Gallery/Dealer Details - Garth Clark Gallery

Garth Clark Gallery, now celebrating its 25th year, is not your average art establishment. Firstly their specialty, ceramics, was hardly on the radar 25 years ago. Now it appears everywhere in New York, from Matthew Marks to Marian Goodman, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to MoMA. Secondly, they were able to shake off the taint of craft while holding to a specific material and win membership of the cautious and prestigious Art Dealers Association of America. Thirdly, there are not many galleries where both principals, Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio, have published well-received books on their subject. Clark has 40 titles to his credit and his most recent one, Shards: Garth Clark on Ceramic Art, won him the prestigious Mather Award for distinguished art criticism from the College Art Association. Previous awards have gone to Peter Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith, Dave Hickey, and others. This is unusual company for an art dealer.

The couple has also received a slew of awards and honors for their unique combination of commerce and scholarship: honorary doctorates from the Kansas City Art Institute and Visionaries Awards of the Museum of Arts and Design amongst others. In addition, Clark was also made a Fellow of the Royal College of Art (his alma mater) together with Nicholas Serota, at the College's 100th Convocation.

Their gallery began its life on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angles in 1981 with the inaugural exhibition, Beatrice Wood: A Very Private View, which they are revisiting in their 25th anniversary exhibition at their New York gallery from September 12 to November 4, 2006. As the title suggests, this was not open to the public but by invitation only. The opening night was an extraordinary event with much of the Los Angeles art community in attendance: Betty Asher, Irving Blum, Jan Turner, Ed Broida and others.

The sales went extremely well and, when Wood was called and informed of her commercial good fortune, her response was that it was the first time in her life (then a sprightly 88) that she had more money coming in than immediately needed. "This causes a dilemma," she added, "now I can get either a gigolo or a vacuum cleaner." Wood was a romantic but a pragmatist so the vacuum cleaner won.

The impetus for the exhibition was exactly the opposite of the good
sales the show enjoyed, however. Garth Clark and his partner Mark Del Vecchio were visiting with Wood six months earlier and she complained about not having sold a single ceramic in two years adding, with uncharacteristic sadness, that she supposed that this meant that her work was without value.

Clark and Del Vecchio were then working on the academic side of the field. Del Vecchio was running a small business that sold slides on ceramic history and Clark was a freelance writer, critic and curator. They got their start in art dealing by taking home a number of pieces from that visit and trying to sell them privately. They disliked the intrusion of business in their domestic space but it became clear that there was a need for a true art gallery to deal in contemporary ceramics. Soon after they found a space opposite the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and within six weeks opened their exhibition of Wood's work.

"We had no master plan," Del Vecchio confesses. "At first it seemed that we should just handle the blue-chip figures in the field but there was no challenge in that. So instead of the modernists we took on the postmodernists who were more of our own generation, largely unknown, and set about giving them a higher profile. Later we became more of a mix of new and established, but the interest in the edge remains a part of our enjoyment of the field, even though it does not find its way to the exhibition floor as often as it did in the past."

From the outset they rejected the craft shop mentality that had plagued the field and instituted the same standards and rules one might find in a major New York fine arts gallery at that time, insisting on exclusive representation, placing a strong focus on building their artists' resumes and actively pursuing the publications of books, monographs and catalogs on their artists and about the field. In 1983 they opened their space at 24 West 57th Street where they have done business ever since. The Los Angeles space continued to 1996 when it was taken over by Frank Lloyd. In 2002 they opened Garth Clark Project Space at 45-46 21st Street, in Long Island City, across from P.S. 1, where they present exhibitions of experimental work, installations and other shows.

Over the past quarter century their existence has made a difference in the way that ceramics is perceived through their professionalism and scholarship. Their ambitious exhibition program showed not just artists from the field of ceramics but those who work in the medium as non-specialists as well: from Sir Anthony Caro to David Smith. They are responsible for numerous publications and over five hundred exhibitions-solo, group, theme, historical-mainly at their two spaces in New York and in Los Angeles. The Gallery also operated for several years in Kansas City and, briefly, in London. In addition, they have curated exhibitions for museums and public galleries across the world.

When asked what their favorites are in this long exhibition list, both diplomatically avoid citing living artists, although this is clearly their passion. "We manage careers,” Clark insists, "we don't just sell art." Del Vecchio's favorites were a series of New York firsts, Hans Coper and Lucio Fontana Ceramics. Fontana had been shown many times in New York but this was the first time that a show just of his ceramic work had been produced and it had a huge impact, "effectively making this field almost too expensive for us," Del Vecchio recalls dryly. Other firsts included Grayson Perry's first solo show in New York, the first survey of Sir Anthony Caro's deep involvement in ceramics, and others.

Clark, ever the historian, selected their first exhibition on George E. Ohr as a particular moment of pride. It was all on loan from art world celebrities like Miani Johnson, Irving Blum and Jasper Johns with not a single piece for sale. Clark was writing a book on Ohr at the time and for five years afterwards would not work commercially with the Biloxi potter’s art. "Jeff Perrone wrote a piece about that show," he remembers, "in which he attacks me as being a 'slave trader' for putting the names of the collectors on the wall. The Arts and Crafts Movement was still ambivalent about Ohr and so we wanted to make a point. If some of the most refined minds and talents in the fine arts were convinced, why were they skeptical?"

Also on his favorite list is Abstract Expressionist Ceramics: Myth & Reality Revisited, a revisionist view of the famous 1964 exhibition by John Coplans when he was still a critic and working for Artforum. That exhibition exposed the simmering California ceramic revolution to the art world with Peter Voulkos, Ken Price, Ron Nagle, John Mason, Manuel Neri, and others. "We challenged the reading of that exhibition, particularly the abstract expressionist label, and I enjoyed the lively debate that was produced with everyone but in particular with Coplans," he adds, "who could be testy when challenged but responded to the show very well and the email traffic with him was quite electric."

And where to next? This is what they call a "celebratory season," a mix of old friends and new but it is not a "signpost." Both are undecided as to where they will take the Gallery from this point. "We have achieved most of the goals we set for ourselves in the beginning," says Clark. "We might plunge more deeply into history as new contemporary work in ceramics is increasingly finding a home in general galleries, which is a great development that we support. On the other hand there is a really fresh design-art nexus among younger artists today that excites us very much. The good thing about this anniversary is that it has not taken us to a place surrounded by high defining walls. We are free to go down many roads now but it is unlikely that we will stray far from the kiln."

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