Review: Live Form by Jenni Sorkin

The relationship between craft – the handmade, the hobbyist, the homely – has often been cast in diametric opposition to ‘art’ – the elusive, the expensive, the elite. In the opening of Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, Jenni Sorkin leads with a new take on this tussle between two forms to argue that it was ‘modern craft and not modern art that spearheaded nonhierarchical and participatory experiences’. The activist attitude of craft has long been overlooked by the art world. 

To sit in conversation with art critical stalwarts like Claire Bishop and Boris Groys, Sorkin undoubtedly needs an art critical language. She talks of the “ontology of live form” and the ways in which ceramics are a “performative gesture of collective skill”. On the one hand, we see ceramics elevated to the linguistic height of the art school seminar. On the other, something simple about the texture, touch and inspiration is lost in the introduction. I agree with the need to frame craft as an “object-event” – art formed in front of a witness in the moment – even as at times it feels like we’re clawing at the approval of some invisible critic. See: craft is art, craft is ontology, craft is worthy. It’s a debate that craft and decorative art feels constantly engaged in, seeking to retain the differences as well as being accepted by the establishment art industry. 

Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community: Jenni ...
Front cover

Thankfully, having set up the theoretical stall, the stories of each woman breathe in each dedicated chapters. What begins as a sweeping, overarching argument is effectively narrowed in the opening lines. We are going to explore the ways in which craft has operated as a collective practice and activist tool through the lens of one form: ceramics. The book is organised around the practices of three American women ceramicists: Marguerite Wildenhain (1896– 1985), Mary Caroline (M. C.) Richards (1916– 1999) and Susan Peterson (1925– 2009). Their marginal, post-war practices in ceramics are long overdue a study. They each have links to some of the twentieth centuries most enduring avant-garde art schools, namely Bauhaus and the Black Mountain College. Sorkin draws out how each woman is part of a much wider, historical context: “The overlapping histories of Wildenhain, Richards, and Peterson constitute a 1950s bohemia that anticipates the 1960s commune, the 1970s feminist cooperative, and the 1980s alternative space movement”. This is craft history in the making.

Wildenhain wrote Pottery: Form and Expression (1959) and coined the term ‘live form’ – from which the book takes its title – to describe “wheel-thrown vessel[s]”. On the wheel, she was dedicated to the movement needed to make a spout or stem appear from the constantly moving clay underhand. ‘Live form’ is a moment in time that creates an object for future use. Sorkin draws parallels to the Abstract Expressionist action painters, who used a similar, seemingly haphazard, constant movement that is actually being supported into being by the artist.

Potter Marguerite Wildenhain photographed by Otto Hagel | Ceramic ...
Otto Hagel produced a series of photos on Wildenhain’s ceramics for LIFE Magazine.

Wildenhain’s chapter focuses on Pond Farm, a Bauhaus-adjacent summer school in California that was a contemporary to the Black Mountain College. Having studied at Weimar Bauhaus, Wildenhain moved to the United States, by way of Holland, as a Jewish refugee in 1940. Beginning again took its toll on her craft, in Holland she wrote:

“So Putten was a new start. Again it meant new materials, the new kilns to cope with, new glazes to work out, etc. At the Bauhaus we had fired with wood a salt glaze kiln; in Halle the two muffles and the porcelain kiln were fired with coal; and here we had to fire with peat…”

Once settled in the U.S., she presided over Pond Farm, a summer school that saw students throw hundreds of pots and leave without anything to show for it. As Sorkin argues, Wildenhain was teaching her students to divest of the object. The process was more important than the finished piece and a direct response to the ‘live form’ theory that she wrote about in her book. Pond Farm was “actually a way of life” and “neither a college with a traditional humanities curriculum nor a purely communal utopian venture”. However, infighting, a lack of gender parity, and exilic conditions both informed and sadly, overwhelmed, the founders. The chapter ends stating that “for Marguerite Wildenhain, Pond Farm was a site of exceptionalism and exceptional despair”. Even so, Wildenhain’s world-building stood the test of time and proved a radical site of experimentation, community and ‘live form’. 

Pond Farm with the class of 1956. Photo: Harriet Thompson and Luther College archives.

M. C. Richards (Mary Caroline) was a potter, poet, translator, author of Centering: On Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964) – which sold over 120,000 copies and remains in print – and Black Mountain College teacher. In 1958, for one night only, Richards hosted the fantastically titled Clay Things to Touch, to Plant in, to Hand Up, to Cook in, to Look at, to Put Ashes in, to Wear, and for Celebration. As a translator of Artuad’s The Theatre and its Double, her combination of handcraft and avant-garde theatre sounds exciting. Sadly, Sorkin can source no more than the handmade flyer from Richards archive; a peril of the live performer. Even so, it shows how Richards mixed “process-based pedagogy” with a performative edge. 

Flier for Clay Things to Touch , 1958. Collection of Mary Caroline Richards Papers, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Richards was involved in many Happenings. In John Cage’s Theatre Piece #1 (1952), she is the nameless poet reading on top of a ladder. This Happening is important, as Sorkin traces Richards’s erasure from Cage’s practice – despite being a collaborator with and an influence on his work. Sorkin explores all elements of Richards avant-garde connections – from being critiqued by Denise Levertove to collaborating with Cage. It’s a richly built chapter, taking us into the deepest corners of the mid-century avant-garde’s failures and successes. Richards “approached ceramics [as a live form] working toward spiritual engagement and communalism”, a radical approach that, sadly, did not save her from disappearing from view.

The Art of Craft | The UCSB Current
Ceramist Susan Peterson, c. 1964, promotes her television show, “Wheels, Kilns and Clay”.

Finally, the chapter on Susan Peterson – or “The Julia Childs of Ceramics” – focuses on the 54 episode TV series she made, which was called Wheels, Kilns, and Clay and ran 1964-65. Sorkin notes that during this time, ceramics were seen as outmoded. The domestic runs all the way through this chapter, as Peterson’s “process-based educational television” is compared to taking “place in a stage, kitchen-like setting”. For all that Peterson’s broadcasts (which aired three years before public television was conceived of) might feel domestic, they were also verging on political. Peterson sought to connect with her audience, encourage haptic learning and frame ceramics as a source of livelihood. 

Sorkin draws a straight line from Peterson’s show to feminist art videos by the likes of Martha Rosler, who made the kitchen her own radical setting. The “woman kitchen potter” became an iconic figure. Lucy Lippard even notes that women artists are “even in kitchens, working away”. The studio is the home. For Peterson and Rosler, the camera also provided a way of reforming values around women’s work. Sorkin sees Peterson choosing “to perform in a nonthreatening housewife’s apron” to “campy aftereffect”. Rosler, meanwhile, “critique[s] the earnestness of Peterson’s own pedagogy”. 

Overall, Sorkin’s book gives back to ceramics an engaging, radical history. The “pedagogy of live form” is one of throwing, sculpting, trimming. It is hands-on; it brings people together. And, crucially, the written and visual histories left behind by the three women under study provide a lineage for current, collaborative and socially-minded projects to look back on and be inspired by. 

Words: Jade Elizabeth French

About the Author

Jade Elizabeth French is co-founder of Decorating Dissidence and a PhD researcher at QMUL. Her research explores the poetics of female ageing in avant-garde texts, with a specific focus on the works of H.D., Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes. She edited the book Let’s Start a Pussy Riot (Rough Trade, 2013) and is also the co-founder of the London-based academic/arts collective Liminal Spaces, which tackles issues of mental health and interdisciplinary modes in academia.