On a surprisingly regular basis, the tiny Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania here mounts exhibitions that make the contemporary-art adventures of many larger museums look blinkered, timid and hidebound. The institute’s current show is a lively case in point, never mind the ungainly, uninformative title: “Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay.” Only the last word hints that this convoluted syntax might signal an exhibition of ceramic vessels and sculptures.

When this show is seen in person, it is unmistakable that it is wildly, exuberantly, yet quite cogently about things of a ceramic nature, many different things: large and small, abstract and representational, glazed, unglazed and painted, old and new.

The show’s determination to integrate ceramics into the art mainstream is nothing new. But its refusal to do so simply by slipping some universally agreed-upon ceramic exceptions into a show of painting, sculpture and so forth is close to groundbreaking.

Putting all its eggs in one basket, “Dirt on Delight” argues for ceramics as a more than worthy subject. It reminds us that the art form incorporates quite a bit of painting and sculpture, thank you, and has one of the richest histories of any medium on the planet. Ceramics also plays well with all kinds of artistic ideas and needs no propping up by supposedly serious fine art or, incidentally, by much in the way of explanatory labels.

In addition, the sheer visual force of the show, with its saturated colors, varied surfaces and inventive forms, foments a fond hope: Perhaps sometime soon the religion of Minimal-Conceptual-Relational art (important as it is) will finally wither away, and more and more curators of contemporary art will regain full use of their eyes and thus their brains.

I was not the first to ask about the show’s title, and was told that dirt meant “the latest word,” “the lowdown.” These days the word sounds kind of negative, even without the definite article. Perhaps the all-over-the-place title should be taken as the show’s rambunctious id, or at least be chalked up to the curators’ excitement at having such a rich area of endeavor largely to themselves.

In any event, Ingrid Schaffner, the institute’s senior curator, and Jenelle Porter, its associate curator, have organized their exhibition with almost palpable glee. Their selections range over more than 100 years and mix art-world, crafts-world and crossover talents. Postwar figures like Peter Voulkos, the multitasking Lucio Fontana and Beatrice Wood are on hand, along with current exemplars like Ken Price and Arlene Shechet. Crossovers include Kathy Butterly and Betty Woodman. Although perhaps Ms. Woodman should cross over some more; her glazed surfaces are as interesting as her forms are not. She might do better just painting with glaze on flat pieces of clay, like Mary Heilmann and Joyce Robins (either of whom could have been in the show).


Roberta Smith
New York Times