GORDON BALDWIN (British, b.1932) :
Painting in the form of a Bowl, 1980
Earthenware, matt white with blue and yellow washes and black linear designs
The well with incised ridges and pierced holes.
In perfect condition with no damage or restoration.
Incised GB and dated 1980.
PROVENANCE : Private Collection, London
As this vessel illustrates, Baldwin is a sculptural potter, sculptor and painter. Clay is his chosen medium because it gives him technical flexibility, a medium that can encompass all disciplines, and he uses clay as a two and three-dimensional canvas. Baldwin’s work is constructed by coiling the body and decorating it with layers of coloured slips, oxides and glazes to achieve his desired surface qualities
Diameter : 39 cm, Height 15 cm
REFERENCE : . A retrospective of Baldwin’s work, ‘Objects for a Landscape’, was held by York Museum until 10 June 2012
A series of big bowls for an exhibition at Oxford Gallery in 1975 led to a more open and expansive side of Baldwin’s work. The coiled shapes were freer, and their surface drawing traversed and defined structure. Titles like ‘painting in the form of a bowl’ expressed the emergence of a language that synthesized painting and pottery at its purest, both in terms of form and the composition across the form. His painting was broader and more liberated as the bowl became the canvas for his abstract landscapes.
His distinctive works combine sculptural form with abstract painterly marks. He has described his approach as ‘a non search for beauty’, finding most satisfaction in ‘forms which have a certain awkward resonance’, a more challenging purity and strength. Gordon Baldwin forges his ceramics into colourful, abstract forms, blurring the boundaries between pottery, sculpture and even painting.
Some Public Collections that own Gordon Baldwin’s work:
• Victoria & Albert Museum, London
• Portsmouth City Museum and Art Gallery
• Southampton City Art Gallery
• Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery
• Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
• Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead
• Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria
• Paisley Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland
• Museum de Ceramica, Barcelona, Spain
• Museum Boymans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands
• Bellrive Museum, Zurich, Switzerland Knokke-Heist, Belgium
• Keramion Centre, Frechen, Germany
• Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, Germany
• Museum fur Keramik, Deideshoeim
• Nordenfjeldske, Kunstindustrimuseum, Trondheim, Norway
• Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
• Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
• Museum of Decorative Arts, Montreal, Canada
• National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
• Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, Japan
The Artistry of Clay, Apollo Magazine, Ruth Guilding, November 2011
Gordon Baldwin is straightforward about his work. ‘I make these things and they then go off into the world, and then I make some more things,’ he says. For most of his adult life he has taught in art schools, but now he is recognised as an internationally renowned sculptor whose work is represented in public collections all over the world. His ceramic pieces are born out of the experimentalism of the 1960s, and though he takes clay as his medium, he regards this as more arbitrary than inevitable. ‘Every artist needs some materials to do his thinking in,’ he says.
Critical recognition for his extraordinary abstract ceramic forms, their solid presence, and the painterly qualities brought to the finishing of their worked and coloured surfaces, has been a long time coming. ‘The slow thing was in England,’ he says. ‘I’ve been collected in America for a very long time – we used to rather rely on America.’ Born in 1932, he took his direction from the training received at the Central School of Art in the 1950s where a radical new approach to design was followed across all the departments, but his quotidian life was comprised of teaching (at the Central School and Goldsmiths College in London and at Eton College in Windsor) and working ‘early in the day, so that I always got some of my own work done’. He became used to being received suspiciously by jobbing potters, who would say to him, ‘I suppose that you’re the sort who doesn’t make proper pots?’
Two exhibitions at York Art Gallery pay tribute to his career. ‘Excitations’, which opened in October and runs until the end of next year, is a small show of ceramic works selected by the artist. Baldwin chose pieces that resonated in his memory, so that ‘the first thing you come across is a very nice piece by Bob Blatherwick [the inspirational teacher at Lincoln School of Art, who first introduced him to pottery at the age of 17], which starts the whole process.’ Each work represents a particular year, or as Baldwin says, ‘bits of my history’, from 1949 to 1956 (excluding 1954–55, the year he did his National Service). The utilitarian nature of the chosen pieces – for they are all ‘functional’ – reflects his own seminal experiences with the medium of ceramics, and the time line which links them is his own chronology. Many of the finest ‘makers’ from the 20th century are also represented. A vase by Bernard Leach reflects the prevalence of his influence during Baldwin’s student years. ‘I was always a bit worried by Englishmen making what I would have called pseudo-Japanese work,’ Baldwin recalls. ‘Luckily, the Central acknowl-edged Leach but were not overwhelmed by the oriental stuff.’ There are also pieces by Hans Coper (Fig. 2) and Lucie Rie, whose work knocked him out. But although he took some commissions for tableware and presented a group of thrown vessels for his degree show, functionality had no part in the criteria by which he made his selections for ‘Excitations’. ‘When I was selecting I never thought of any one of those pieces in use,’ he ponders. Was that because they are now parked in a museum collection, I wonder? ‘Well, maybe. But maybe it’s because they’re parked in my head from way back – those things all exist in the museum of my head,’ he says.
He associates a bulbous English medieval period jug (Fig. 5) with The Bather, a pot made by William Staite Murray in 1930 (Fig. 4). He describes State Murray’s jug as ‘a very tall piece with stripes around it…it had something of the medieval jug about it.’ The Bather also recalls some giant coil pots which he made in his last year at Central, present whereabouts unknown. But as well as learning from his contemporaries, Baldwin was keenly aware of what history could offer him. ‘The Central was very well placed. Five minutes’ walk and you’re in the British Museum, looking at things in the Egyptian galleries,’ he says. ‘Wandering across to the V&A as a student, I came across Song work. It was white, and what it actually did with the shape appealed to me greatly, so there’s a piece of that going in.’ But these archaeological pieces are simply bearers of meaning for him; he owns nothing of this kind himself.
‘Excitations’ is the harbinger for the much larger retrospective show of Baldwin’s work, ‘Objects for a Landscape’, which will run at York from 11 February to 10 June 2012. Baldwin says of the exhibition’s title: ‘I often use the term inscape as opposed to landscape, and they are objects from my inscape.’ Preparations for this show have dogged him for two years now, and his studio in the vaulted brick cellars and former kitchens of his present house is crowded with pieces in preparation. ‘But I should be grateful. I’ve never been terribly active in promoting myself,’ he says. The show is indebted to two people, Anthony Shaw, a collector of his work over several decades (interviewed in the January issue of Apollo), and Tatjana Marsden, his most important supporter and the founder of Marsden Woo (formerly Barrett Marsden) Gallery), which Baldwin has been with since its inception in 1998. Tatjana Marsden will also curate the York retrospective. ‘She has a very good eye. She probably has the best knowledge of all my work,’ he avers. But this show would probably not have come about without the timely loan of Shaw’s collection of around 800 contemporary British studio ceramics to York Art Gallery, finalised earlier this year. Nearly 100 superlative examples of Baldwin’s work – pieces such as Axe Vessel (1985; Fig. 7) and Asymmetries II (2003; Fig. 6) – will now be brought before a much larger public than has ever encountered them before.
His works from the 1970s are more obviously conceptual, although Baldwin is vague about the exact years when they were made. Black Festive Object is ‘a monument to my earlier work dated 1970 or 1976,’ he says. ‘At one point I was very involved in the Surrealists and in the way they thought.’ Another piece pays tribute to the music of the American experimental composer John Cage, incised with a single line from Cage’s Silence: Lectures and Writings, published in 1961: ‘…One must stand as if absolutely still in the centre of a leap.’ ‘Cage had been somebody quite important in helping me to think and that is a piece which is, in a way, saying thank you,’ he explains. The working method which Baldwin developed in the 1980s and 1990s is uniquely his own. For a time he was employed as a technician at the Central School, and superb technical competence is fundamental to his oeuvre. ‘I can still make mistakes and I can still blow things, but I know why I’ve done it – I know it’s carelessness and I should know better. ‘I use coiling because it’s such a flexible way of working. This piece was made, and then a hole was cut into it, and then this piece was added, and then this piece was added. There are things you have to know; how much you can do without it collapsing. The making doesn’t take that long once I get going, and then there’s the drying period. Then there’s what I call the sitting around period, when I’m getting to know them in a way, and then I have the courage to start working on them and drawing on the surfaces. I’ve only got the vaguest idea of what the surface will be like – it always has to be discovered.’
The next stage is perhaps the most significant, for Baldwin was nearly a painter – had he chosen to stay on at Lincoln rather than opting for the Central School – and the painterly surface of the ceramic is what distinguishes his work most from that of his contemporaries. His studio walls are lined with large charcoal drawings, some very black forms which have been montaged out of cut paper and one which consists only of a single highlighted, fissure-like line. ‘Sometimes a drawing leads very directly to a piece,’ he says. ‘My earlier work, for instance, during the 1980s, has a lot of drawing on it. There are a lot of bowls called Painting in the Form of a Bowl or Drawing in the Form of a Bowl; vessels in the form of paintings and paintings in the form of vessels [such as Blue Painting in the Form of a Bowl, from 1989 (Fig. 8)]. But recently I have developed a macular disease and I see wriggly lines where there should be straight ones, and I find actually drawing on the curved surface quite difficult. I now try just to develop the qualities of monochrome, which I think may be even more difficult. To get a resonance you have to work very hard.
‘I think of myself like an alchemist. I do something and see what happens, and I do something else and see what happens. A lot of these have five or six firings – it’s very extravagant! I’m not a glaze maker in the traditional way, but I suppose I invent things by doing different brush strokes, different surfaces. I use an ordinary buff clay with sand in it. I just want clays that are very practical, that will survive the difficult things I do to them. I do get some surprises. I don’t want to be able to predict what comes out exactly. When things go wrong I feel completely deflated – all my confidence drains away.’ Baldwin has spoken of pursuing ‘a non-search for beauty’, and of the ‘awkward resonance’ which his work engenders, but in his studio one is conscious of a perfection aesthetic in operation. Do you ever reject a piece? ‘There’s a huge shard pile in the garden,’ he replies.
When Baldwin was starting out the work of Lynn Chadwick, Henry Moore, and Kenneth Armitage was the defining style, fêted by the critic and king-maker Herbert Read. Was there a time when he came to realise he was moving beyond them – that he was now the avant-garde? ‘No, at the time, when I saw their work, I would just get excited by it,’ Baldwin replies easily. ‘It made me want to go home and work!’ Today a book of Richard Long’s photographs of landscape interventions is open on one of the studio tables, but in the past ballet, music and poetry have provided the prompts to creation. Baldwin’s wife Nancy is a painter and former dancer, who also trained at the Central School and then worked as a designer at the Royal Opera House. A couple of years ago the pair held a joint show in the Drawing Schools at Eton College which included examples of their recent collaboration, the blank vessels made by Baldwin upon which Nancy had painted dancing figures, stretching and bending around their contours. ‘She is an amazing draughtsman,’ says Baldwin. ‘She drew on them in the way no potter would have done.’ But there is nothing haphazard in his method, which is governed by controls and systems, albeit at several removes. He compares the discipline behind his approach to the art of creating a haiku. ‘The 17 syllables that you use with a haiku are a restriction, but the restriction is creative rather than deadening: it gives you the basis with which to do your imagining.
In the same way that you know that the vessel is hollow, it’s a restriction on your work – but these structures [also] help, don’t they?’ In a recent press release, York described Baldwin as ‘Britain’s most distinguished living sculptural potter.’ I ask him if he recognises himself in this description. ‘Well, I call myself an artist,’ he says finally. ‘I say I paint pots as my means of expression. I don’t like the term “ceramic sculpture”. I mean, painters just say they are painters, don’t they? You don’t say “I’m a bronze sculptor” or a “stone sculptor”. I make pots – they’re all pots.’
What does he make of the debate over the arts versus the crafts, utility versus luxury, whereby for many members of the public and even the art establishment, non-functional ceramics still don’t quite add up? ‘It’s fostered in England a great deal,’ Baldwin replies. ‘We have the Crafts Council and the Arts Council but, interestingly, the Arts Council of Great Britain have stumped up a lot of money for the York show, so that makes me an artist, doesn’t it? So something has changed. It used to irritate me that if you made things in clay you weren’t an artist, you were something else. When I was a student I used to be a campaigner, and if it upset the powers that be, then I was quite pleased. In my diploma show I thought I’d done some radical things, and when we were assessed, lots of people got special commendations. But I was told I had a plain pass. My work broke certain rules: “We feel that this guy may well do something interesting in the future.”
‘I’ve always been awkward,’ he concludes. ‘They’re awkward pieces to have, but, rather arrogantly, that’s what I’ve done all my life.’ Grey Gowrie, a teenager at Eton during Baldwin’s tenure as a teacher, has described his experience of living in a small cottage containing a large piece by Baldwin: ‘It looks like a cross between a nuclear submarine and an overgrown tuber, or tumour. I am not sure whether it is beautiful or ugly; I do know that it is an impelling physical presence…Were I to sell or smash it, I would miss it like a person. It passes the test, in short, of a work of art.’ Do you ever look at something that’s pretty and controlled, and think that’s rather dull,
I ask Baldwin. ‘Yes,’ he smiles.
Ruth Guilding is an art historian and curator.
This post was written by joecollinson