Press Release

A Secret History of Clay - From Gauguin to Gormley

Tate Liverpool
28 May – 30 August 2004

A Secret History of Clay: From Gauguin to Gormley is the first exhibition to present artists who have worked in clay from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. From the individual ceramic vessel to installation and performance art, clay has been widely used by some of the most innovative artists of the twentieth century. Starting with Paul Gauguin, who wrote a treatise on clay calling it a ‘central art’, the exhibition unearths a little-known international history of its use by groups such as the Fauves, Russian Suprematists, German Expressionists, Italian Futurists, and CoBrA, as well as by individual artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Lucio Fontana and Isamu Noguchi. The recent return by many contemporary artists to the material clay is reflected in the work of artists as diverse as Roger Hiorns, Richard Deacon, Edmund de Waal and Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry and also includes such prominent figures as Ken Price, James Turrell, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Antony Gormley.

Protean in nature, clay has been overlooked as a medium precisely for what makes it so attractive to artists: physical, gestural, somatic, temporal, fragile, malleable and unpredictable it is inherently subversive as a material. That it is also playful and democratic may account for the medium’s exclusion from traditional histories of art and accounts of Modernism as well as from an artists’ own oeuvre. The ‘high unseriousness’ for which critics like Hilton Kramer attacked those working in clay, consigned such works to the status of non-art or craft. Contemporary artists’ use of clay signals not only a rejection of those values associated with Modernism, but also a visceral concern for the materiality of experience at a time when many cultural commentators are talking about the death of the concrete object in favour of the new virtual world of the information era.

This exhibition is therefore a unique opportunity to see works by some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, many of which have never been seen before in this country. The exhibition expands conventional ideas about the artistic and historical use of clay by not only including vessels and sculptural objects but also through films, photographs and performance, including a domestic interior made entirely from contemporary ceramic works, an installation comprising over one tonne of oilclay by Sekine Nobuo and site-specific works by Andy Goldsworthy and Chen Zhen.

That the exhibition is happening in Liverpool is entirely fitting. It was only thanks to a cosmopolitan Liverpool merchant, Thomas Bentley that Josiah Wedgwood was able to finance his business, whilst by the end of the eighteenth century Liverpool had become the centre for pottery and porcelain making in the Empire through such potteries as the Herculaneum founded on the banks of the Mersey in Toxteth. More recently, Antony Gormley worked with local communities in St. Helen’s Helens to make Field for the British Isles, first shown at Tate Liverpool in 1993. To complement the exhibition, Tate Liverpool is showing Antony Gormley’s Field from 10 April – 22 August. This American version was made in Mexico and is made up of thirty-five thousand clay terracotta figures ranging from 8-26 centimetres tall.

An illustrated catalogue will be produced to accompany the exhibition.

A series of events are taking place at the gallery to complement the exhibition. Tickets must be booked in advance – please call the box office on 0151 702 7400.

Fivearts cities, a partnership between Five and Arts Council England, focuses on the nation’s wealth of arts and creativity, kicking off with Liverpool 2004. Fivearts cities will broadcast multiple programmes and support arts events and activities, stimulating people to explore, experience and enjoy the arts around them.

Artists in Conversation

Antony Gormley and Tim Marlow
Thursday 6 May
£4, £3 concessions (includes a post talk drink).

Join one of Britain’s most successful artists in conversation with broadcaster Tim Marlow as they discuss Antony Gormley’s work exploring materials, working processes and potential meanings.

Grayson Perry and Tim Marlow
Thursday 10 June
£4, £3 concessions (includes a post-talk drink).

Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry and broadcaster Tim Marlow discuss the word ‘artist’ and its implications, and examine the effect of other personal labels, whether gender, professional or otherwise.

Symposium Rethinking Clay
Chair: Emmanuel Cooper

Saturday 5 June
1.30 – 5.00pm
£15, £8 concessions – includes entry and a tour by the exhibition curator, Simon Groom.

Leading scholars, critics and artists explore the historical and contemporary status of clay. Speakers include Richard Deacon, Edmund de Waal, Claire Twomey, Martina Margetts and Edward Lucie-Smith.

For summer 2004 only Tate Liverpool is open Monday 21 June and all Mondays between 12 July and 30 August.