Review: Retro, not retrospective. Ron Nagle at Fridericianum Kassel, by Anna-Lisa Scherfose

Since the late 1950s, ceramics have been at the centre of Ron Nagle’s artistic practice and he has greatly contributed to establishing the medium in contemporary arts. The Fridericianum Kassel is now presenting “Euphoric Recall,“ Ron Nagle’s first solo exhibition in Germany since the beginning of his artistic practice 60 years ago.

by Anna-Lisa Scherfose

A key feature of Ron Nagle’s ceramic sculptures is their size: they never measure more than 20 centimeters. Nevertheless, they hold an enormous visual presence, which is induced by their broad palette of colors in combination with a diversity of form and structure. One paradigmatic is the work “Morontendre” from 2012, on view in Kassel. A shiny rust-brown layer spreads out like a straight, viscous liquid on the slightly granular surface of a sphere. With its inexact geometric shape and small irregularities, this sphere is reminiscent of a moon where the liquid runs down. For the glaze of the moon, Nagle chose a shiny metallic lilac tone, which gradually cools into a matte turquoise at its points of contact with the foreign body. The composition is disturbed by the behavior of the apparent liquid on top of the sphere: it bends abruptly bend at the top so that it protrudes vertically away from the sphere, rendering the initial identification as a liquid obsolete. This protruding semicircle has a matt glaze in dark moss green, which, together with the dark rust brown, makes this part of the sculpture appear like an alien component, both in color and structure.

It is these vigorous contrasts, along with the interplay of rich varnishes and the gentle color gradients that define Nagle’s works and make their contemplation a real pleasure. They create a tension, an almost visible vibration within each small object, which makes one almost expect them to start moving at any moment. The ceramics suggest a flexibility, even a smell or taste, leading to associations with precious pastries one would like to try.

There are 63 works by the artist on view throughout the lower floor of the Fridericianum. The majority of them are presented each in its own small illuminated showcase, embedded on to the wall. This type of display, developed in collaboration with Nagle, reinforces the impression of confronting a live object, since they recall small aquariums or terrariums at a zoo. The sculptures seem to be sitting within, vivid and playful, as though they were just waiting to be observed. The vitrines, however, only allow a frontal view of each piece, and it becomes clear why Nagle describes his work today more as painting than as sculpture. In the last room of the exhibition, the viewer is then finally allowed to experience the work from all sides: Other ceramic sculptures are placed on pedestals, arranged in a strict grid throughout the room. Here, too, the sobriety of the display leaves enough room for the small works to unfold their macroscopic effects.
Nagle, born in 1939 in San Francisco, takes the first impulse for his works from spontaneous, often subconscious ideas and thoughts. He is inspired by the aesthetics of Japanese Azuchi-Momoyama ceramics of the late 16th century as well as by the American car culture of the 1940s with its artistically designed car bodies in shiny paintwork. Music is also a significant influence on his work, as Nagle has played in rock bands and as a solo artist since the 1950s. This is reflected most strongly in the titles of his ceramic works, which are often reminiscent of song titles with their ironic puns like “Avant-Garage” or “Hot Gaspacho”. In addition to ceramics, Nagle works with plastics, various glazes and car paint. He first develops the form of his works as sketches on paper. The exhibition provides an insight into this process through several framed drawings that make the process of creating the works tangible.
The question inevitably arises, however, as to whether this break lends the exhibition the depth that it requires. Considering this is Nagle’s first solo exhibition in Germany, it is disappointing that only works created in the last ten years since his retirement as professor of ceramics at Mills College, California are on view. Although Nagle’s importance as one of the pioneers of the California Clay Movement, a group of artists who established ceramics as a medium outside of the arts and crafts context, is mentioned in the text at the entrance, his artistic development over six decades is not reflected in the choice of artworks exhibited.

Although Nagle’s oeuvre shows a great continuity in his formal language, a more comprehensive display would have made it possible to trace the artist’s 60 years of development in detail, both on a formal and material level. Since Nagle’s musical oeuvre is not integrated into the exhibition either, the drawings alone seem like an attempt, by adding a further level of observation, to lend the exhibition a depth that this short timespan of works cannot offer. Instead, it evokes memories of past times on the American west coast and evokes a nostalgia that ignores current discourses in ceramics. The effect is that the exhibition appears one-dimensional and illustrative, instead of offering real insight into Nagle’s layered artistic practice.

Together with the exhibition “Desterto Modelo” by the Lucas Arruda, “Euphoric Recall” is the opening exhibition of Moritz Wesseler as the new director of the Fridericianum Kassel. He has set himself the goal of providing a platform for key players in contemporary art who are still largely unknown in Germany on the one hand, while on the other hand, he aims to offer rediscovered historical positions that have had little visibility, even though they are of great relevance to current discourses. Surely Nagle has been underrepresented in Germany, but at the same time he has received attention in the German-speaking context, with a  solo exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel  last year and an exhibition at the Vienna Secession in autumn. Wesseler’s proclaimed mission should make it possible to rediscover a historical position in full. Unfortunately, large parts of this show originate from only two private collections and one gallery, which make its scope narrow, instead of including early works by Nagle and enabling a more holistic examination of the history of ceramics in the US and the paradigm shift of the material and its reception.

Equally questionable is the choice of Lucas Arruda as an artist Wesseler considers “largely unknown”. Arruda might not exactly fit the description of the underrepresented painter he is introduced as, since he is on the roster of leading New York gallery David Zwirner. All the more disappointing is the decision to offer two male positions this platformin the moment of prelude as new director. In his formulating the mission of (re-) discovery of underrepresented artists, one was reminded of the Tate Modern’s way of addressing gender imbalance in their history by dedicating their permanent exhibition space in 2019 to work entirely by women artists. But in contrast to that decisive choice, the selection of the two images that promote the opening exhibitions look like an absurd illustration of the status quo:A film still of Arruda’s “Untitled (Neutral Corner)” shows two male boxers in battle, and the oversized photograph of Ron Nagle’s phallic sculpture “Handlin’ Bambi” are (man)spread onto the façade of the Fridericianum.
Despite the great potential this long overdue solo exhibition of Ron Nagle holds, the context and scope of the show at Fridericianum Kassel does not reflect Nagle’s significance and leaves the visitor rather unsatisfied.

Ron Nagle „Euphoric Recall“ and Lucas Arruda „Deserto-Modelo“. Museum Fridericianum Kassel. 6.6. – 8.9.2019.