cars of those years. He plunges ever deeper into the popular roots of his beloved California. He listens witout limit to his admiration for the inventive creativity of traditional japanese ceramics. He mingles intimately his sense of humor with his rejection of conventional « good taste ». He gradually becomes a « painter of ceramics ». Absolutely not in the way in which young Auguste Renoir painted flowers on parisian porcelain to make a living. Nagle is profoundly curious, he sucks in everything like a sponge. Now mature, he has the talent of being able to filter out what he wants and keep the best, to express only what is most deeply himself : eclecticism, sensitivity, fun, but also an enigmatic and melancholy side and a tinge of terror. Ron Nagle, the former « enfant terrible » first of the Abstract Expressionist Ceramics group, then close to the Postmodern Ceramics, has become, four decades later, a full fledged artist who found what distinguishes him from the others and who obscurely creates those strange objects of desire.
(From exhibition catalog: Ron Nagle, 2008, p.9-14)