Since the rise of conceptual art practices within the ever-changing terrain of contemporary art, one often encounters the silly assertion that art making has become a market of ideas as opposed to objects. This is, of course, ridiculous: A walk through any art fair or biennial reveals that there are more objects in circulation than ever before, some more thoughtful than others. While dematerialization continues, the reclaiming of craft has complicated the assumption that contemporary art is destined for abstraction. The works in Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Craft at the Houston Museum of Contemporary Craft propose that traditional forms of making are relevant—and at times, urgent.
While the objects in this exhibition do not seem to share any formal or technical common denominator, they nevertheless coalesce into a narrative about the development of craft, particularly as it came into being in the United States during the postwar period. The work of Peter Voulkos seems to offer one of the many beginnings to this story. Voulkos’ practice arose out of a significant moment in American art: At the same time that critic Clement Greenberg was tracking the self-critical development of modern art to the Abstract Expressionist painters, the G.I. Bill was transforming university art education. Fine-art departments expanded and often combined with applied art programs to hold the thousands of new students who entered into the American university system. With their gouged surfaces and weighted compositions, Voulkos’ works embodied his rejection of the traditions of refinement and “the beautiful” that structured academic craft—rejections that allowed him to foreground the significance of time and process as opposed to high levels of finish and completeness. Voulkos’ emphasis on the fertility of experimentation, improvisation, and the ambiguous relationship between intention and chance ignited a dialogue between ceramics and postwar aesthetics of spontaneity as practiced by affiliates of Black Mountain College, turning him into a leader of the West Coast craft movement of the postwar era and his studio into one of the most important pedagogical sites for the development of ceramic art. Looking at the earthy thicknesses and slashed membrane of Voulkos’ 1969 Ceramic Pot (Steel Pot)—its verticality and sculptural monumentality subverted by its humble stoneware form—one can see the beginnings and possibilities of a more open field of making coming into being and pulsating across the other pieces in the galleries. Thus, Crafting a Continuum works to map the resonance of Voulkos’s generation on contemporary craft, and to give voice to a radical spirit of technical and conceptual freedom that drives the field today.