Oral history interview with James Melchert, 2002 Sept. 18-Oct. 19
Melchert, Jim, b. 1930 Sculptor, Art teacher, Ceramicist Oakland, Calif.
Oral history interview with James Melchert, 2002 Sept. 18-Oct. 19, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Melchert speaks of his decision to pursue painting instead of educational psychology; his introduction to ceramics while learning to teach it at a small college in Illinois; taking a summer course with Pete Voulkos; moving to California and working as Voulkos studio assistant at the University of California, Berkeley; his friendship with John Mason, another potter; the difference between the philosophies of Mason and Voulkos; teaching at the Art Institute in San Francisco; and the book Exercises in Style [Raymond Queneau], upon which he based his series of (3z(Ba(3y(Bs.
Melchert also discusses several of the group exhibitions he has been involved with; John Cage and the influence of Silence; his interest in photography; the similarities and differences between his early work and more recent work; working with tiles; his teaching techniques and how he engaged his students; the is craft art question; the Milwaukee Art Museum; and the function of pottery. He also recalls Steve DeStaebler, Manuel Neri, Nate Olivera, Joan Brown, Henry Takemoto, Michael Frimkiss, Richard Koshalek, Bob Irwin, Bob Arneson, Bruce Nauman, Russell Lynes, Garth Clark, Suzanne Foley, Richard Shaw, Marilyn Levine, Theresa Cha, Jim Pomeroy, and others.
MR. PRITIKIN: So influence is kind of over, to some extent. Would you leave it at Mason and Voulkos, or would you throw in Wiley or Nauman, or is it just those two guys?
MR. MELCHERT: I would say – [pause] – I think I was interested very much by Wiley. And Nauman. At the time we did the “Slant Step Show” [1966, Berkeley Gallery, San Francisco, CA], that was actually a terrific period. I don’t remember anymore what year that was, but there was a group of us who got together often up in Mill Valley, a group to which Wiley was central. And there would be volleyball games, there would be Sunday picnics, we’d bring all the kids, and so on. Bill Allen, I remember, came back from the state of Washington, and there was a wit in Allen’s work that I was quite taken with. And when we did the “Slant Step Show,” we worked – we planned it together for quite a while, and to a certain extent, we were – everybody was learning from everybody else.
And a show that followed, that I wasn’t part of, sort of continued some of that series of exchanges. And that was the “Repair Show” at the Oakland Museum that I think Bill Allen was the principle person behind. And it had to do with making a work based on the notion of repair; something needs fixing. And it was a very funny show. I mean, it was the sort of thing where you’d – a lot of chuckles. But what I liked about Wiley and Allen was the way in which they didn’t deal with art issues; it was the things about everyday life that they’re so curious about and played with. So I was definitely influenced by them.
Now, I know you’re supposed to have one mentor, but I can name several, and even people outside the art world. I think it took me longer to grow up than most people. I know in college I was very green. But there was so much that I needed to know all the time, and somehow I was always looking for somebody to teach me how to do this or teach me how to do that. So maybe instead of calling them mentors I should call them just teachers.
MR. PRITIKIN: So who, outside of the art world?
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, for example, I think I learned quite a bit from Russell Lynes, who was editor of Harper’s for many, many years. MR. PRITIKIN: L-I-N-E-S?
MR. MELCHERT: L-Y-N-E-S. Russell Lynes was on the board for the American Academy in Rome. And Russell had a spare room in the house that had been intended as the maid’s room. And whenever I was in New York during my Rome days, I could stay there. And I’d be there, actually, two months out of the year, February and July.
But Russell and I became great friends. But he had many thoughts about, particularly, the decorative arts that I paid attention to. I liked the way he thought about things. I liked the way he wrote about things. And I think my writing improved from reading Russell Lynes. He knew a lot about architecture and architects as a lay person. So I would have –
MR. PRITIKIN: What was his area of expertise? Or was he an editor?
MR. MELCHERT: He was primarily a writer. He had a column –
MR. PRITIKIN: A journalist?
MR. MELCHERT: Well, in a sense. He wrote for some architecture digest for many, many years; he had a column. And before that he had been with Harper’s, I think it was.
MR. PRITIKIN: Was he a critic?
MR. MELCHERT: Primarily editor.
MR. PRITIKIN: Editor/critic?
MR. MELCHERT: Editor, critic, columnist.
MR. PRITIKIN: I have a few ideas I wanted to point out.
MR. MELCHERT: Go ahead.
MR. PRITIKIN: One is that there is this very literary thread coming at this point, in the ’60s.
MR. MELCHERT: Mm-hmm. True.
MR. PRITIKIN: Two, your involvement with the Wiley circle, was this the beginning of the end of you being a, quote, ceramic artist?
MR. MELCHERT: Okay. I can remember a point at which I was trying to think in terms of rooms as opposed to doing an object that would probably be seen in an interior. I wanted to think in terms of the space and then make objects that somehow energized the space, or worked with the space.
MR. PRITIKIN: Where did that idea come from?
MR. MELCHERT: I think that came from contact with Bruce. One of the first things of his – one of the first performances of his that I remember was one he told me about that he’d done at the Whitney in New York, where he stood near the wall and would just fall into the wall. And he’d stand back up and he’d fall. And of course, he started hurting himself, but nevertheless, it was this relation to the space. And I found that so intriguing.
And often there would be things that I would hear that I didn’t understand; I couldn’t fathom. So I just had to work at it, you know, and I’d keep thinking about these things and so on. And you can’t be making objects that are somewhat, like, isolated and unrelated to other things and be thinking about this other stuff.
One of the first series of pieces that I did – oh, I haven’t mentioned John Cage. Goodness. Reading Silence [Silence; Lectures and Writings. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press,1961] really had a big effect on me. And that came during these same years.
MR. PRITIKIN: You met John in the ’60s.
MR. MELCHERT: I met him in the ’60s, and met him more often in the ’70s. But the book Silence had a profound effect on me. The interesting thing is, I came across it, oh, sometime in the last couple years, and I said, “Oh, I’ve just got to reread this,” and I couldn’t find anything in there that said anything to me, whereas initially it was so loaded.
MR. PRITIKIN: Does that mean it was – it’s become – it was so seminal that it became self-evident, or that you’ve outgrown it?
MR. MELCHERT: No, I think what happened, later it was – I was always told that you had to read – there’s a Thomas Wolfe book, not You Can’t Go Home Again – what’s the other one, big one? In any event, there’s a novel by Thomas Wolfe that you shouldn’t bother reading once you’re past 18. Well, I felt that there was a time when I really connected with what was in Silence.
And I found two ways in which I could, with an object, engage the room. I did pieces that had to do with shadows, where, using ambient light, a piece could change throughout the day, because my objects on it simply cast shadows. They were there to cast shadows.
MR. PRITIKIN: These were still ceramics objects?
MR. MELCHERT: They were still ceramic objects. There’s one right next to you there. You see there’s a cup on the thing? Well, on the slab itself is the word “Listen.” The cup is a little like this only, curiously, it’s turned down, and there’s a little thing in there.
But I did shadow pieces.
MR. PRITIKIN: So that was one way –
MR. MELCHERT: That was one way.
MR. PRITIKIN: – and you said there was a second.
MR. MELCHERT: The other was – we listened to things. And another that I did – Rene de Rosa has one of these pieces.
I got very interested in photography, not photography the way a photographer would, but photographs. I didn’t get interested in photography; I got interested in photographs. And I couldn’t get over the notion that you have a positive and you have a negative, and your negative is as positive as the positive. That was intriguing.
Well, anyway, we had a little darkroom, and I used to print pictures of the kids all the time and stuff. I did go around the house and take pictures and then print them out. I did a short series of slabs that were square, and it would be – I would make on it something that was like a photograph you’d take. There’d be a hand and there’d be an ashtray, and there might be a cup in there, as though it were a photograph taken of a table, only it was three-dimensional. And then there would be a square within it where it was actually colored, and that’s where the ashtray was. Now, there always had to be a hand in this, but the hand was in the part that – it was in the negative, and this is what you didn’t print, and therefore it would never change and would never become positive. But the part that was in the colored area, the ashtray, was part of our world because it had been printed. Well, what – you were to use the ashtray. In those days, we all smoked, so you’d put your hand near the ashtray to flick the ash off your cigarette, and your hand would complete this situation. Anyway, it was a series that nobody would know what to do with because we don’t smoke, you know. [Laughs.]
But it had to do with the piece coming alive only when being completed, only when it was being used. And you had to be able to see that here was the potential. There was always potential, and never realized.
MR. PRITIKIN: So you were bringing conceptual and environmental installation ideas into the ceramics.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, into the ceramics, yeah. And that’s also part of the ’60s.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. Now, in the ’70s, when I stopped working with clay completely, was – my last series was with the “a’s”, variations on “a’s”, lower-case “a’s.” That was when I began using a camera to photograph things from two positions, so that I called the series “Points of View.” It was like your eyes: you need both to understand what’s going on. And what I found was so interesting was that if you’re imagining a clock face, if one person was at 6:00 and the other was at 3:00, and you’re both shooting what was going on in the center, you would have two totally different images. And so it’s juxtaposing them. I had a wonderful time with that series. I just loved it.
MR. PRITIKIN: Was that the first totally conceptual photo-based –
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: And this was the early ’70s?
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. Probably starting around ’71 I was starting it.
MR. PRITIKIN: Did you get any grief from your colleagues?
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. Yes. The major writer in the ceramics field is someone named Garth Clark. He’s written over a dozen books on ceramics. He has a gallery in New York. And anyway, he wrote in one of his – I was mentioned in one of his books, and he called me a turncoat.
MR. PRITIKIN: Like Bob Dylan going electric.
MR. MELCHERT: [Laughs.] Yes, something like that.
But, you know, I consider it timeout from clay, although I didn’t know it at the time. I just needed to deal with something that clay couldn’t help me with.
MR. PRITIKIN: That “timeout” became 20, 25 years.
MR. MELCHERT: No, it wasn’t quite that long. Probably more like 10 or 12, because when – I did a lot of drawing while we were in Washington – I had done rubbings, that’s right. In the ’70s I started doing rubbings as well. I would do a rubbing of a photograph. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that series.
MR. PRITIKIN: I think I have.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. I would just tape a photograph on the wall and then put paper over it and do a rubbing of it. And the object would register but, of course, not the image. And so then I would write below the photograph something having to do with what was in the picture, so that a person would project back into the image what they picked up from the writing. And it was, like, this kind of thing. [When Melchert showed these works at the University of New Mexico in 1983, they were announced as “graphite drawings,” but he has always referred to them as “graphite rubbings.”]
MR. PRITIKIN: So it’s that literary thread again.
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.
Well, in any event –
MR. PRITIKIN: I was asking about reaction to your taking this time-out. You did say something about getting in trouble at school. I guess we can talk about that when we talk about teaching. But did your –
MR. MELCHERT: Ohhhh, yes. That’s right. See, that also happened around 1970.
MR. PRITIKIN: I figured, yeah.
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right.
MR. PRITIKIN: But let’s do that later. But in terms of trying to stay on the subject of influences and the milieu and all that, I imagine your friends didn’t bat an eye, or they thought it was great.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: What did Voulkos think?
MR. MELCHERT: Well, he himself had left clay for a number of years and when he was doing bronzes, bronze casting. And then not only bronze, but other metal as well.
When I took a job at the arts endowment in January ’77, I think that was a bigger sort of break with friends than when I left clay.
MR. PRITIKIN: How about Mason? What did he think of the photography-based work?
MR. MELCHERT: John has always been very supportive. I saw a lot of him when I first went to Washington because he had moved to New York. He had tenure at Irvine, U.C. Irvine, and left it in the mid-’70s because he felt it was time for him to be in New York. And so he had a loft, and it was always available to me if I needed a place to stay. So I saw him often. He certainly never seemed to feel that I was doing anything I shouldn’t be doing. But what happens, though, like – when you get off the bus and you get back on later, you find that you don’t have a seat.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.] Yeah, I saw that in your writing; that when you came back from –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, from Washington.
MR. PRITIKIN: From Rome.
MR. MELCHERT: From Rome. Oh, yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: Or was it from Washington?
MR. MELCHERT: From Washington – first Washington, and then later Rome as well. For example, when I came back from Washington, I had really lost a sense of continuity with my work. I’d been to Egypt, saw tile, and decided that I wanted to go back to clay and I would work with tile.
MR. PRITIKIN: So that was early ’80s.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, ’82.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah. Let’s finish up with the pre-Endowment, post-clay.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: I mean, you really moved into a new group – you know, Pomeroy, Jock Reynolds.
MR. MELCHERT: It was very different scene.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah, it was a different scene. Talk about that. Because that’s when I came on the pictures.
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. Yes. I was very active with – I was having installations, performances, and so on before I left, say, in the mid-’70s.
MR. PRITIKIN: The culmination, to me, was the slide show. Was that at MoMA [Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco]?
MR. MELCHERT: Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: I mean, that was, like, a seminal show for you –
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right.
MR. PRITIKIN: – and for me as a young student.
MR. MELCHERT: That’s interesting. Sue [Suzanne] Foley did that show, and –
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah, I saw her recently.
MR. MELCHERT: Did you really?
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah. She looks exactly the same.
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. Well, she did me a great favor by seeing to it that I showed that work, the body of work.
MR. PRITIKIN: What was the name of that show?
MR. MELCHERT: “Points of View.” But Sue was also a curator who was very interested in, like, what young artists were doing, like performance and installation and so on. And it seems to me she was on your board.
MR. PRITIKIN: She was on my board, yeah. And she did the most important show, you know, “Space/Time/Sound,” that was probably done in San Francisco in that decade –
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right.
MR. PRITIKIN: – which got her fired.
MR. MELCHERT: Which got her fired. And yet, how necessary it was for it to be done.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah. But she never would have done a ceramics show.
MR. MELCHERT: Well, she did do – yes, she did a ceramics show. She did a wonderful show, as a matter of fact – talk about seminal – with Richard Shaw and Bob Hudson. She also then – I think she co-curated a show at the Whitney of, let’s say, five ceramic artists from the Bay Area.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah. I wasn’t saying that to be critical of her at all; I was trying to be provocative about the difference – or maybe it’s a question. Had you moved from a “square” to a “hip” field, or any of that? When you were starting, ceramics was where it was at, and now conceptual work was where it was at, and you had moved with the times to the more cutting-edge form.
MR. MELCHERT: I was just so curious about it.
MR. PRITIKIN: It sounds like your motivation as an artist is to satisfy your curiosity, and the form is not as important –
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right – that’s right. I mean, I never thought of myself as being disloyal to clay. Certainly by the time I got –
[tape stops, re-starts.]
MR. PRITIKIN: Okay, Jim. This is Renny Pritikin interviewing Jim Melchert at his studio in Oakland, California, on September 18, 2002, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
We’re continuing our conversation of this day with one more question. We’re going to approach what are the similarities and differences between your early work and your recent work, I guess since you’ve retired, say, or since you took up tile work?
MR. MELCHERT: I think in the early work I tended to have an idea and then I’d pursue it with the clay, to some extent. And let’s say, for example – what would be an early work? – the Ghost series. I liked this idea of a box that would hold secrets, that it wouldn’t be an empty box. It’s just that you couldn’t see what was in it because there’s a secret. [Laughs.] And in a way, what got me started in that series was a head of Pete Voulkos, kind of caricature of him, that Nate Olivera made out of clay.
MR. PRITIKIN: Did he ever work in clay seriously?
MR. MELCHERT: He used to come down to the pot shop occasionally, across the street from Kroeber Hall. Where the museum is now, there was an old fraternity house that was converted into offices upstairs, and there was the pot shop in the basement.
MR. PRITIKIN: And that’s where they used to get in trouble with the police. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right; all that stuff, right.
Well, anyway, Nate would come down once in a while to talk with Pete. There was always a lot of banter. And a few times Nate actually made some pieces.
MR. PRITIKIN: I wonder if those are still existing.
MR. MELCHERT: There is one that he made that he gave to me, a big – about this big – with two faces on both sides, that I later gave to Mrs. Toki. She and her husband – T-O-K-I – her husband, they had Leslie Ceramics – it was Leslie Toki. But she admired Nate Olivera so much, and I thought, goodness, I shouldn’t have this piece; I should give it to her. But I think they still have it in their collection, although they could have lost it in the earthquake. But it’s a big thing.
Well, anyway, Nate did this caricature of Pete, of his head, and stuck it on top of the kiln where we used it as a kiln god.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Then somehow, maybe a door slammed, you know, but it fell off the top and it broke. The cigar was gone and the face mashed a little. And I picked it up and fired it. And I had this head for a long time, and it ended up put in a time capsule at the university art museum put in the ground somewhere. Someday somebody will find it, with this little story attached.
But I was quite intrigued with that head. And one of the things that you just didn’t do in ceramics was to put, like, not a drawing of a face, but – how shall I say – a solid face, like Tobey Mugs or something. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those. My mother collected them. They were some kind of mugs and pitchers that really was –
MR. PRITIKIN: More like a head.
MR. MELCHERT: Like a head. Well, I mean –
MR. PRITIKIN: T-O-B-E-Y?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. In any event, I –
MR. PRITIKIN: So that was, like, kitsch, to do that.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly. But this head intrigued me, this –
MR. PRITIKIN: Arneson put an end to that, huh?
MR. MELCHERT: Pardon?
MR. PRITIKIN: Arneson put an end to that prejudice.
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, that’s right. He did put an end to it, indeed.
Well, I made a mold, a press mold, in which I could – a press mold is where you have your plaster form, then you press clay into it, pull the clay out, and you have something to start with. And so I would put these heads on the lid on the box, and each box would have a different theme. The first one, I remember – the first two were sort of sketches for what might follow. And out of it came a series where each box had a theme, had its own theme.
Now, I don’t work that way anymore because I’m not working with wet clay, for one thing. And also, I’ve been working with tile for quite a few years now, trying to see what can be done with it, and I’m finding that what intrigues me most about it now is that when you drop it and it breaks, the breaks reveal a structural element inside the tile and, consequently, is as much a part of the material and the way it’s made that allows a lot to work with. So I’m working with a structural aspect of the tile, of clay, that I wasn’t doing when I made those ghost boxes.
MR. PRITIKIN: So that’s a difference?
MR. MELCHERT: That’s a difference.
MR. PRITIKIN: But you are working with units.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes, that’s true. I’m working with units, and I probably always will. I tend to work in clusters too. You know, I’ll do a number of pieces that all have to do with the same issue, and then when I feel that I’ve done as much with it as I care to, I’ll leave it alone and go on to another. But I’ve been trying to work longer with some of my clusters than I used to.
MR. PRITIKIN: Elongated clusters. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Elongated clusters, right, that go on and on.
MR. PRITIKIN: It sounds like astronomy.
MR. MELCHERT: [Laughs.] Yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, it seems to me, you know, sitting here talking to you and looking over your shoulder at these beautiful pieces on the wall, that one reason you’re so – you seem so happy and satisfied with your work in the last decade is that you really have synthesized your early ceramic interests with your mid-career conceptual interests in a way that very few people really integrate.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. I’m glad to hear you say that because I remember talking with a fellow artist, who is a conceptual artist, about tile, and this person absolutely refused to believe that there could be any connection between a material like clay and conceptual concerns. But I hope the work shows that there can be.
MR. PRITIKIN: Is there any other through-line that we can discover from the early work to these?
MR. MELCHERT: Well – all right. Within, sort of, American ceramics and so on – it’s a connecting thread. I’ve always looked for a way of working that hasn’t been really sufficiently explored yet. When I was doing those ghost boxes, for example, the color I used was from what we call China paint. It’s over-glaze enamel. You glaze the piece and fire it, and then with a combination of ceramic pigment and oil, you apply your color and your drawings and so on, and I was using decals. And now, goodness, it’s commonplace to use decals, but it wasn’t then. Decals were strictly for hobbyists, and a serious ceramic artist in 1964 was not using decals or China paint.
MR. PRITIKIN: Why? What was déclassé about China paint?
MR. MELCHERT: China paint was what, in the old days, young ladies did – young women did who would decorate the rims of dishes as they were taking voice lessons or dancing lessons. So it was part of the preparation for married life. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: Right. So it was a certain kind of ironic appropriation.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Where instead of using the materials you’re supposed to be using as a serious potter, you’re using materials that are identified with hobbies.
MR. PRITIKIN: So we didn’t really touch on this earlier, but an argument could be made that even at your most committed to ceramics, you were pushing the boundaries or –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, I’ve always tried to. And – now, where I am now with the tile pieces is that there are people devoted to ceramics who aren’t sure whether I am seriously involved with clay, because I am at an edge somewhere that – like, say, with conceptual art – that it’s the edge of what is considered to be ceramic. I don’t make the tiles –
MR. PRITIKIN: Because they’re commercially manufactured.
MR. MELCHERT: – I use commercially manufactured tiles. Now, I do – if I use glaze or if I use pencil, the pencil is ceramic pencil, so that it’s fired on. And I do respect the relationship of materials – the clay is fired, so I think that the pencil should be fired, too. It creates a bond there.
But I think that an obligation that an artist has, in a way, to his or her field is to keep it alive and growing, which is to say that your edges keep moving. And I’m very interested in what the boundaries are, like the definitions of a discipline.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right. So the true through-line is that you’ve never given in to being academic.
MR. MELCHERT: Well, that’s – [laughs] – that’s interesting. I think you’re right. Well, maybe we can –
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah, a good time to stop.
This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission.
(Continued on Wednesday)