Marc Leuthold: An Offering to All

One of the most striking features of Marc Leuthold’s legacy is that he has managed to carve out a unique space within a set of boundaries that has redefined how ceramic as a medium and the artists who work with it are perceived.

With the exception of Picasso, who single-handedly catapulted ceramic art to prominence in the late 1940s, and the generation of artists whose work is associated with the California Clay Movement in the 1950s (Peter Voulkous, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston, Betty Woodman, Andrea Grill, and others) have generated various pictorial possibilities that spring from abstract expressionist aesthetica, surrealist fetishization, assemblage, funk sculpture, pop image, and other decorative tendencies that adhere to the interplay between patterning and illusionary depth and volume, there have been increasingly less of the collective effort to support any kind of network among artists who work in this medium.

Yet, from the East Coast perspective, particularly in the last two decades, there have been few artists who are more invested in their own independent growth than the concerns that are perpetually tied to any prescriptive ideology. This has no doubt raised their autonomy, and to such a degree that the emphasis on the work’s critical reception has become preferable to the past dispute over whether “ceramic” is a legitimate medium. And while most of Leuthold’s contemporaries are focused on their own contributions to the canon of Western art history, his work seems to extrapolate and spin off from the Far East, with its philosophical attributes that least stress the notion of assertive individualism. At the same time, his work has to be seen as a personal negotiation rather than a literal or even ironic appropriation, which often is considered the norm by today’s popular consensus. Not to mention the tension it would create if one were to place Leuthold’s work in the context of cultural production and the whole global economy of art, which has elevated the democratic values of late capitalism while marginalizing most of the indigenous cultures, whose lineages benefit from an unbroken continuity of tradition. And yet, multiculturalism has opened up possibilities for artists from non-European cultures to focus on the resources that derive from their own cultural heritages.

By the beginning of the 20th century in the West, the attempt to actualize hermetic and alchemical vehicles as means of cultural transformation had already been established, after emerging from 19th century occultism and theosophy generated by Rudolf Steiner, Gurdjieff, Fulcanelli, Jung, and the Eranos Gnostics like Corbin, Scholem, and Eliade. John Perreaut, in his insightful essay*, suggested that Leuthold’s discovery of the writings of the Christian mystic and theologian Jacob Boehme was revelatory to his own sensitive nature. He wrote that, similar to Boehme’s various mystical experiences throughout his youth—which culminated in one day in 1600 when he was able to conceive his vision of the spiritual structure of the world through the exquisite beauty of a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish—Leuthold has created an equivalent of intricately carved sculptures that at once evokes an intrinsic relationship between forms that embrace the ephemeral lightness among objects in nature and the absolute attention to details, through which he constructs the entire composition. One can also recall the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach’s recognition of sensation as a legible type of phenomenalism. As he wrote in his youth, “The superfluity of the role played by the ‘thing-in-itself’ abruptly dawned upon me. On a bright summer day in the open air, the world with my ego suddenly appeared to me as one coherent mass of sensations, only more strongly coherent in the ego.”

Similarly, Robert Fludd’s macrocosm-microcosm analogy, a theory in which all occurrences in the microcosm (man) are influenced by the macrocosm (the heavens), applied to his discussion on the circulation of the blood–the heart is the sun and the blood is like the circulating planets. Whatever were the means of creating a new culture of Hermeticism in opposition to Cartesianism that evolved Newtonian and Darwinian sciences, which led to the rise of industrialism, there have been those few who refuse to be part of the mechanistic dualism or rationalism. This of course leads to other references that bare similar synthesis of men and nature, at least in the Western hermetic and alchemical tradition as I have mentioned, which is that of the Eastern evocation that seems clear in the installation “Field,” made while Leuthold was in residence at Fuping, China in 2002. Two horses standing on a relatively low pedestal bracket a symmetrical arrangement of three small symbolic abstract forms of Buddhist temples with one row of three circular bundles of ropes carefully laid over nearly 30 large white wheels in succession right behind them, concluding in a group of at least 50 smaller cones of a variety of colors. “Field” thereby suggests a chariot formation, inspired by the burial sites in Xian (the ancient capital of China, 221 B.C. to A.D. 907) of Shaanxi Province, that were discovered in 1974, which include chariots, wheels, vessels, horses, solders, and many other objects. In keeping up with the old techniques of tri-color lead glazes, usually pigmented with copper for green, cobalt for blue, and manganese for dark violet, with the addition of a brighter blue and a rich iron honey glaze, Leuthold also adapts the regal and ceremonial procession that rekindles the monumental scale of the Xian sites, while at the same time recontextualizing his assertion in contemporary art history. Leuthold’s circular form of the landmark wheels, similarly, represents an ongoing repertoire of renewable, self-generating, sets of imagery that rely on the simultaneity of things in flux and things centered. Again, apart from making direct reference to the Neolithic Bi discs that were placed in tombs along with other objects that the tomb’s inhabitants wished to bring with them into the afterlife, they also allude to the mandala–a universal symbol of sacred geometry that appears in its multitude of variations from Islamic art, in the knot works of the ancient Celts, in the sand paintings of the Tibetan and Navajo (Diné) cultures, to the sacred art of Christian mystics–where the center and circumference are in complete harmony. While the latter is a form without beginning or end suggesting wholeness, completeness, and the cyclical nature of life, the former equivocally typifies endless potential and movement outward of the one toward the many, the heart of all life force, and so on. The occasional holes in the middle are the open spaces for the descended soul to travel through from earth to heaven.

Leuthold’s mandala-like constructions also suggest another reference: that of Bruce Conner’s exploitation of afterimages, particularly in his dense interweaving of black and white contemporaneous drawings, which began with “Kenwood Avenue,” then continued right onto his legendary “Mandala” series of the mid 1960s. They’re generally composed of several concentric circles that form a central mandala, which result in a stunning optical fibrillation that, on one hand, resembles a cell seen under a microscope. On the other hand, the tension that accelerates between the dense black inked lines and the exposed whiteness of the paper is a form of controlled randomization, which in turn exudes an intense spatial disorientation that evolves ever so slowly to our visual reception. But for Conner, the whole concern of his Mandala drawings has always coincided with his manipulation of the contrast between black and white that causes a sense of perpetual flux known as “persistence of vision”–a phenomenon of the eye by which an afterimage is thought to persist for approximately one twenty-fifth of a second on the retina, a time usually associated with filmic sequences. Thus, its alchemy is one that resembles an altered state of awareness. Conversely, in Leuthold’s construction of his own Mandala, the generating light from the center to the outer edges is more akin to organic structure that occurs in nature. Moreover, quite opposite to Conner’s more fractured and dispersed imagery, Leuthold’s spatial sensibility is fairly consistent and fluid, despite the swirling lines that constitute a great sense of movement, almost like a vortex where the speed and rate of rotation are more pronounced at the center and decrease progressively towards the edges. Still, each line gets thicker and further apart from one another as it reveals its sensuous folds. There is a hypnotic sense of calmness in each of Leuthold’s wheels, partly because of the way in which the artist’s sense of touch is barely dictated by gravity or the pressure of hands, and party because he allows his personal sense of form and irregularity to be analogous to natural forms or living organisms that are preconditioned to response stimuli, reproduction, growth and development, and maintenance of homoeostasis as a stable whole. This is the reason why the wheels, discs, and hemisphere are in essence generative to the cones, stacks, dyads and receptors.

Site-specifically created, and installed for the first time on the occasion of his first retrospective of fifteen years of work, Leuthold’s “Offering” is the artist’s largest-scaled installation to date. It reveals his ability to bring a wide range of invented forms into one cohesive display that applies to various functions. From utilizing different treatments of fairly unconventional pedestals with those that either hang off the ceiling, suspended in mid-air like a constellation, or rest carefully on thin metal rods, to mixing variety of heights and spacing of the pedestals on the floor and walls for his selections of Lines works and Receptors, the exhibit is uniformly cohesive and stimulating. On one level, by reducing the physical nature of conventional pedestals, Leuthold has gained a greater freedom in the placement of the works as a group, insofar as the manipulation of intervals is conducive for the addition and subtraction that is required in adapting to different given spaces. On another level, these variable formal choices create opportunities to facilitate necessary and visceral structures that are commendable to the artist’s vision.

By rising above the floor surface in their long, cylindrical stalks with different heights, the two cone installations appear like lotus flowers with many personifications of Zephyrs, blowing west wind to the invisible Venus, who, born in the sea foam, is wafted on a scallop shell to her sacred island Cyprus, where the nymph Pomona, descended from the ancient goddess of fruit trees, runs to meet her with a brocade mantle. “Offering” evokes both a sense of serenity, which is that of Leuthold’s long interest in eastern philosophy, and the lyrical power of Greek mythology (both refer to the genesis of theosophy). What it proposes is the synthesis that infuses creative power and purity amid adverse surroundings with the neo-platonic belief in the soul as ascendable toward a union with god through contemplation of beauty. Coincidently, both aspects share the similar reminder of the miracle of beauty (love), and light (life), which in an emotional context, could be useful to both a spiritual and practical understanding of Tao (the world and our place in it), as well as a Platonic and Hermetic unification.

Right at the center of the gallery, above the floor surface, is the constellation of a multitude of bent, irregular wheels, composed as one symmetrical unit in contrast to the two asymmetrical cone structures on either side below. Here the interplay of the formal symmetry of the ecclesial and the pairing of the asymmetry of typography is in fact in succinct equilibrium. Not only do they correspond to one another on a perfect pitch of arrangement, resulting from Leuthold’s invented supports, they also are susceptible to movement, and intended to exude a sense of generous space and atmosphere, for which lightness is perpetually negotiating with density. Nowhere do we see a forced hierarchy upon the way in which Leuthold conceives his work, nor do we detect any form of discrimination within the installation as a whole. Not that surprisingly, the past thirty years of works that is built on a desire for universal embrace of all things equal, a balance of men and nature, is evident throughout the exhibition. This is a political act of “non-violent” philosophy, which couldn’t be more timely applied, as reiterated with the inclusion of Coretta Scott King’s text, an excerpt from her My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. In essence, reality and healing along with transformation and creation lie in the in-between, which Leuthold suggests we all must maintain.

Phong Bui

* John Perreault, “Marc Leuthold: The Center Holds,”  pg. 10-13, The American Ceramic Society, 2003

This essay appeared on the occasion of the 2010 mid-career retrospective at Daum Museum of Contemporary Art in Sedalia, Missouri.

Marc Leuthold’s Good Form

Marc Leuthold’s ceramic wheels rotate through a kaleidoscopic range of associations. To begin with, they conjure up the potter’s wheel itself, though only their centers (sometimes) are thrown. They might also suggest turbine blades, torsioned fabric, ruffs, ruffled water, fingerprints, marine exoskeletons, and the solar disk, a range enhanced by the oddities of memory and emotional resonance peculiar to each individual viewer. In the end, however, though they might suggest all these things and others besides, they represent none of them. Rather than yield a singular meaning, they draw attention to the instability of association and the circular restlessness of obsession. They are abstract cogs designed to engage the senses and propel the machinery of the mind.

The recent history of abstraction in the visual arts is unfortunately the history of a misbegotten and destructive enterprise. Insofar as a legitimate distinction can be made between art and decoration, it can only be based on art’s long and fruitful association with narrative. Abstraction, on the other hand, has always lent itself to decoration if for no better reason than that decoration tends to demand repetition and repetition breeds simplification. The impetus toward abstraction in art came not from any desire to make art more decorative but rather from a need to expand the range of narratives that could be incorporated into painting and sculpture. Specifically, abstraction entered art in response to a demand for more expressive content. Nonetheless, as abstraction assumed ever “purer” and more radical forms, the loosening of the connection between art and narrative became a complete rupture. Indeed, the absence of even the slightest hint of narrative content in abstract art became a point of honor in the postwar period, a position that achieved its extreme in American minimalism, which sought to deny its objects any associational content whatsoever.

What was odd and finally untenable about this evacuation of narrative content from abstract art was the simultaneous attempt to deny the inherent decorativeness of the results. At the very moment when painting and sculpture became exclusively preoccupied with shape, color, and texture, the term “decorative” became the most feared of pejoratives. Such strident denial of the obvious burdened abstract form with a weight of meaning and spiritual pretension it was too frail to carry. The sublimity and drama that formerly derived from the combination of exalted subject and the theatrical genius of the artist now had to be carried solely by gesture and color. It was an impossible task that was to be a source of despair for any artist (Mark Rothko immediately comes to mind) who set out to rise to it.

Leuthold’s work illustrates how much more felicitous the results are when the inherently decorative nature of abstraction is openly recognized and made use of. In particular it reveals how repetition, which Minimalism employed as an instrument of boredom, can be reclaimed as an instrument of decorative nuance. In theory repetition should yield uniformity, and, if the tolerances are kept within a narrow enough range (as is the case in industrial fabrication), it does. But when room is left for “noise,” unforeseen variations become possible that give the finished product a unique signature. A pertinent example here would be the “abrash” effect found in some of the most prized oriental carpets-a slight dappling in an otherwise uniform color field caused by minor variations in the hue of the batches of dyed thread from which it is woven. This is the principle that Leuthold makes such adept use of in the carving of the flutes that give his wheels their organismic quality. Because it introduces into his work effects that suggest evanescence, it also endows his objects with a visual delicacy that surpasses their actual fragility.

While retaining the unitary form of Minimalist objects Leuthold’s wheels subtly “effeminize” it by turning it to purely decorative ends. Consonant with that inversion is the mimicry of that primordially functional object, the wheel, which here serves only to draw attention to these objects’ utter lack of function (and conversely to their archly aesthetic raison d’être). Equally consonant is the fussiness of their facture, which on occasion brings to mind the fussiness of a dressmaker making sure that the chiffon bunches just so. The shards take the preciousness of the wheels a step farther by introducing the melancholy sentimentality of the keepsake and the dandyish conceit of bestowing perfection on imperfect things. Taken together, these qualities completely subvert the macho brutality to which Minimalist objects typically aspire. But “subvert” may be too strong a word here, insofar as it implies malice and radical intent. The word creeps in only because modernism has so accustomed us to disdain decoration that the legitimate exploitation of the decorative possibilities latent in modernist form tends to seem like a transgression. Leuthold’s objects, however, are too graceful to be argumentative. It is their allure that speaks for them.

The one quality that distinguishes Leuthold’s work for me is its uncommon refinement, a quality ill at ease with the coarse expectations of a democratic age but all the more valuable as the residue of an aristocratic one. In the end, therefore, I do not associate his objects with any particular thing but with something more diffuse, a delicacy of taste that conjures up an entire fabulous kingdom founded on good form.

Mario Cutajar

Marc Leuthold, Ceramics was at Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, from October 2 to November 14, 1999.