Born in 1926, Stanley Rosen belongs to the first wave of American artists to innovate and elevate ceramics into a fine art form. Unlike such luminaries as Peter Voulkos, Toshiko Takaezu, and Betty Woodman, Rosen started late and is, by his own volition, the least known. His first solo exhibition did not take place until 2017. His work shares almost nothing with that of his peers. In fact, he eschewed such markers of seriousness as monumental scale, perfect forms, flawless surfaces, and glossy iridescent glazes. He seems to have deliberately rejected the kinds of sensuous, seductive beauty we have long associated with ceramic sculpture.
This is one reason it is important to recognize the aesthetic and philosophical position we see on display in Stanley Rosen: Vessels at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (May 21–July 2), which includes 12 sculptural objects, four vessels made with a potter’s wheel, and five works on paper. This is the first time that Rosen has exhibited his pieces made on a potter’s wheel in a New York venue. Looking at them alongside his sculptural objects, I have the sense that he never wanted his thrown pieces to be seen as sculptures, even though the five in this exhibition seem barely functional.
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Starting in the 1960s and continuing up to the last few years in “Untitled (Addendum Q)” (2018), Rosen assembled works using pinched pieces of clay. These pieces could be rolled or pressed flat. Rather than shaping a single form, he began joining together small pieces, seemingly intent on discovering what could be made with just his thumbs and forefingers. If, as Willem de Kooning speculated, “flesh is the reason oil paint was invented,” I can imagine Rosen saying that “skin is the reason ceramics was invented.”
Rather than accepting the convention in ceramics of starting with a slab or coils, Rosen limited himself to these small pieces of clay, and worked incrementally, pressing the bits together and making no attempt to hide his process. He shares this additive process, in which there is no going back, with Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis. The difference, of course, is their materials.
In “Untitled (SR#158)” (c. 1976) and “Untitled (The Collection #163)” (c. 2000s), Rosen begins with an arched, boat-like form as the base on which he adds small rolled sections of clay, pressing them into clusters. The three clusters in the latter form columns that support a horizontal beam, also made from bits of clay; sitting atop it are three piles of clay sections. With “Untitled (SR#158),” Rosen assembles two levels and has started a third. These works don’t feel finished, but, as Paul Valery said about the desire for perfection, “A [work] is never finished, only abandoned.”
These works show the effect of gravity. Rosen stops adding to them because they would likely collapse or topple over if he continued. If art is regarded traditionally as an impermeable form that resists the effects of time — gravity and collapse — Rosen acknowledges and accepts their inevitable triumph. He works within what he recognizes as the clay’s limits.
Aesthetically and philosophically, I see these works as being directly opposite Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column” (1918, first version). In contrast to Brancusi’s use of reproducible, modular forms, Rosen rolled or pinched each section by hand. I think that direct contact with the materials, without resorting to tools, is in keeping with Rosen’s desire to strip art down to its basic necessities, as expressed in different ways by Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Robert Motherwell. At the same time, it is clear that Rosen has no interest in pure form or the sublime.
Rosen’s embrace of vulnerability and gravity, both inescapable human conditions, and the way he expresses them without embellishment in his art, is an important achievement. It is not about style, fashion, or other temporal concerns. His sculptures also remind us that one purpose of art might be to show us ways to accept and even rejoice in our mortality.
In “Untitled” (c. 1960s), Rosen has fit a tall box inside a lower, slightly larger one. Each box is made from pieces of flattened clay, like a wall composed of something between stones and chewed gum. Two pairs of ceramic planes rise out of the second box. “Untitled” is technically a vessel, but not like any other I have seen. It can also be read as an architectural structure, which seems both enduring and fragile. Its walls appear thinner than a saltine cracker. Built piece by piece, “Untitled” seems to be saying that it can only partially protect what it contains. The curving upright sections convey gravity’s constant presence.
The vessel’s connection to and vulnerability is evoked most directly in a stoneware piece, “Untitled (The Collection #146)” (c. 1960s). Rosen has made a tall, goblet-like form by fitting and pressing together pieces of clay. The rim is uneven, as he makes no attempt to impose his will and straighten out the edge. What strikes me about this piece is that the vulnerability it transmits to the viewer is inseparable from its evident process of construction. The unity Rosen attains in his ceramics is one in which he recognizes that defenselessness is integral to clay’s material identity. His austere sense of craft is a refutation of late capitalism’s celebration of material wealth in the guise of art.
Stanley Rosen: Vessels continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.