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Feet of Clay

"Plat long (scene tauromachique)" is one of the Picasso ceramics now on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art.

In the summer of 1946, while on holiday along the French Riviera, Pablo Picasso wandered to the nearby village of Vallauris, a Provençal town where artists and craftsmen had been turning out pottery since at least Roman times. Picasso was 65 years young, and somewhat at loose ends. Though he had continued to produce as much work as ever during the German occupation (as Picasso told one of his dealers, there "was nothing else to do"), the war had produced any number of disruptions. On the personal side, he had lost a number of friends. On the professional front, Picasso's main dealer between the wars, Paul Rosenberg, had fled the Nazis and resettled in New York. In the zone of politics, the painter often dubbed "Ol' Cojones" had recently joined the Communist Party, with which he would spend the next decade alternately quarreling and chairing committees. And last but certainly not least, his love life was in the usual turmoil: He had just left Dora Maar for the dark-haired Françoise Gilot, an artist 40 years his junior, who would bear the bull of the Cote d'Azur two more heirs before being replaced by the younger-still Jacqueline Roque.

Casting about for inspiration, Picasso found it in Vallauris' clay, a 30,000-year-old medium that appealed to Picasso's neo-primitivist shtick. Georges Ramié, owner of the Madoura pottery--the local atelier where ceramics were produced--later recalled that Picasso abandoned his holiday to play with clay and then disappeared to Paris, only to reappear the next summer with reams of paper. The artist had spent at least part of the winter drawing designs: anthropomorphic pots; pots in the form of bulls and birds and goats; platters and vases and bowls. Working with the potter Jules Agard, who threw the clay confections the great painter dreamed up, Picasso designed and decorated ceramics, creating at his usual warp speed.

For a few years in the late '40s, ceramics became Picasso's obsession. He threw all his energies into this three-dimensional medium, which led him in turn to take up sculpting again, which led him back to paint. In the span of a few years, he moved effortlessly from charcoal to clay to metal and back again to pigments.

Picasso loved the remoteness of the area around Vallauris at least as much as the clay. In 1948 he bought a house, La Galloise, on the outskirts of town, and in 1953 he purchased an old factory nearby, which he turned into a studio with rooms devoted to pottery, painting, and sculpture. Picasso's factory-studio, Le Fournas, also included a storage shed where the artist housed the results of his clay experiments. Picasso wasn't the only one who got something out of the deal. The little communist-governed town of Vallauris got an artist-hero and tourist magnet in the best capitalist tradition. Georges Ramié, owner of the Madoura atelier, got the subject for a book as well as a cottage industry, copying Picasso's originals and selling them in editions ranging from 25 to 300 or more.

Picasso seems to have been of two minds about this business. On the one hand, he acquiesced in the churning out of cheap ceramics for the tourist trade, a process that Ramié himself describes as an "incessant withdrawal of exhausted editions and the introduction of new ones." Picasso must have imagined he was doing his communist duty; as Picasso biographer Pierre Daix noted, he "was delighted to find a pretext--vis-à-vis his communist comrades--for creating objects which could be said to have some utilitarian application." Presumably, he liked the notion of a chicken in every kitchen and a satyr on every platter.

On the other hand, Picasso was famously stingy with the originals. Though he did give some away and occasionally sold one, most remained in the artist's studio under lock and key. A number of these original experiments are on display until December 16 at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, in a show titled Picasso in Clay: Three Decades of Ceramics From the Marina Picasso Collection.

Opinions of the hoarded clay treasures have differed wildly. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the dealer who ended up handling Picasso's post-war output, is said to have thought so little of the pottery that he refused to have anything to do with it. To be fair, Kahnweiler's reasons may have had less to do with aesthetics than with the daunting specter of Picasso's ceramic output. In 1973, when the 92-year-old Picasso finally gave up the ghost, his executor counted 2,880 original ceramics still in Picasso's studio. And, of course, there is the matter of those copies; you do the math. One can almost picture the German-Jewish Kahnweiler, who had by then survived two world wars and hostile French and German regimes that confiscated his inventory, reaching for the nitroglycerin in contemplation of the cataloging alone.  

But Picasso has been gone nearly 30 years now, and historical revision has commenced. During the last two years, a few intrepid scholars have begun to wade into the problem of the ceramics. In 1998, the Royal Academy in London mounted an exhibition of some originals, and the show traveled to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. And late last year John Richardson, the pre-eminent Picasso biographer, published a delightfully dishy book dealing tangentially with the period of Picasso's ceramics production. In an essay in the Pillsbury and Peters catalog, excerpted from Richardson's book, Richardson suggests they are important. Indeed, Richardson goes so far as to call them "talismanic," bearing "the same relationship to [Picasso's] sculptures that his drawings [bear] to his paintings." (Richardson also relates an amusing anecdote about visiting Picasso in the studio, only to be interrupted by the "famously awful" Madame Ramié. Apparently Mme. Ramié, "an iron-faced matron with the tin-pot air of a village postmistress," was angling to accompany Picasso and his guest into the storage shed, hoping to snag some new treasure for copying. As Richardson tells it, Picasso dispatched the interloper "with a sharp glance.")

Yet Richardson's comments raise yet another problem, namely the sculptures, which, like the ceramics, Picasso tended to keep to himself and with which scholars are still coming to terms. At the end, there were 1,335 of those in the old goat's studios. One doesn't have to be a specialist to collect Picasso's ceramics, or for that matter his sculpture or drawings--but it sure doesn't hurt.

Viewers can inspect the matter for themselves, since Pillsbury and Peters has 25 of these clay totems on display. Provenance is, of course, not a problem; all of these pieces come from the collection of Marina Picasso, the painter's granddaughter, who inherited them after a nasty and drawn-out estate battle with relatives legitimate and otherwise. Quality is another question. Picasso's ceramics remind this reviewer of the rhyme about the little girl with the curl on her forehead, for when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid.

Many of the examples date from the '40s and early '50s, the period of Picasso's greatest experimentation and inventiveness in clay. Some are three-dimensional experiments: jugs in the form of faces, vases intended to recall the female form. Others are simply paintings on alternate canvases, with images rendered, built up, or incised on standardized forms, on prefab platters and plates and bowls. Most are originals, presumably from that cache of 2,880, although a few are editions or "impressions made from originals modeled or carved by the artist," which Picasso subsequently painted and which are therefore, somewhat confusingly, labeled "unique."

Overall, the 25 examples--presented along with a handful of Picasso drawings, some of which are leftovers from a show this gallery held two years ago--are slight and kitschy. It doesn't take much nosing through the available reference works to conclude that the most interesting pieces either aren't in Marina's collection, which is being slowly liquidated to support charitable endeavors, or else simply aren't among the goods sent to Dallas. When and where they will turn up is anybody's guess. In the wake of the bull markets of the '80s and the '90s, the guardians of Picasso's legacy apparently believe the art market is ready to absorb these ceramics at prices ranging from $40,000 to $250,000. It will be interesting to see if they are right, for the market and the historical process work much more slowly than did the artist himself.


In a marvelously scathing essay on Bernard Berenson, art critic Robert Hughes once observed that "the only way to keep your nose clean" as an art critic "is not to deal nor collect at all." Being fundamentally honest, however, Hughes also notes that "very few writers are prepared to do that." So hand me a handkerchief and read on with skepticism, forewarned that I own work by Dallas artist David Bates, now subject of a show at Dunn and Brown Contemporary.

David Bates may not be the best painter this region has ever produced, but it's hard to think of anyone whose body of work, produced over the last 20-plus years, is stronger. True, Bates may be constitutionally incapable of drawing a subject without caricaturing it, a habit that has often led critics to compare him to Red Grooms. And true, Bates' faux-naïf style can, at its worst, be as cheesy and patronizing as anything produced by Thomas Hart Benton.

But at his best, Bates can capture the essence and feel of a subject with near Picassosesque economy. Indeed, it is instructive to compare Picasso's drawings at Pillsbury and Peters with "Night Fishing," a recent Bates sketch reproduced in a small series; Bates is more of an heir to the Spaniard's legacy than any of the painter's blood kin.  

And in his latest work, 13 canvases and a handful of sculptures on view at Dunn and Brown, Bates is undeniably at his best. The new work shuns the regional subjects Bates has long preferred, the rural characters, the Gulf Coast fishermen, the East Texas flora and fauna. Bates has traded the white trash for white roses; 12 of the canvases in the show feature still-lifes: daisies, sunflowers, tulips, and gladiolas. Using this simple subject matter, Bates experiments with incorporating sculpture into painting. Sometimes these experiments take the form of wood reliefs built directly onto canvas; at other times, Bates attempts to create three-dimensional effects with color, line, and paint alone. The results are more abstract and less sentimental than much of Bates' past work, and absolutely spellbinding. Bates outlines images in black, in a manner and colors directly borrowed from Matisse but in a style unmistakably his own.

This is breakthrough work for Bates, modernism that borrows heavily from the past and yet uses that heritage to go somewhere, representation that still has something worthwhile to add. It is, in many ways, Bates' most interesting work to date, born of the very impulses that led Picasso to the kilns at Vallauris and from there back into the foundry. Ol' Cojones would have been proud.


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