All ceramic objects have a story to tell—but not all stories are equal. For the 2014 volume of Ceramics in America I have used the number ten as the basis for a collection of essays by ten authors who have had prominent careers in the field. I asked them to discuss ten objects, artists, or events that are most meaningful to them and, consequently, should be meaningful to us. Affectionately known as “Project X,” the assignments were intended to be a celebration of ceramic scholarship, collecting, and personal opinions and stories. I also anticipated the exercise would be provocative and challenge others to consider how they might arrive at their own lists.
Throughout history the number ten has been assigned special significance by many cultures and is often the basis for monetary systems, technology, even sports regulations. It certainly served Moses well and has been a cornerstone of David Letterman’s television career. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras considered ten to be the “holiest” of all the numbers and a symbol of universal creation. On a more earthly plane, fans of Blake Edwards know that the number ten is forever linked to the American ideal of beauty. Our obvious anthropomorphic connection to the number is underscored by this year’s cover illustration, created by designer Wynne Patterson.
Reducing great collections of things to a number is popular these days. One of my favorite compilations is A History of the World in 100 Objects (2011) by Neil MacGregor. MacGregor walks us through two million years of human history using a mere one hundred objects from the vast collections of the British Museum. I have no lofty claim for the conception of this volume of Ceramics in America beyond a curiosity to see how distilling a number of diverse ceramic stories might interest readers who live in this age of sound bites. The participants are curators, historians, and dealers; some are all three. Missing, perhaps, is the voice of a practicing ceramist, but I can envision a future volume of top ten choices by working potters.
The oldest ceramic vessel discussed in this volume, a five-thousand-year-old Egyptian black-top beaker, is among Ivor Noël Hume’s top ten. His article, fittingly titled “X Commandments,” presents objects he has encountered in his long career of professional research and personal collecting, among them ones he discovered in archaeological excavations, found on the banks of the Thames River or in London flea markets, and, most recently, plucked from obscurity in eBay listings. As important as the objects themselves are the lessons we can learn from his insatiable curiosity and his insistence on rigorous yet creative research and interpretations.
When I approached British ceramics specialist Jacqui Pearce with the proposition of telling London’s ceramic history with broken objects, I feared she might think I had become unhinged. However, like virtually all of the authors herein, she leaped to the challenge. (I suspect she had carried such a list in her head all along!) Codified in “Ten Key Ceramic Finds from London’s Archaeological Collections,” Jacqui’s top ten are chosen from those that are under her care at the Museum of London. London’s history extends from the Paleolithic settlements along the Thames through the invasions of Romans and Saxons to the current cosmopolitan assemblage of sheiks, bankers, techno savants, and pop culture trendsetters, and even though this is a London story, the ceramics have international connections that I am particularly pleased to include in this volume.
A much broader assignment was given to Ron Fuchs, who had the daunting task of formulating “A History of Chinese Export Porcelain in Ten Objects.” I had the pleasure of working with Ron when he was a young archaeology student at the College of William and Mary, and since then he has gone on to impressive achievements at Winterthur and currently serves as curator of the Reeves Collection of Chinese export porcelain at Washington and Lee University. With more than six hundred years of Chinese porcelain history to contend with, Ron’s choices weave a remarkable tale of global technology, economy, and fashion. One can imagine an exhibit resulting from his curatorial exercise, and students unfamiliar with Chinese export porcelain history would benefit immensely from it.
No single term can adequately describe the ongoing career of Garth Clark—critic, historian, and dealer, of course, and I would include “impresario,” and perhaps even add “ferocious” as a modifier for all of those monikers. Through his writings, exhibitions, and provocations, Garth has shaped the field of modern and contemporary ceramics unlike any other individual. When I first emailed him with my request to decree the “Top Ten Vessels in Modern and Contemporary Art”—those with the greatest impact and that would be talked about for centuries to come—I could feel the energy of his positive response, both intellectually and viscerally, through the computer keyboard. His essay is an immediate education for those of us who don’t follow ceramic history past 1850, and it is sure to challenge the notions of other twenty-first-century ceramics critics for whom polemics are inseparable from the objects themselves.
If I had to pick a curator’s curator among the current staffing of American decorative arts museums, it would be Ulysses Dietz. While I have not interacted with Ulysses firsthand through much of his or my career, his personality, erudition, and enthusiasm for history, aesthetics, and public education are hallmarks of his tenure at the Newark Museum. I now have the pleasure of almost daily interaction with Ulysses via Facebook and enjoy his joie de vivre postings celebrating the holdings of his institution. When I asked him to choose his “Curatorial Ten: The World in Clay from the Newark Museum,” I knew the task would be difficult for him. Not surprisingly, he rose to the occasion with a loving and thoughtful essay.
By now some astute readers might have noticed that we have eleven essays instead of the originally planned ten. As those with polydactyly know, plus one can make the ordinary extraordinary. In this regard, our plus one is an essay by the late British antique dealer Jonathan Horne. Months before Jonathan passed away in 2010, he sent me a paper titled “Triumphs and Tribulations—A Cautionary Tale,” which included some of the best stories, musings, and philosophies from his distinguished but all too short career. I was able to adapt his essay to the Project X format. It is fair to say that through his dealings and, equally important, his publications, Jonathan elevated the history of English pottery as has no other individual in the twentieth century. Yet, many of his stories come from the humble experiences that many of us in the field share with discoveries, disappointments, mistakes, and the thrill of being associated with objects of great delight and importance. I am particularly happy to see Jonathan’s words come to light and I know that his many colleagues will smile as they read them.
With the work ethic of Aretha Franklin and no hint of diva, Ellen Denker could well be the hardest-working American ceramics scholar, with a long record of publications, exhibitions, and teaching to her name. She is probably best known for her work with ceramics of America’s industrial age, in particular the history of American china painting. In her essay, “Hot Bodies, Cool Colors: American China Painting in Two Centuries,” Ellen selected ten china painters—dead and living—to illustrate that genre of ceramic art. The use of clay as an artist’s canvas is often given lesser consideration by ceramic historians than form and glaze, but Denker champions the art form as an important vehicle of personal expression and a reflection of social and aesthetic history.
I had mixed feelings about including myself among the eminent ceramic scholars included in this volume. Having had the privilege of working with so many extraordinary objects and learned individuals, however, I decided to indulge my own autobiographical narrative with “Specializing in the Diverse: A Journey in Ten Ceramic Objects.” My essay is a highly personal statement of the ceramic objects, both modest and world-class, that are now part of my professional DNA and the reason why I continue to find inspiration in the study of pottery and porcelain.
Can you imagine being a caretaker of the “Nation’s Attic,” or at least the portion that contains ceramics and glass? Bonnie Lilienfeld, who has that monumental responsibility, presents “My Ten Favorite Ceramic Objects from the National Museum of American History.” As curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s magnificent ceramics and glass collection, Bonnie is well positioned to choose ten objects that have both professional and personal relevance to her. Some of her objects are, quite simply, the blockbusters of American ceramic history; others reflect Bonnie’s own efforts in shaping the accessions of the institution. Her ten choices demonstrate how masterpieces and seemingly mundane yet poignant objects are integral to the story of American history and culture.
Another world-class collection was under the care of John Austin, curator emeritus of Ceramics and Glass at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In his more than forty years at Williamsburg, John developed an encyclopedic knowledge on a wide range of eighteenth-century English ceramics and published several major catalogs that are now standards in the field. His contribution for us, cleverly titled “I–Porcelain,” chronicles his work with examples taken from Williamsburg’s significant porcelain collection and, perhaps as important, highlights the need for curating institutional memories. In addition to his selection of glorious porcelains, readers will enjoy John’s recounting of those behind-the-scenes curatorial adventures that often get lost to the passage of time.
For the past thirty years, the name Stradling has been nearly synonymous with the scholarship of American ceramics history. Partners in life and in business, Diana and Gary recount their history as fledgling dealers who developed their personal interests into a remarkable career, procuring American ceramics and glass for many American museum collections. Their joint essay, “Dealers’ Choice,” records their history and association with many important American historical ceramic objects. Although husband-and-wife teams are not uncommon in the antiques field, the Stradlings as a power couple are greater than the sum of their individual personas. In a field where skepticism is kept at bay only through impeccable research, the Stradlings are often observed arguing, with great enthusiasm, the merits of any given case with each other. And when they speak with a united front, people listen.
The journal usually concludes with a number of book reviews. For this issue, Book Reviews Editor Amy Earls organized a collection of short bibliographic essays from a diverse group of ceramic scholars. The aim was to share with readers the publications that these authors considered most significant in helping to shape their prominent careers. Readers surely will be enticed to expand their own libraries after reading about the works that so influenced these scholars.