In this video, Jim Melchert talks about his experiences with Peter Voulkos.
Oral history interview with James Melchert; 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: I’m talking to Jim Melchert in his beautiful studio in Oakland, California, on October 19, 2002. This is the second session of two.
And Jim has just returned from a trip to a university in the upper Midwest, where he was heavily involved with ceramics, and has some thoughts that he would like to start the conversation with.
So, Jim, go ahead.
MR. MELCHERT: I taught ceramics for, goodness, four years after I got out of graduate school at Berkeley. I taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. Then, when Berkeley hired me, I was in the sculpture wing of the art department and Pete Voulkos was teaching the ceramics classes at Cal, so I was assigned other courses. And only once in all my years at Berkeley did I teach a ceramics class again, and that was for one semester years and years later, after Pete had retired, when Richard Shaw was in charge of the ceramics studio.
MR. PRITIKIN: And is that by your choice, or is that by happenstance?
MR. MELCHERT: Richard’s choice. Richard had –
MR. PRITIKIN: No, no. I meant the fact that you never –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, no, no. There really needed to be only one person teaching. And I don’t think Pete particularly wanted me to replace him when he would take a leave, because he knew that I would teach the course differently from the way he liked it taught.
MR. PRITIKIN: Meaning more conceptual and –
MR. MELCHERT: Meaning that – he felt so strongly that a student’s progress depended on motivation, and if the student wasn’t motivated, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do for them, and therefore, why bother with them? And his way of teaching in the later years was very different from what he used to do. In the ’50s and ’60s, early ’60s, he gave a lot of thought to his time in class.
But then, with the ’70s and however long he taught in the ’80s, he began to sit back and feel that it was enough to demonstrate how you can build a clay sculpture in the beginning of the course over one or two days, and then see what the students do with that information. And he also believed that there needed to be impediments, that a student had to overcome something, and was very opposed to having the tables cleaned, floors swept, that sort of thing.
MR. PRITIKIN: By other people?
MR. MELCHERT: By other people. And when – this worked all right when there were artists coming in as auditors just to work in the department. You know, Jun Kaneko was there in the early ’70s; so was Dick Marquis. Well, Marquis was in glass, excuse me. Pat Siler, he had just gotten his masters in painting, and he started working in the pot shop.
MR. PRITIKIN: I don’t know that name. Could you spell it?
MR. MELCHERT: S-I-L-E-R. He’s up in Washington – the state of Washington; Spokane, I think it is.
In any event, when there were people like them, or Marilyn Levine working still as a graduate student, other students, less experienced, had someone to watch and ask questions to, and so on, and that worked very well. But when there weren’t more experienced artists working in the studio, kids tended to flounder. And he would deliberately pick somebody to replace him when he would be on leave, who would essentially just, in a sense, be around but not give instruction. And it didn’t work; it just didn’t work.
So that Pete’s reputation as a teacher was based largely on what he did in his early years of teaching, both in Los Angeles and at Berkeley. What he was happiest at was when he retired, he had time to give these workshops all around the country and could be paid to turn up somewhere and do a workshop, and he would get sculptures made. He always traveled with an assistant or someone who would meet him there, and this person would throw the forms that he couldn’t throw anymore, because he was getting up in years, and then he would begin working on them with these thrown forms. And sometimes he would do his own throwing. But he liked working for an audience. He drew a lot of energy from them, the way performers do. And that was the kind of teaching that he also did very well. He wouldn’t explain what he was doing; he would actually concentrate so hard on the work that people were silent, and he’d be working silently, except every now and then make a wisecrack, I mean something back at – sort of –
MR. PRITIKIN: So is that one whole – as a teacher, you could be completely solicitous and explanatory and very involved with the students’ practice, or you could just be a model and expect them to extrapolate?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, he liked the word “catalyst” rather than “model.” He thought of himself as a catalyst. And certainly his – most of his teaching career, the earlier two-thirds of his teaching career, he had only to be around and there was a sense of excitement. But it’s nice to remember that part of his teaching rather than that late period at Cal. And then it’s nice to pick up with the workshops, if you’re thinking in terms of what he did as a teacher, because –
MR. PRITIKIN: So let’s contrast that with the Melchert method.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, okay. For myself, I felt very much that, first of all, students have a lot to learn from one another. They don’t come in without some aesthetic sense and experience in making aesthetic judgments. It might be that a kid is really into striping cars, or somebody who knows what clothes to wear that will bring out her best features or his best features, whatever. And consequently, students are already someplace, and you don’t have to start from scratch with them. You can also depend on them to learn from each other. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: So it’s more of a respectful – that they bring something to the table?
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yeah, they definitely – they do. You have to find ways to get them to do it. And it took me a while before I understood the situation well enough to devise a way of teaching that worked not only for me, but worked for the students. And I found that instead of having students work in a classroom together on their own – some assignment where they’re working with clay and there’s a model sitting there, essentially learning how to recognize form, human form, and reproduce it in the clay, I found that they learned a lot more if they were in a situation where they had to think and analyze, and where they had to stretch their imaginations a bit. And this is really with team projects. And I did it with both beginning classes and advanced classes.
I even changed – I think I told you this. I changed the name of the beginning class from “Introduction to Sculpture” to “Introduction to Visual Thinking,” because while we were working with physical objects and spaces and particular places, and so on, it had more to do with three-dimensional structures, and yet I didn’t want to call it sculpture.
And so what I would do is give students – I’d, first of all, divide them into teams, four or five people on a team. Classes tended to be large, about 25 students, so you get five teams, sometimes six. And at the beginning of the class, I would give them a problem – I’d introduce something – for example, you look at two shapes in the distance, and you decide not only which one is physically closer, but in fact which one is optically closer. And then you might give them – an assignment might be to make something far away look near. And they would have – the teams would go out on the campus, they’d have to choose their own site, and they had something like an hour and a half to solve the problem. And then they’d come back to the room and we would have at least 45 minutes to – I don’t remember the times of the classes; they were about two-and-a-half hours long, it seemed to me – no, it would be a little longer, about three hours. Yeah, 9:00 to 12:00 – three hours long.
Anyway, we would then, as a class, go to each site and see how that group of students solved the problem. And they would have to discuss it. They’d have to think, what on earth could we do? And they’d look around to see what was there. And as ideas were thrown out, they would all have a chance to discuss them or – you know how one idea would trigger another.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right.
MR. MELCHERT: And there would actually be some excitement generated about, hey, this is a great idea; let’s do it. And I think that moment of hitting on an idea, of getting excited, is very powerful. And this particular – so, to make something far away – produced some extraordinary pieces.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah. I read this in one of the interviews. It was great; it made me want to be a student in that class.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. That’s probably – I’ll describe one, and maybe this one, unless I described it to you last time. Would I have done that?
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, I don’t think so. I think that was –
MR. MELCHERT: This was where we went to a site, and one by one we were asked to look at this object. It was a ping pong paddle that was propped up on a ball, you know, on a – it was on a ledge, actually, and here was this ping pong paddle, and the paddle part was held up off the surface with this ball. And, you know, you look at it, and you think, well, what is this? And so you would get down to where, you know, you were sort of – your eye was at the level of the paddle, and it made you realize this ball was in fact a huge light globe on a standard way across the field.
MR. PRITIKIN: I love that kind of stuff.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, my goodness. And these are beginning students. They weren’t necessarily freshmen, because every now and then you’d have somebody who was in another department but always hoped to choose an art course for an elective, and often in the senior year. But they would grasp the idea and they would do it. And it gave you the feeling – I mean, as you walked around from just site to site, it gave you a feeling that this is fun, you know.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.] Art can be fun.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, like – I mean, you’re engaged.
MR. PRITIKIN: You, as a sophisticated professor/artist were engaged.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, I was engaged and the students were engaged. And, you know, somehow or other, when you are engaged, it puts wind in your sails. And I loved it, and the students loved it.
MR. PRITIKIN: How did that affect your own work in practice?
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, my – [pause] – okay. I would go back to my studio feeling as though – how shall I say? – it just gave me wings, I’ll put it that way; it just gave me wings. And I produced very good work in those years. It seems to me that those are the years when – I was doing rubbings, for example, rubbings of photographs. And I was also working with a lot of light projections – slides, not clay. I had stopped working with clay. But – I had set it aside during those years. But anyway –
MR. PRITIKIN: It gave you license to be as inventive as you can?
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. Yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: So, you used the phrase, “It worked for me.” And this is the kind of thing you’re talking about. You were trying to find a teaching method that worked for you.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. That’s right. That’s right. And it – a mistake that a fledgling teacher is apt to make is to teach the way you’ve been taught. And you’re not likely to succeed, you know, because you’re not that other person. And there are – by trying to be the other person, you’re not drawing on all your resources, your own resources.
I also found that the way I had been teaching when I started would exhaust me at the end of the class period. And I just – my battery was run down. Whereas once I devised this other way of teaching, I wasn’t with the students every minute of the session. I would have made the presentation, chosen the teams, given the assignment. They’d go away, and I would simply disengage. And then I would have time to do other things, see students or whatever it was. But–
MR. PRITIKIN: So you didn’t go off with any of the teams?
MR. MELCHERT: No. No. Then they – I’d meet them again, and for the last 45 minutes to an hour, we would go around the sites, and so on. And that’s when, you know, the discussion would be, like, somewhat critical or analytical. And I’d be exhilarated by what I’d experienced. But also, I had a break in there.
And now, with the advanced classes there are things you could do. Berkeley had some very sophisticated students, and I found that often all I would have to do is bring something in the room; like once I – I don’t know how it happened – I had a bunch of ping pong balls and I walked in. I may have told you this; I told somebody about it. And I just, sort of, handed them out, and, you know, we started just dropping them and developed a kind of rhythm, and then people started doing things with them, so that it was like a sound piece without anything from me excepting handing out these balls. And this is when Theresa Cha was a student, for example. She was – well, she became my TA when she was a graduate student. But Reese Williams, Mark Thompson, there was quite a group.
MR. PRITIKIN: So you set the psychological parameters of, let’s be as creative and wacky as we can be, and you didn’t – after that, you just had to step back and watch them do it.
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right, exactly. And, you know, ideas would come out of this, and the whole group would be attentive to one another. Now, if we were – say we finished something and nothing was coming out of the group; I could then propose the next activity. And I’d usually put it in the form of a problem that had, like, a hook on it, where your response to the problem usually would be, you got to be kidding.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: [Laughs.] And –
MR. PRITIKIN: I took a class with Bill Morrison once. You remember Bill?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: And the only rule that he set at the beginning of the class was you had to keep your mouth as wide open as you possibly could. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: [Laughs.] Oh, that’s good. That reminds me of Bill Allen – I may have told you this or you may have read it. He had a – was invited to teach a painting class one term. And he arrives and here’s this class filled with, like, 30 students. And they were in a small room with easels, and there’s just hardly any room for anybody to move. And so he decided that his first assignment would be for everyone to paint the largest mountains of the earth on lima beans. [Laughs.]
MR. PRITIKIN: So, questions occurred to me while you were telling this. I don’t want to derail you.
MR. MELCHERT: Please.
MR. PRITIKIN: There are many people who think that teaching is harmful to an artist’s career. Do you, in hindsight –
MR. MELCHERT: I think it depends on the person. There are some people who shouldn’t be teaching. I mean, there are some people shouldn’t be parents. There are some people who relate very naturally to other people. And I think that if –
MR. PRITIKIN: But you know that prejudice that –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, I know the prejudice. Well –
MR. PRITIKIN: – the talented artist gets a teaching job at 35, and you never hear from him again.
MR. MELCHERT: Well, that sometimes happens. I think that the – there are faculties – how should I say this? – that have such problems that if you’re teaching there, it’s likely not to be the teaching but the faculty meetings and committee meetings and interaction with your colleagues that’s going to wear you out.
There was a period of strife at Berkeley with the art faculty when you’d give anything to avoid a faculty meeting. There are people who are so miserable that they try their damnedest to make sure that you’ll be miserable too. And these often are frustrated artists whose careers have somehow fizzled, put more time into the work that it takes to run a department than into the work that they’re – that they initially intended to do as artists.
MR. PRITIKIN: Do you think it’s fate or – I mean, I think of Jock Reynolds, who I thought, when I was a student, he would be one of the great artists of his generation. And –
MR. MELCHERT: Well, I think in a way he may be. It depends on your definition of art. You know, the art-life thing to me –
MR. PRITIKIN: Right. Right. That’s what I’m trying to get to.
MR. MELCHERT: Okay. I think that living your life is your big treat and challenge in being born. And art-making is certainly one way of engaging in life, but it’s not the only way. And I think that if you have a creative imagination, there are so many ways in which you can use it that will make life a better experience for many people, or that will enrich life, people’s lives, and art-making isn’t the only one.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, how about conversely, though, would you make the argument that everything an artist does is their – is part of their over – that teaching –
MR. MELCHERT: It depends on intention, I think. Now, there’s a very interesting term in German, I think it is; it’s the whole work of art. It came out, as I remember, during the Jugendstil period in Vienna at the turn of the century, the “total work of art” – all right, that’s what it was called, the total work of art.
Now, Wagner is a good example of somebody who wrote his lyrics – he probably even designed the costumes, I mean, everything, for his operas. But what I’m thinking of more specifically are those architects who in Vienna would begin designing the furniture, would be doing the dishes on which the people would eat who lived in this house.
And if you expand on that, there are artists – and I think of myself this way – whose notion of the total work of art includes many of the things you do that are not going to be read as artworks.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yes. That’s what’s very interesting to me. I learned this really later in my life from Nayland Blake, who is a very dear, close friend. And, you know, he graduated from Cal Arts in the ’80s and was from New York, and made an existential decision to not go back to New York but to move to San Francisco and get very seriously involved in his work and in the gay community, and developed a very important gay intellectual scene in the Bay Area and made great work, and published zines, and gave performances, and was politically active. And he thought that was all his body of work.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, well, it is. It is.
MR. PRITIKIN: And taught. He was a great teacher – he is a greater teacher.
MR. MELCHERT: Interesting. Where’s he been teaching?
MR. PRITIKIN: Harvard and Bard.
MR. MELCHERT: No kidding? Yeah, I can imagine him at Bard.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, that’s where he went to school.
MR. MELCHERT: Ah-ha. Interesting. Well, good for him. I like that a lot. But there’s an example of, you know, the artist who thinks in terms of the total work of art, you know. And the intention there is to create something, to generate something that is beautiful, needs to be, that’s going to make a difference somehow.
MR. PRITIKIN: Talk more about that.
MR. MELCHERT: I think there’s a notion of how things should be that an artist is working with, that circumstances as they are, are not right and not as good as they could be. And so you reinvent your circumstances. Now, if I use the word beautiful – I know that it’s gone out of the vocabulary now; it’s not used any longer, like, in critical discourse, but it has to do with a sense of wholeness, it seems to me, where the parts are all working together, where even the dissonance fits.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah, you mentioned dissonance – a full life with deep involvement with other students and children and friends and colleagues. You mentioned Theresa Cha. I understand that that was a deeply tragic moment in your life.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: And losing Jim Pomeroy as well.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. Yeah. That’s one thing when you teach, you’re in for some shocks when students come to a sad end. I mean, it could be someone you enjoyed enormously who was killed in a car accident, dies of cancer. But with Theresa, I mean, to have been murdered, it – what happened to her – it wasn’t just a matter of dying; it was a matter of her name being in the papers in New York, where it was assumed that she was some hussy.
MR. PRITIKIN: Oh, really? I never –
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. And, I mean, all these – she was found sort of outside, clothes off her. And it was sensationalized, on top of her having to go – experience the horror of the attack from a security guard. Yeah, wow. Of all people for that to happen to. But I think one of the hardest to take is a suicide. And I’ve experienced that. A student I liked enormously took his life.
But I like people very much, and consequently, teaching has agreed with me.
MR. PRITIKIN: Som no regrets?
MR. MELCHERT: No regrets, not about time spent teaching.
MR. PRITIKIN: So maybe we should move on to – what we thought we would start with was –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yeah. Oh, I meant where I was, this – anyway, what I discovered was that – it was in a ceramics class, or in several ceramics classes that I witnessed –that the teaching was still, sort of, pre-Voulkos, in that there was no particular catalyst around. Assignments could even have been given in a printed sheet. Instructors seemed caring, attentive – answered questions, gave suggestions – but there didn’t seem to be either passion for it or a philosophy, which I think you have to have.
And one thing that happens in something like ceramics, particularly if you work at tables, and you’ve got chairs and people sitting at tables and they’re to do something like – let’s imagine an assignment is to do a hand. And so they begin to visit with one another, and they’re talking while they’re doing this and that, and the radio’s playing music. You know, two hours go by and people leave. What a waste of two hours, you know?
MR. PRITIKIN: Not because they weren’t working, but because they weren’t communicating and growing or –
MR. MELCHERT: Exactly. I mean, how can you – I mean, what you are making you would hope is going to begin telling you how to proceed. I mean, you have to prime the pump, but once you’ve got a flow, the water’s flowing; what you’re working on becomes your partner as opposed to being the object. And when this partnership occurs, you’re beginning to discover ways of proceeding that have never occurred to you. And now, how can that happen if you’re sitting there talking about last night’s basketball game, and you’re just making a hand and – I mean, what you get out of it is a credit at the end of the term, and then you can get out of school sooner. You know, I mean, that’s how you get out of school; you accumulate enough credits.
And I just – I can’t fault the teachers for being bad people, you know; it’s just I think they were tired, and their main – I should say their classes were sort of auxiliary to what they were doing with their lives.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, that brings it full circle then.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. But may I run an idea past you?
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah.
MR. MELCHERT: And you tell me what you think of this. I’ve been thinking about something – a question I saw that was discussed. It’s an old, old question: Is craft art? Can you imagine; is craft art? But I was thinking about what, kind of – if pottery-making – you’re making functional pottery, if it isn’t art – maybe I brought this up last time; I’ve been thinking of it since.
MR. PRITIKIN: No.
MR. MELCHERT: If pottery – let’s say pottery is art; what kind of art is it? And it occurs to me that it’s a situation similar to theater and music, where you have a composer and you have a performer. Now, who is the artist in – is it Shakespeare, or is it the actor who played –
MR. PRITIKIN: Olivier.
MR. MELCHERT: – or Olivier? They both are. The nature of their work is different. Olivier depends on what Shakespeare has given him, but it’s his responsibility to bring Hamlet alive again, and to become a unique Hamlet, if he’s good – the actor’s good.
All right. Now, if you’re making – you’re a utilitarian pottery – potter, and you’re making bowls – and Pete Voulkos told me one time, I said, “What’s the hardest thing to make, you know, if you’re making utilitarian wares?” They call them functional wares. I don’t like the term, but functional ware. And he said; he thought the hardest thing to make was a good bowl, and the easiest thing to make is a bowl.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: You know, a good bowl is hard. Well, what a functional potter is doing is producing something for which there – we already know what it is, but to make it fresh, like when you see it, it’s like the first encounter of it. Now, that’s a lot like what actors have to do, or a violinist performing a sonata. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: So it’s engaging with the tradition and making it fresh?
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. And in a way, it’s not unlike what composers like Gershwin or Cole Porter had to do, in that there are X number of bars you have to fill, in which you have a standard – you have a melody, you have a text, you’ve got, like, an A-B-A form, and there’s no resolution, like in a sonata, to your B part; A and B relate differently. B, I think, is even called a bridge, and so it’s like A-A-B-A. But Cole Porter could make it all – could follow this and make it all fresh like – and you’d think the simplest thing to do is just write a tune, a popular tune, but it’s not. And these standards – I find jazz musicians know a lot about music, and they know a lot about chord progressions. And it’s interesting how they build on a sequence of pitches and chords that takes you still farther.
So it isn’t necessarily just, you know, being creative; they’re all being creative. So anyway, just in terms of –
MR. PRITIKIN: Being creative is one thing, being an artist another?
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, all right. Well, the last time we talked, I used the word journeyman for the individual who –
MR. PRITIKIN: You’re talking about academic versus nonacademic?
MR. MELCHERT: Actually, yes, but the person who knows how to do it and does it well. I should say, doesn’t transcend a certain level of excellence; well done isn’t good enough, you know, and the replicator is the journeyman.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah, yeah. But what jazz, good jazz – I mean, bad jazz is as bad as anything else, but bringing intellectual leaps into the material, is that what distinguishes art?
MR. MELCHERT: I’m not sure “intellectual” is the – there are leaps. The word intellect implies a system to me, somehow. And I don’t think there’s necessarily a known system. I mean, there are a lot of artists who aren’t necessarily very bright who can do this.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right. Maybe intelligence –
MR. MELCHERT: Intelligence.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah, because there’s different kinds of intelligences –
MR. MELCHERT: That –
MR. PRITIKIN: – there’s conventional wisdom –
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: – In thinking about our mission, we talk about innovation, contemporary, tradition, and the argument that’s always made is we – you know, we say we want to show experimental art, and people say, well, there can be experimental art in traditional art forms. You know, they’re not like, I guess, ceramics. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, all right.
MR. PRITIKIN: I’m thinking off the top of my head.
MR. MELCHERT: Pomeroy disliked the use of traditional instruments. Once he unloaded some LPs on me of guitar music, and I think there were some cello works and so on, because he thought that music could be made, should be made, with a much bigger range of instruments. And Paul de Marinis –
MR. PRITIKIN: Paul de Marinis once said to me – you know, I said, “How was that concert?” And he said, “Well, nothing I couldn’t have heard 200 years ago.” [Laughter.]
MR. MELCHERT: One of the reasons I enjoy being in Europe, living in a city like Rome, is that your environment is so much broader in terms of the voices you’re exposed to. And voices I mean in this sense: you can walk into a seventeenth century church, you can walk into a fourteenth century church, you can walk into a twentieth century theater, and all these buildings are part of your world. And so there’s a richness to the whole thing that we don’t have – I mean, not to that extent. And I think, in a way, music provides us with a breadth that we don’t have in architecture.
Now, I was in Milwaukee a week ago; I just left, yes, a week ago. I was in Milwaukee, and I wanted to see the new art museum there.
MR. PRITIKIN: Oh, yes.
MR. MELCHERT: I can’t think of the man’s name – Casa [Santiago Calatrava] – something Spanish. Wow, what a building! Oh, my goodness, it’s breathtaking! I mean, it’s so beautiful and so fascinating, and there is – it seems both so simple and complex at the same time.
MR. PRITIKIN: That’s great.
MR. MELCHERT: Unfortunately, it may be inappropriate for an art museum because you look at the building and you – no, I don’t want to see the art now. [Laughs.]
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, they also – this is gossip, but they have an edifice complex. They’re getting criticized for not having programs or collections worthy of the building.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, that’s –
MR. PRITIKIN: And they’re also – they can’t afford to operate the building.
MR. MELCHERT: They can’t afford to operate it? Well, see, it’s a blue-collar town, for one thing. A lot of industry has moved away. But right now – I mean, it just opened recently. Well, they’ve got a director from the Tate coming, and maybe with his English accent – [laughs] – he can get some money somewhere.
But, I mean, that building – and the landscaping. You know, there’s a bridge in front of the museum. You can approach the museum from across the street by way of a bridge. Well, I was in a car, so we entered the museum at the parking garage. It’s a little bit like going to the Getty in Santa Monica, where you can park and then you go in, only there the parking is in the same building, elevated. But I wanted to see the bridge anyway, so we went up and left the building to cross the bridge and then came back.
And the bridge spans this long strip of land that’s been planted very simply, very formally, with hedges and water fountains – and I don’t know fountains – again, I don’t know; I’m going to guess 100 to 200 yards of fountains – they’re about this big – that catch the light. And it’s in the – it goes north and south, so that in the morning it’s glowing from the sun coming in from this side; in the afternoon it’s glowing from the sun coming that way – marvelous planning. It’s like Versailles in terms of its formality.
And then you look at this building; it’s a wonderful building, and inside is just as terrific as the outside, where the light – all white walls with these many apertures that let the light in, and you get the color of the sky affecting the color of the walls. It’s right by the water, so it’s situated very beautifully. And I found it just thrilling.
MR. PRITIKIN: Is it in the [Frank] Gehry school of –
MR. MELCHERT: Not at all.
MR. PRITIKIN: It’s the other direction, then?
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: More like the Getty?
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, no, no. Not – it’s unlike anything we have in the States. It’s like – it’s closer to some kind of airplane or something, you know, a ship, maybe, something like that. It’s very sculptural, like some kind of new kind of automobile, you know – but it’s sort of like that. Yeah, a kind of airplane maybe better than automobile because it looks like it could take off.
Well, in any event, I mention this just that – in relation to an environment, I mean, it adds something that was never in this country before. I mean, it’s unique, and I can’t think of any building I’ve seen in America that’s like it. It’s like looking at a miracle.
MR. PRITIKIN: Wow.
MR. MELCHERT: All right, now. How many such miracles from the past do we have? Well, not as many as a city like Rome. [Frencesco] Borromini did some churches in Rome, two particularly: one, San Carlino, where he works with ovals inside, and then another one, Saint Ivo, where he’s got spiraling things.
Now, when you have that sort of thing behind you, like, around you, you see and it’s part of your world; you have present around you these wonderful visions creative people have had. And, you know, Milwaukee adds one to ours, but – you’re going to have to remind me now how I get back to what we were talking about.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, we were talking about tradition and breaking out of it.
MR. MELCHERT: Tradition and breaking out – oh, yeah, okay.
Well, here’s an example of a break from tradition in a sense, but where I see it relating to – okay, relating to something is Corbusier’s first building. He conceived of – it was a house, an international house, or something like that. International style, it was called. Well, he built a house. He wanted a house to look as though – the way – you know, you look out in the street in the morning and there’s a car parked out there; it wasn’t there yesterday – a car parked, and you just accept it. You look out the window; there’s a house there – [laughs] – my goodness, that wasn’t there yesterday. And some of it was arrived – he wasn’t interested in its relating to a site at all. He thought of it as a machine, that everything had to function for you, and, you know, lots of planes, and windows and light. It was like a house in that it functioned as a house, but it was like a machine in its concept. And I see this museum relating a bit to Corbusier’s notion of –
MR. PRITIKIN: We were talking about – you were saying that we didn’t have great architecture, and music was our substitute.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh. Well, we have some great architecture; I don’t want to say we don’t have any.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.] But that was leading to –
MR. MELCHERT: But, okay, with the music, yeah – what we don’t have in terms of what Paul de Marinis could have listened to 300 years ago. I mean, we don’t have buildings from 300 years ago, but you do have music from that time, which has point of view and is based on experience, comes out of someone’s experience. And I have no difficulty in this kind of space travel from one century to another with music any more than I do with buildings.
MR. PRITIKIN: I always felt that the reason that American artists have come to dominate contemporary art, or did for that period of time, was not having the burden of history –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: – and we could reinvent ourselves and art forms with that. And still, when I – so often when I work with European artists, they’re making references to things from art history from hundreds of years ago, and American artists very rarely do that. I mean, it may be more ignorant, but it’s more liberating.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yeah. No, that is quite true.
MR. PRITIKIN: All of which – we’re trying to get back to your question of art and craft.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yeah. All right, okay.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: But one thing about pottery-making, again – and this relates to all the growth of functional crafts, for example, textiles, basketry, things of this sort, furniture. It relates to the cycle of birth and death that just goes on all the time, where, with every new generation there must be – things that have been used and worn out have to be replaced. And so, 30 years is sort of – how should I say it? There’s a life span of activity, in a sense, in what you think of 30 years, whereas, if I were to say something like – I’ll say a painting – I’d rather use something else, say with a performance, for instance. When I first came to understand performance and to attend performances, the impermanence of the event was an essential factor.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right.
MR. MELCHERT: And so that if the performance lasted two hours, it was gone. And it always reminded me of conversations with someone. You know, you have it, and it may – the memory of it may stay with you, and it can affect change, but it’s gone. And the last thing you would want is for your conversations to be taped. [Laughter.]
But anyway, there is a sort of life span to, like, connected to what we do and what we hope, you know, what will happen and so on. A lot of buildings in America are only meant to be around for a short time, so that – I think of a video. I did a piece on film one time. I thought it was a very good piece; it was projection. When Sue Foley, one summer, invited four of us artists from the Bay Area to do installations at the museum – let’s see, it was Bob Kinmont. He had a room –
MR. PRITIKIN: That’s the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco?
MR. MELCHERT: The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Bob Kinmont did a chair. He made a chair, wooden chair, that was in a little room. One person could go in at a time and shut the door, and you’re in this room by yourself. And on the seat of the chair he carved – I think it was, “I love you” – wrote it backwards. So what you were to do was to go in the room, close the door, and drop your trousers and sit on this, your flesh pressing against the type in the seat of the chair long enough for it to imprint “I love you” on your rear end. [Laughter.]
And Tony May, was his name, had an installation that was terrific; and I can’t tell you what it was, but I just remember my impression at the time was –
MR. PRITIKIN: Wasn’t it the books, the Robinson Crusoe books?
MR. MELCHERT: Maybe it was; maybe it was. That could well be.
MR. PRITIKIN: There was a big boat. Nah.
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. And someone else, and I’m forgetting who that is – well, what I did, I had a film loop projecting this huge head on the wall – my head with – I’d stuck it in wet clay, something I did later for a performance – I mean, for an event. But this was–
MR. PRITIKIN: Right, right. This was before that.
MR. MELCHERT: – before that. I put my head in the slip and proceeded to eat a green apple while the slip was drying. And I was on a chair that kept moving, a stool that kept moving, so that the filming wasn’t continuous. It would be like maybe every five seconds or something. So you would get this turning around of this head, and it was drying, and you could see it beginning to crack and everything.
Well, the technology wasn’t available yet to have it be a video projection. So the piece turned out to last about three days because that film loop would get tangled and it would tear the film. And so, the technology can affect the length of a work.
I think of Eva Hesse’s things, how many of them are gone, and [Marcel] Duchamp’s using paint that eventually turned color. It was a yellow that, I think, went black, in a big glass, maybe – something like that.
But at any rate, we have a tendency to think of time as something linear – a linear progression, whereas I don’t associate pottery with linear; it’s cyclical. You’re replacing – sort of, nature played a break, and the need for replacement.
MR. PRITIKIN: So does the kind of work that you and Voulkos made break that cycle? Is it outside that cycle or is it within that cycle?
MR. MELCHERT: Well, what Voulkos was doing was sculpture.
MR. PRITIKIN: So you’re talking about pottery functions –
MR. MELCHERT: I’m talking about pottery function.
MR. PRITIKIN: – oh, okay. Okay, okay.
MR. MELCHERT: See, I’m talking about, you know, pure functional fiber work, for example –
MR. PRITIKIN: Right.
MR. MELCHERT: – wearable things, chairs, furniture.
MR. PRITIKIN: So is that the distinction, it’s functional? I mean, the time, the relationship with time is different in art?
MR. MELCHERT: I think that’s one. I think that’s one. Now, it doesn’t mean that – you know, we’ve got pottery from the Sung Dynasty that’s still around, but it wasn’t made to be around for, you know, a thousand years, whatever.
MR. PRITIKIN: So why did it last, because it was so beautiful?
MR. MELCHERT: Somebody took care of it.
MR. PRITIKIN: Because?
MR. MELCHERT: They treasured it. Well, some things are simply buried and then dug up. But –
MR. PRITIKIN: So the equivalent in art of being worn out is being out of fashion. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Well, one thing – what’s cyclical with art is that it goes out of fashion and comes back. We have to – we seem to need to bring things back for another look. And some things don’t hold up the second time around. That’s true – that’s also true.
MR. PRITIKIN: So we’re – oh, go ahead.
MR. MELCHERT: Well, your questions are ones that I will have to think about more – I’m glad you raised them – because at some juncture I’d like to just write about this, and it’s better to think through something like this through conversations than just by yourself.
MR. PRITIKIN: Is there anything that we haven’t covered?
Your biography – it may be true of all biographies – is about the people in your life pretty much.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: And it seems like you’re still, after all these decades, still working out your feelings and relationship with Voulkos.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. Well, for a long time, because he had enormous influence on me. I mean, he rescued me from what I think would have been a rather pedestrian life. I mean, I would have been a teacher in some college in the Midwest, I suppose. And I might have been a painter, I imagine – not a very good one. [Laughs.]
MR. PRITIKIN: Maybe that’s a good place to stop.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, it’s all right with me.
[END OF INTERVIEW.]