Annabeth Rosen

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Annabeth Rosen received her BFA from NYS State College of Ceramics at Alfred University and her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Teaching appointments include The Rhode Island School of Design, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since 1997 she has held the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at the University of California Davis.

Annabeth Rosen’s work is represented by P.P.O.W Gallery in New York and the Anglim Gilbert Gallery in San Francisco. Rosen’s work is the collection of The Boston Museum of Fine Art, The Oakland Museum, The Denver Art Museum, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and many public and private collections. Rosen has received multiple grants and awards, a Pew Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a UC Davis Chancellors Fellowship, a Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Award, and in 2016 was named a USA Artist Fellow. Most recently Rosen has been granted the Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2018 awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Interview with Annabeth Rosen

Questions by Roxanne Jackson

You have been working with clay for many years. Can you talk a bit about your approach to clay and ceramics in the early part of your career and how that may have evolved over time?
I think ceramics is an absurd and medieval thing to do, especially now within the possibilities of all the ways artists make work and with new technologies. It seems contrary to everything contemporary, laden with difficulties; it uses precious resources, it runs counter to the forces of the universe, and it’s a force in and of itself. And there is the tremendous physical demand of working with clay. It is the most common and the most difficult substance to know. It carries with it a false sense of familiarity, as everyone makes things out of clay in camp or in kindergarten. It’s a material that can mimic any other material and yet there is nothing like clay and glaze.

I’ve always been extremely indulgent in how I work; if I want to see something, I make it, and there is great freedom in this. Working in the studio relies on building a momentum and an atmosphere that allows the unexpected to happen. I stockpile—accumulating parts and pieces, colors, collections, and back-ups—safeguarding against disaster or deficiency. I try to be aware of my limitations by always remembering that what I choose is contingent upon what I have available to choose from. I think I’ve always worked this way. The urgency to work exists in balance with the time the material demands. I love ancient pottery, everything medieval, Meissen porcelain, Staffordshire animal statues, and textiles. I look at a lot of photography, architecture, public space, and industrial design.

My work is a negotiation with my interest in culture, language and communication, and my way of observing and living in the world. And my career is engaging in, and in part being observed by the world. Not separated so simply, they are inextricably linked and elemental. When I was out of school I don’t think I understood what having a career meant until I started participating in conversations, and with opportunities outside of the studio. There was a point in time when I began to embrace all of the messy and complicated parts: my own deliberations, the intelligence that the university and the students offered—the professional world of exhibiting; critics, curators and collectors and the brokering that takes place between them. 

I’ve been working a long while, but as much as I can rely on what I know, I don’t completely want to. I always want to be in a state of not knowing, relying on both educated and intuitive knowledge. 

In recent years there has been a resurgence of ceramics and an appreciation for ceramic art, as we see more of it being shown in the art world at large—why do you think this is happening now?
You see a lot of ceramics now and artists, critics, and curators are talking about clay, trying to gain greater insight into the material. This is not a recent construct, it’s been building up for a long while. Back in the early 1970s Gordon Matta Clark and Tina Giroud opened a café called food in Soho. Performance art was burgeoning and these artists and their friends staged cooking and eating events as performance art. Ken Price made Happy’s Curios in 1978, ceramics as installation. And Rirkrit Tiravanija’s piece entitled Free in 1992. He moved into the office of the 303 Gallery in Soho where he installed a kitchen with a refrigerator, hot plates, rice steamers, tables, and stools. And he cooked Thai curry for everyone who came in to the gallery.

And I also think of the work Theaster Gates and Stephanie Syjuco are doing, and the rise of social practice. And the politicization of food and eating, always an economic issue, but now an enlightened social consciousness exists along with an aestheticized experience of eating. Growing, preparing and sharing food—it’s primal. Ceramics has always been somewhere near the center of all of this activity. It is a principal in the discussion of what material culture is built upon.

The art world and the art market have an insatiable capacity for the new, or the newly re-discovered. I was reading about how ideas spread, and in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point he talks about how viruses spread. One idea is the societal construct of the 80/20 equation, which explains that 80-percent of the work is done by 20-percent of the people. For example: 20-percent of criminals commit 80-percent of the crime, so a very small percentage of the population does the majority of the work. And there are epidemic theories for everything including disease, voting, graffiti, or ceramics. 

A lot of the work we see now in galleries is made by artists who were not trained in ceramics, but who are compelled to work in clay. You don’t have to be able to read and write music to be a composer, and you don’t have to know that chrome goes pink under the influence of tin to work in clay. Artists are making a deliberate commitment to exploring and testing conventions as any artist would. And there are a lot of artists who have been working in ceramics for their entire careers, such as Lynda Benglis or Rosemary Troekel, Thomas Shutte, Andrew Lord, and artists who have always had ceramics as part of their publicly shown work including, Mary Heilman, Joanne Greenbaum and Joyce Robins, and more.

This is an interesting question and we could discuss this for a long while. Seeing work in other artists’ studios and in galleries creates a visceral and visual response. And ideas spread through word-of-mouth. It can also take a while for the art world to catch up with artists and the avant garde (old fashioned language), and influential artists like Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, Ken Price, Ron Nagle, Richard Shaw, Jun Kaneko, John Mason, Gertrude and Otto Natzler, Richard DeVore, George Ohr, Beatrice Wood, Betty Woodman, Viola Frey are becoming part of the daily contemporary consciousness and commerce. They have been an untapped resource of cultural and monetary revenue. And because everything turns up again and again, and we are always trampling on and subsuming history. 

As an educator, do you still engage your students in the conversation (as a ceramic student, I heard this over and over again in graduate school) of “art versus craft”? Is this topic still relevant, or have we moved beyond it?
This concept is a cultural and economic issue too. The ‘handmade’ and the homemade now carry new meaning, as the makeshift, do-it-yourself sensibility was seen as very ‘third world’. And the criteria for fine craftsmanship is different for different materials. For example, traditionally, you wouldn’t see the seams on clothing, but current designers make clothing with visible seams exposed and loose threads, and people buy new clothing with holes torn through and threadbare. Always, if there was thread visible on a hat, it was the mark of the exclusive, the hand-stitched and bespoke—a milliner actually sewed this. It was not manufactured from plastic and glue on a production line. A good chef can identify the complex subtlety of combined flavors in a dish. Craft and craftsmanship. I am compelled by the idea and the concentration of knowledge and experience and its implications, whether it is intentionally employed, or consciously ignored, or somewhere in between. Artists can usually recognize when someone is working to the limit of their ability or making deliberate decisions.

Craftsmanship can be used as a tool to mask emotion, or insistence on control as a substitute for content. Or, craftsmanship becomes content itself. Old ideas in ceramics exist within a new context in the art world and academia. A gauge of craft and craftsmanship is a useful tool for teaching and a way of thinking about making art and exploiting materials. Presently, it will suffice to say that some artists, teachers, and students never recognized and embraced a discrepancy.

It’s an ambiguous and forever interesting conversation. I suggest reading books by people who are committed to the idea of the meaning of craft and culture like: Bernard Leach, Lucy Lippard, Dore Ashton, Jenni Sorkin, Howard Risatti, Richard Sennet, Bill Brown, Glenn Adamson, and others for context, and artist writings like Martin Puryear and Chris Krauss for contemporary interpretations. And maybe read a lot of poetry and think about craft. A gauge of craft and craftsmanship is a useful tool for teaching and a way of thinking about making art and exploiting materials. Presently, it will suffice to say that some artists, teachers, students, never recognized and embraced a discrepancy. 

You are currently the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at UC Davis, where Arneson taught for many years. Arneson, Voulkos, Ken Price & Viola Frey—all household names now—left great legacies in the west coast ceramic scene. Have any of them influenced you as an artist and an educator?
I admire all of the artists you name, and more. One of the reasons I wanted to move to Davis was to know more about the beginnings of contemporary ceramic art as it developed up and down the coast of California. Voulkos inspired me. His exuberant, emotional, intense, violently gestural and grotesque work helped me reckon with the idea that abstraction was a higher form of expression. I’ve learned a great deal about Robert Arneson’s work since moving to California. His work is highly skilled, and aggressive, and full of ego. I once thought he was the epicenter of an earthquake in California culture and I think it’s true. And Viola Frey is one of the most underrated and overlooked artists of the last century. I think her work is staggeringly good. Not necessarily the Grandmother pieces she is so well known for, but all of the rest of her oeuvre. The freedom of her narratives, her use of all forms of fabrication, color and scale and ways of painting and glazing. Her work is extensive, very complicated, and very beautiful. And the eroticism and seduction of Ken Price’s work is only matched by Ron Nagle’s. Both are enormously influential.

Are there other artists who you look at or who influence your artistic process?
I think the work I love the best is the work I know the best. Artists whose work I’ve seen many times for a lifetime. I have an ongoing conversation with that work that helps me to be able think about my own. Sometimes I get to know the artist and the relationship with the work becomes more intense. I have tried to cultivate a broad aesthetic, not only appreciating a style or form but to be as open as possible. I am always drawn to artists who work differently than I do, mystified as to how those ideas formed and how those ideas can help me learn. In college, I discovered Ed Keinholz, Richard Tuttle, Vija Celmins, Nancy Rubins, Louise Bourgeois, Lee Bontecou, Ree Morton, and they have remained important.

I just came back from New York and saw the Nauman show. His work carries a profound realization of how words, language, and how we think influences what we do—and even though I’ve thought about this idea for a long time, it struck me deeply. The work was elegant like a beautiful solution to a math problem. It was like attending a master class. 

Do you think there is a different perspective of ceramic art overall between the west and the east coast?
When I first moved to California I thought about this more often. I remember that I was surprised by how people were so concerned with their own internal well-being. There seemed to me to be a heightened awareness of one’s mental and physical health. Everyone knew about nutrition, and the environment, what terroir is, and everyone meditated and did yoga. Everyone talked about EST (Erhard Seminars Training). And the beauty in nature was equal to nothing else, going for a walk (here they say hike), was like going to temple.

Back east, from my experience, I thought most people were concerned with the external: politics, education, culture and the economy. There was art, theater, film and fashion. There was the crush in the subway and the river of people on the streets. To me, the east coast was punk, chaos, anarchy, and violence, and the west coast was funk, irreverence, ego and humor. I think both were transgressive and dark, and full of energy.

From an outsider’s perspective, Northern California is a very remarkable place, with a concentration of artists contributing to its culture, and there was an attentiveness by the social constructs and institutions that supported them. Collectors and collections here are sometimes fueled by and focused on the region and the specificities of place. In my mind there was the east coast along with the rest of the United States, and then California was a completely new country.

My education on the east coast was informed by European aesthetics and technology rooted in the industrial revolution. At school it was never an option to use commercial glaze. We built our own kilns and were encouraged to make our own tools—very Leachian. And there was great attention paid to Asian history in ceramics, that was the archetype. As a young artist after graduate school, I knew the art world as a place surfeited with the politics of money and class, graffiti, aids, and the difficulties of surviving, no less being able to continue working in the city. In New York I learned about the world by going to the Met which seemed to me to reveal the history of humanity through art, distortions and all. Maybe ceramic artists were more impatient in California and in a hurry to get on with the new.  

To find out more about Annabeth and her work, visit her website.