Review by Ellen Paul Denker
Pottery, Politics, Art: George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick

Richard D. Mohr. Pottery, Politics, Art: George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 225 pp.; 22 color pls., 113 bw illus.; index (no bibliography). $60 (hardbound).

Richard Mohr, a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois, pretends to love the pots of George Ohr and the Kirkpatrick brothers in order to write about his favorite subjects—amateur Freudian psychoanalysis and anal sex. He wants to find big, universal issues in their work. He claims that his book will resurrect the Kirkpatricks “from obscurity wrought of curatorial storage, regional collecting, scholarly neglect, and well-intended prudery” (p. 6). One wonders what he means by obscurity. A Kirkpatrick snake jug recently sold for more than $38,000 at Christie’s, and another is currently on permanent view in the Luce Center at the New-York Historical Society, interpreted in the public audio tour by nationally syndicated cartoonist Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”). But further reading in this slim volume will finally bring you to the crux of the matter. Mohr wants these potters to be shown in art museums, but, he complains, their pots have not been interpreted in a way that is sufficiently sexy to intrigue art museums. “It may not be the case,” he argues, “that only in recent critical times could the brothers’ work be given its interpretive due, but in light of the fusion of meaning and use in their work, it is particularly helpful to have available the critical tools of the present which emphasize strategy over structure, rhetoric over grammar, function over form, and which are sensitive to the political dimensions of art, to irony, fun, and to turns of meaning as well as of phrase” (p. 6). He refers to his method as “the interpretive techniques of contemporary literary and art criticism” and then names “deconstructive, historicist, rhetorical, and psychoanalytical strategies” (p. 6). Deconstruction, rhetoric, and psychoanalysis are easy to find in this book; historical fact is not.

I wrote on the Kirkpatricks many years ago, so I was especially excited about the possibility of new interpretations of their work.[1] I, too, wonder why Charles Demuth’s quiet formalist paintings of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for example, are hanging in the Whitney Museum of American Art, while the Kirkpatrick brothers’ best snake jug is displayed across Central Park at the historical society. New arguments that cut through the old rhetoric of art versus craft or decorative versus fine art surely would be welcomed in the field of decorative arts scholarship. Indeed, Mohr promises to show us the light of cutting-edge interpretation: “If, along the way, the book helps academics take the decorative arts in general more seriously than they have been in even the recent past, that would be nice” (p. 7). Nice, however, is hardly the word one would use to describe a largely scatological text by a scholar who relishes the opportunity to write about excrement, anal sex, taut foreskins, vulvae, large breasts, and miscegenation. This is not a nice book, despite the author’s best wishes for our enlightened future. I kept wondering as I slogged through Mohr’s secretions whether taking the decorative arts “more seriously” meant that once we scholars began to uncover the scatological significance of Belter sofas, ball-and-claw feet, and over-upholstered seat rails, the decorative arts would become more accessible to art museum curators and aficionados.

For those readers unfamiliar with the work of Cornwall and Wallace Kirkpatrick, from 1859 to 1896, in their Anna, Illinois, pottery the brothers made standard utilitarian salt-glazed stoneware products, as well as some remarkable sculptural objects, including but certainly not limited to jugs covered with writhing three-dimensional snakes and whisky flasks in the shape of pigs. When I put together an interpretation of their pots nearly thirty years ago, I saw the work largely as radical temperance propaganda wrought by a pair of widely read, politically savvy Midwestern craftsmen with a keen observation of gesture and remarkable skill in modeling. But Mohr thinks the temperance angle is “too simplistic and probably flat out wrong, even though Wallace Kirkpatrick was himself involved briefly with the temperance movement” (p. 28). Ignoring that temperance advocates were socially radical in their belief that society could legislate morality, Mohr prefers to see the brothers as “appleknockers” (p. 2) with a scatological sense of humor. Temperance as a theme is too stodgy for the new scholarship. However, Mohr is so intent on dishonoring the temperance interpretation that he neglects the Kirkpatricks’ contribution to the object dialogue that unites past and present. Dismissing temperance as a theme because the brothers did not use standard temperance imagery, Mohr fails to see that they invented their own iconography, which included references to classical sculpture. He writes instead:

In general I will be arguing that the Kirkpatricks’ body of work, far from being conformist and conservative, is critical and progressive, even as it advances a fairly dark view of the world. For the Kirkpatricks, the underbelly of existence is clammy, dank, and uneasy. Their work is streaked with misanthropy, a gentle, pitying mournful misanthropy, one which does not abandon humanity as hopeless. It at least goes to the bother of subverting social conventions such as it can—sometimes subtly, sometimes by scaring the horses outright. (p. 28)

Okay, that is a different train of thought, and one that might be worth following if the author had some command of the past that he conjures so glibly. The writer’s facile command of the English language makes for easy reading, but he is disconcertingly loose with facts. We learn at the outset (p. 2), for example, that the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was “America’s first world’s fair” (no, that would be New York City’s famed Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1853); that Anna, Illinois, the site of the pottery, is a “delta town” (actually, it is landlocked, with nary a river in sight), and that Ott & Brewer’s now famous Baseball Vases—the first American claywork to be officially classified as art and frequently shown in art museums since that time—were nothing more than “kitsch.” I could be accused of favoring grammar over rhetoric here, but if we are going to have a new scholarship in the decorative arts, should we not start with the facts, as boring as some of them may be? I was sorry to see all these missteps from the start. I was hoping for a new paradigm, but found an old poseur.

The interpretive strain with the most promise is Mohr’s exploration of the “grotesque” with regard to the Kirkpatricks’ work using the analytical tools of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary theorist:

Exaggeration, hyperbolism, excessiveness, obsessiveness, fantastic dimensions, and the resulting impossible nature of an image represented in these ways are all typical attributes of the grotesque style. . . . The essential characteristic of the grotesque . . . is that it is a mechanism by which the rational, the ideal, the prescriptive yearnings and highest aspirations of the human are transferred or projected downward onto the lower registers of life, especially on humans’ nagging animal traits, the abdomen, the genitals, the rectum. In the grotesque, “the bowels and the phallus” become a second body with a life of its own. (p. 36)

Mohr loves this stuff, but he never takes it anywhere. His thesis is that the Kirkpatricks’ work fits the definition of grotesque and that it is “a dethroning, a debunking, but it is not the narrow debunking that is satire. . . . Through the grotesque the Kirkpatricks took laughing aim not just at the Victorian value of soberness but at conscientiousness, discipline, hard work, prescriptivity, rational orderliness, competitive excellence, regulated self-improvement, better-than-thou-ism, optimism sustained by good deeds, thrift, prudence, and prudery, in short, the whole Victorian worldview” (p. 38).[2] He is so fond of the grotesque that he happily mistakes an airhole (a puncture in an applied figure to keep it from exploding in the kiln) for the results of a giant fart. And he is pleased to find the Kirkpatricks’ repeated use of dung beetles rolling dung (which he delights in calling “shit”) but fails to consider that this is low-caste imagery of industry. The usual symbol for industry in the 1800s would have been the busy beehive. Instead, the Kirkpatricks celebrated the dung beetle’s ability to make something from nothing, just as potters craft their wares from dust. 

Some of the interpretive directions Mohr takes are provocative—like comparing a short series of similar jugs to a rondel, a form of poetry—but others become morasses. One discussion about a small inkwell that seems to support protectionist tariffs is so convoluted that even the author loses track of his argument and finally flails it by calling the piece a “complex work of irony” (p. 42). Suffice it to say, there are enough problems with Mohr’s analysis of the Kirkpatricks’ work to draw this text into question. In any case, none of this will matter to the collector contemplating the $40,000 price tag on the next snake jug to come up for sale. 

Mohr is more effusive about George Ohr, the self-styled “mad potter of Biloxi,” and in many ways the book is really about him. There has been much written about Ohr, but none of it is sufficiently scatological to suit Richard Mohr, who waxes rhapsodic over Ohr’s sexual penny banks of penises, vulvae, and breasts but fails to mention Ohr’s reproductions of historic ceramic forms. 

The best part of the Ohr section is where the author demonstrates Ohr’s debt to the Kirkpatricks. The connection between the Kirkpatricks and Ohr was first noted in 1986, in an entry on Ohr that Bert Denker and I wrote for “The art that is life”: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875–1920.[3] Robert Ellison Jr. expanded this connection greatly in the book he wrote with Eugene Hecht and Garth Clark that accompanied the landmark exhibition at the American Craft Museum in 1989,[4] but not to Mohr’s satisfaction: 

  Every critic admits that Ohr’s wares with snakes derive significantly from the Kirkpatricks’ and count as art pottery by any standard. . . . The snake wares of the Kirkpatricks and Ohr reveal a second, more important influence flowing from the former to the latter. The Kirkpatricks’ jugs hold, I believe, the key to understanding the different levels of complexity in Ohr’s forms—his overall aesthetic. Nearly every critic of Ohr points out that Ohr was trying to “transcend” the potentials offered by the traditional vessel form and that he indeed succeeded in taking the vessel where no vessel had gone before. That Ohr was able to do this, I suggest, is largely due to aesthetic innovations already worked out in the Kirkpatricks’ snake jugs. (p. 121)

Mohr supports this assertion with a bold and convincing argument. Unfortunately, he follows this breakthrough with more of his usual nattering about excrement, anality, and obsessiveness, ultimately comparing Ohr with Howard Hughes. Mohr’s conclusion is that:

. . . in the fulfillment of his excremental vision, Ohr may have achieved even more than producing pottery as pottery simpliciter. If twentieth-century psychoanalytical theory is true, then Ohr in his very wooziness and compulsions may have given us a glimpse of art as art itself, or more modestly put, of artistic process as artistic process pure and simple. In regressing from the sexual and phallic stages of psychological development, Ohr in his work rejects the vision of the “adult genital personality type, the successful psychosexual development in psychoanalytic theory, characterized by capacity for mature heterosexual love, responsible concerns beyond the self, and productive living in society.” (p. 163)[5]

Mohr is right that his book offers new ways of looking at objects. Whether this idiosyncratic form of psychosexual analysis can be applied to the Kirkpatrick and Ohr pots—or to any other objects, for that matter—is another issue.

Ellen Paul Denker
Museum consultant and writer

Ceramics in America 2004

  • [1]

    Ellen Paul Denker, “Forever Getting up Something New” (master’s thesis, University of Delaware, Newark, 1978).

  • [2]

    A catalog of Victorian virtues taken from Daniel Howe, ed., Victorian America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976), pp. 17–24.

  • [3]

    Ellen Paul Denker and Bert Denker, in Wendy Kaplan, “The art that is life”: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875–1920, exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), pp. 252–53, no. 110.

  • [4]

    Garth Clark, Robert Ellison Jr., and Eugene Hecht, The Mad Potter of Biloxi: The Art and Life of George E. Ohr (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989), pp. 68–69.

  • [5]

    Quoting Raymond Corsini and Alan Auerbach, eds., Concise Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley, 1996), p. 721.