"This is my big crossover," Ron Nagle told A.I.A. on the phone from his studio in San Francisco last week. The threshold to which the artist was referring is the 55th Venice Biennale-specifically Massimiliano Gioni's exhibition, "The Encyclopedic Palace," that opened in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini and the Arsenale to VIP visitors today and in which Nagle has 30 pieces.
On the phone, Nagle joked about his career as a ceramist, describing himself and those of his contemporaries who also worked in clay as second-class citizens of the art world. Nagle first experimented with ceramics as a high school student in San Francisco, and it was less than a decade later that he was showing with Peter Voulkos, Ken Price, and John Mason, among others known for their unorthodox methods of working with clay in postwar California. Curators and critics at the time celebrated ceramics, but in medium-specific shows that isolated artists like Nagle from their peers who worked in other media, namely paint. Inclusion with the 157 other artists in Gioni's global exhibition is "just thrilling" for Nagle.
Nagle approached ceramics with refreshed interest when he was a student at San Francisco State University, after becoming familiar with the large abstract vessels that Voulkos was making in Los Angeles. Nagle entered college as an English major, making jewelry and small objects in metal as a hobby, before switching to the school's BFA program. By the early 1960s, he was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and, not long after, at Berkeley, with Voulkos. (Nagle returned to the Art Institute in the '70s.) At the same time, his work was included in seminal group shows with other ceramists at museums and galleries in California and around the world; he had his first solo exhibition in 1968 at San Francisco's Dilexi Gallery.
Gioni's show is based on an idea that self-taught artist Marino Auriti, who emigrated to Pennsylvania from Italy in the 1930s, had for a museum to showcase "all the works of man in whatever field, discoveries made and those which may follow," which he called Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo, or the Encyclopedic Museum of the World. Gioni has adopted Auriti's title for his exhibition, which he has described as a display of "artworks and figurative expressions that reveal approaches to visualizing knowledge through representations of abstract concepts and manifestations of supernatural phenomena."
"How what I do relates to that," Nagle joked with A.i.A., "I have no idea." But in this context, one could imagine that Nagle's small biomorphic forms and bizarre miniature landscapes (most of the works measure less than half a foot squared), glazed or painted in bright colors, might be imagined renderings of the extraterrestrial. Of the 30 pieces at the Biennale, some seem to model fantastical terrains; others could be talismans or renditions of alien life forms.
Each of his ceramic pieces begins as a drawing, Nagle said, and he tries to maintain an element of two-dimensionality once he begins modeling a drawing in three dimensions. "I have an obsession with profiles because I really want [the figures] to feel like drawings," he said, and described his admiration of the way Giorgio Morandi and Philip Guston represent three-dimensional objects in two dimensions. "Everything is done, even subconsciously, from a flat point of view," he said.
Nagle mentioned the recent commercial popularity of his work in Europe-his work is selling well at Brussels' Galerie Pierre Marie Giraud, he told A.i.A.-hypothesizing that there is "less of a distinction between high and low" across the Atlantic. At the same time, he said that younger artists in the U.S., like Sterling Ruby, have begun paying him more attention, too, and buying his work.
Part of Nagle's pleasure at being included in the Biennale, he said, is simply because the show does not ghettoize ceramics, craft and decorative arts. "There was always this marginalization of ceramics," he said, citing titles of exhibitions in which he has been included, such as "Abstract Expressionist Ceramics" (University of California at Irvine and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1966) and "Clay Into Art" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998) that qualify the works on display. In reference to the 1966 show, he asked, "Why not just ‘Abstract Expressionism'?"
Stateside audiences will be able to view his work this summer in his home city. His work will be on view at Los Angeles's David Kordansky in the group show "Grapevine" (July 13-Aug. 17), curated by Ricky Swallow, which will also include work by Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, Michael Frimkess, John Mason and Peter Shire.