Jim Melchert is one of the leading figures in the San Francisco Bay Area artistic community, noted for his openness to experimentation and his encouragement of that in others. While championing the new with particular emphasis on conceptualism and clay, he also set standards of integrity and grace among artists, like a patrician hippie. Melchert was born in New Bremen, Ohio in 1930, and received degrees from Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied ceramics with Peter Voulkos. He taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and then at UC Berkeley. He was director of the Visual Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1977 until 1981, and of the American Academy in Rome from 1984 until 1988. Mechert spoke with Constance Lewallen on the 45th episode of the New Social Environment.
Constance Lewallen (Rail): Jim, you've had a long and multifaceted career as an artist primarily, but also as a teacher and administrator at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the American Academy in Rome. Let’s begin at the beginning. You went to Princeton and were originally thinking of going into Art History. Eventually you studied at the University of Chicago, and it was there that you first saw images of the work of Peter Voulkos. What was your first reaction?
Jim Melchert: I had just spent four years living in Japan—it was my introduction to ceramics. I took a course in ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, and there happened to be a regional craft show in which three of the artists were given a gallery of their own. When I walked into the Voulkos gallery I went into shock. I mean, this was not ceramics as I had been introduced to. I got out of that room as fast as I could. I finished my degree and got a teaching job at Carthage College in Illinois and had to teach a ceramics class. I found that the only way I could prepare for a class the next morning would be to spend the night before working with clay. I did this for the better part of a year, and, wow, it became interesting. In fact, it was more interesting than my painting. I wrote to the instructor at the Art Institute, and said, “You once told me about the Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, where you are given all the clay in the world to work with for a month in the summer.” My instructor in Chicago said, “Well, if you're going to Helena, why don't you go to Missoula where Voulkos will be teaching a five-week course.” “Oh my goodness,” I thought, “I've been harpooned by this show. I'll just deal with this. I will take the summer course with Voulkos and see for myself what's up.” So I did.
Rail: Voulkos was legendary, not only as an artist, but as a teacher, and is credited with elevating ceramics to the status of fine art, whereas before it had always been relegated to a craft material. You finally pursued an MFA at UC Berkeley, and at the same time Voulkos started teaching there. You got to know him rather well, because you were his studio assistant. What was it that struck you about Voulkos as a teacher?
Melchert: Voulkos was extraordinarily strong, very powerful. I had never met anybody like him. He even looked different. He had no neck, for example, and probably smoked three, four packs of cigarettes a day. But he was the most charismatic person I've ever met. He was working in clay in a way like I had never seen before, using his whole body. In conventional ceramics classes, you work with your fingers, your wrists, maybe your elbows once in a while, your shoulders, but that's about it. With large pieces like Voulkos’s, you had to use your entire body. The first thing we had to do in that summer class was to throw an 18-inch-high cylinder. People believed in the wheel, the potter's wheel, as a piece of equipment that you absolutely needed. Once we got to the 18 inches, we began to realize a number of things. One is that if you close a cylinder, so that it's like a balloon, the air inside is going to provide the support that normally you would have from some piece of wood or something inside to hold it up. But the closed cylinder is enough to hold weight on top. So, you can continue to build a shape on a shape on a shape. And then, after the clay sets enough, you can punch holes in it to let the air out as the piece begins to shrink. The interior of his pieces turned out to mean something more than I had ever realized before, not just for that strength that it gave, but also because the interior too—the potters realize that that interior space has character. Even with bowls or cups, a good potter is aware of the space, the shape of the space, and the character of the space as the walls, the wall itself. All this was tremendously wonderful to learn. I appreciated how much Pete was doing to change our image of ceramic art.
Rail: Let’s move ahead to some of your early ceramics. You were already having some success. You'd been in the Whitney Annual three times by then, and some of your pieces were included in a show at the New York World's Fair in 1965 that was curated by Brian O'Doherty, who becomes important in your career. Jim, why don't you tell us about your As. These were done in around 1970, I believe.
Melchert: I had been working with slabs and had done some pieces that were, I thought, very demanding, and so I decided to take a break and do something that was fun. At the time, I was reading a terrific book by the French writer Raymond Queneau called Exercises in Style. He tells a little story, and then retells it as a love letter, as a newspaper article, as a telegram, as an announcement, essentially a theme and variations. I just love that form, that structure that you find in jazz and also Beethoven, Schubert, and Mozart. And I decided I'd like to do this myself. These pieces are my version of themes and variations.
Rail: At this point you had been teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute before being hired at UC Berkeley where the department was rather conservative. And you, Jim, have always been known for your love of experimentation, of imagining new ways to do and think about things, which didn't always sit well with the faculty who were content to stay with things as they'd always had been. Tell the story about the student who was upset about the conservative nature of the department, and during an exhibition at the art department’s student gallery, she dumped a pile of manure as a protest. Somehow you got blamed for this.
Melchert: Well, I was doing a lot of things that you weren't supposed to do. I was teaching a beginning sculpture course, among others—the problem with calling a course “Beginning Sculpture” is that sculpture is something that's already defined. You know about it, you remember what you've seen of sculpture, and you make something like that. And I rebelled against that. I began listening to my students and realizing that these freshmen and sophomores taking the class were fascinated with one another. And I decided to have them work in teams, instead of individually. If you're going to work in teams, you can't be in a room just cluttered with sculpture stands. So I just opened the door and worked outside, which you can do almost all year in Berkeley. I gave the students an assignment to make a structure with string, or anything that they could come up with, somewhere outdoors. They were not limited to making something that looked like a sculpture. I'd give them a problem we'd work on, make sure everybody understood what the assignment was for the day, and then they'd go out and choose a spot on campus to do their work, figure it out by talking with one another. They were learning from one another, not depending entirely on me. We would get back together for the last half hour of class, go to each site, and see what a team had come up with. They were competing with one another. We’d all talk about the piece, whatever my assignment was, and found that there were many views on ways of interpreting it, more than I might have thought of by myself. However, I was not popular with the older faculty. With the Free Speech Movement and all of the changes taking place in the 1970s, students were getting bolder about demanding change. One of the students decided to protest by entering a pile of manure in a graduate student exhibition. The chairman of the faculty immediately called a meeting, all of us were there, and I was told that I had to remove the manure. I refused and was fired. I was coming up for tenure, and if it hadn't been for a lot of letters of support …
Rail: I understand there were people from all over the world writing letters—students, artists—and that Voulkos was instrumental in organizing the letter-writing campaign. The result was that you were rehired and promoted. [Laughs]
Melchert: Yes, well …
Rail: Let’s talk about your projection pieces.
Melchert: That began in 1970. I was in Ohio just after the Kent State shootings when there was an arts festival, which included the Cleveland Symphony, writers, musicians, students, and artists. Jack Tworkov, Alex Katz, and I were invited to participate. We were given a studio and two weeks to make work for the event. You can't do a clay work in two weeks. But, I had my camera with me, and slide film, which was very common in those days. I thought it would be interesting to project a slide on a tower that was on top of the big studio building downtown where we were holding our sessions with students. And it gave me the idea for a piece that I did soon after, when the Oakland Museum of California was organizing a sculpture exhibition in the East Bay. I proposed a slide work, and they accepted. I projected an image of a wall and its fire escape of the Paramount Theater on the same wall. I did six projections, one for each night, all working with the fire escape from different angles.
Rail: In 1968, the great Swiss curator Harald Szeemann came to the San Francisco Bay Area as he was preparing for his now legendary show Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. He visited your studio, because he was looking, in fact, for Paul Cotton, who had been a student of yours. He didn’t invite you to be in that show, but, long story short, he returned in two years to research artists for Documenta 5. He decided to include your Changing Walls in that exhibition. Actually, several Bay Area artists were invited to be in that show including Paul Kos, Howard Fried, and Terry Fox, as a result of that visit. Why don't you describe your piece?
Melchert: Well, I used a slide tray which had 80 slots. Normally, you'd go one through 80, and then there's a break. However, there's an 81st slot that you can stick a slide in so that you can have a continuous motion going around and around. My initial thought was simply to take advantage of this piece of equipment. I hung a big sheet of white paper in my studio, invited Howard Fried to come over, and gave him a brush and a bucket of red paint. He was to paint the paper red (in the slide, you see it as a wall), and to tear it down afterwards, and start over again. It's a metaphor for how we work as artists.
Rail: As I said, that piece was included in Documenta 5, and you traveled to Germany to see it. You took a side trip to Amsterdam, where you met, again, the ceramicist Hetty Huisman. She invited you to do a piece in her studio which consisted of 10 people, including you and Hetty, dipping their heads in slip, wet slip, for an hour I think you said?
Melchert: An hour, yes.
Rail: The piece was photographed, and a lot of people got to know about it. You found a way to use clay in a completely different way as part of a conceptual performance, which had never been done.
Melchert: What I realized was, by sitting there with Hetty and eight other people with my ears and eyes blocked, I had to breathe through my mouth. I was experiencing my interior, my heart beating, my breath. And even a high pitched sound that must have been the nerves. I had no idea how enormous that interior space was—I was inside a vessel. This was actually not that different from what I learned in ceramics about the experience of the interior.
Rail: Continuing your use of clay in unconventional ways, let’s talk about your use of ceramic tiles. This piece is made of warped tiles. Normally, in ceramics, this is something you would try to avoid but you, Jim, being Jim, decided that you could use that warp in an aesthetic and creative way.
Melchert: Normally, when you make your own tiles, you have to make sure that they don't warp, so you protect them, cover them with plastic, and so on. I wanted to see what would happen if they warped, resisting the rules to find out what else is possible. I created a six-foot panel consisting of tiles that I had purposely allowed to warp in the sun, warp as quickly as possible. And in the firing, there was a slight change of color, even, depending on how closely I stacked the tiles.
Rail: Let’s leave your studio for a while and talk about your becoming the Director of Visual Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. When you accepted the position, many people were shocked, because an artist had never been in that job before. And who was it who said later that you were not only from left field, but you weren't even in the ballpark? [Laughs] I wonder what it was about this invitation that enticed you enough to leave your studio and your teaching and move to Washington to head up this organization?
Melchert: Brian O'Doherty, who was the Director of the Visual Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, had invited me on two occasions in the 1970s to sit on a panel. Brian and I were friends, and he called me one day and said he was going to take the position as Director of the Media Arts Program, and was leaving visual arts, and would I apply to replace him? Well, with no experience in administration, I couldn't imagine doing it. But I flew to Washington to have an interview with Nancy Hanks, chair of the NEA, thinking that she was simply doing Brian a favor. At the end of our conversation, she asked, “When will you let us know?” And I realized that this was for real. I had to decide; I couldn't imagine what to say. She said to call her Sunday morning—this was a Friday—and gave me her phone number. I went to New York to visit friends and, in those days, a lot of artists stayed at Marcia Tucker's apartment. She and her husband were just terrific about lending their spare rooms to artists coming in from out of town. I asked Marcia what I should do, and she put her arms around me and said, “Jim, just be fair.” She was letting me know that I had her okay. So, I called Nancy Hanks, accepted, and got into what turned out to be a very tough job.
Rail: You were in that position from 1977 to 1981 during which time you made a lot of changes. Typically, as we have mentioned before, when you're in a situation, you see possibilities, things that could be improved. You told me that soon after you arrived, a group of women very respectfully met with you and pointed out how they had been ignored as students and were in the minority of people receiving grants. That raised your consciousness about that issue.
Melchert: In addition, I set up the program so that there would be peer reviews, which is to say that you didn't have bureaucrats appointed by the government weighing the applications, you had fellow artists. A big part of my job was to put the panels together so that they represented all the regions of the country. One of the things to know about the NEA was that it wasn't the first big federal program that benefited artists. The GI Bill had a lot to do with what later became the Arts Endowment, because with the GI Bill veterans who might have ended up working in factories, say, had the opportunity to go to college. They could become doctors, they could become artists like Alex Katz, Bob Irwin, Voulkos, on and on and on, and these artists became our teachers. The Arts Endowment became another miracle.
Rail: You also changed several of the rules: one was that grantees no longer had to say how they were going to use the funds. You also held meetings all around the country, which apparently hadn't been done previously. And this was the first time that grants were given to the proliferating non-profit art spaces. After your tenure at the NEA, you returned to Berkeley where you expanded the curriculum to include performance, video, artist books, none of which had been taught at Berkeley at that point. Not long after, you accepted another rather daunting assignment as director of the American Academy in Rome for another four years. And, again, you found yourself in a situation where there were several things that needed to be changed. You were the first person to head that visual arts organization who wasn't a classical scholar.
Melchert: I was chosen by Sophie Consagra, who was the director of the American Academy and about to become the President of the American Academy, whose offices were in New York. While in Rome, she found that what the American Academy needed was a bridge, a better bridge to the city, a two-way bridge. Scholars would come to the American Academy, because the classical library was well known, and it was terrific. It was the artists' half of the program that needed to be strengthened. The Academy was started by a pair of artists, the architect Charles McKim and the sculptor Augusts Saint-Gaudens. They had worked together on the 1883 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and kept on meeting afterwards, and thought, “Why don't we have a center in Paris or Rome, where architects and sculptors work together and learn from each other.”
I always like that cross discipline sort of arrangement. McKim, by the way, was part of Mead, McKim & White, who designed Pennsylvania Station and branches of the New York Public Library, among other things. While most of the directors were classicists, and some were architects, I was the first visual artist in the position. I had to work at getting more Italians interested in our shows and in meeting our artists, and our artists were interested in meeting them. I found that there were a lot of ways that this could be done. There were American artists who had won fellowships for a year. There were others, like Judy Pfaff, who could be invited for three months; Bruce Nauman was there for three or four months. In addition to those residents, I could have as guests artists like Dorothea Rockburne, Maria Nordman, Joan Jonas, just on and on, interesting people, who would then mix with the other fellows and the residents, and then with the scholars. The mix of people was wonderful.
Now, if you ask me for an example of a gift that I made to Roman artists, I wouldn't say it was our exhibitions. Our visual arts fellows began meeting young Roman artists, getting introduced one by one to others, and these young artists came to our exhibitions. The show would open at six p.m., and at eight we would go into dinner. I would pass out dinner invitation slips to a number of the Roman artists. Enough of the artists spoke English—it worked. More and more artists were turning up. Well, one, one evening, I was so pleased that I handed out 12 of these slips, and to my amazement, all the Italians took over a table that seated 12. I was shocked, because I wanted them to mix with the rest of us. I spoke to one of the Italian artists later, and said, “You know, I'm really so disappointed this happened.” He replied, “No, no, it's the best thing.” At that time, if you were a member of a gallery in Rome, you were told you could no longer see the people that you used to hang out with who were not in that gallery. The Academy had become sort of the Switzerland where they could meet together in a neutral space. [Laughter]
Rail: That's funny.
Melchert: And revive old friendships. I loved that. They did too.
Rail: Well, we could go on with many other wonderful stories about Rome, but I'm moving you back now to UC Berkeley and your studio. Let’s talk about some of the works you've done fairly recently. These tile works have cracks, which, of course, is what most ceramicists would avoid. Talk about how you include cracks as part of your work.
Melchert: I received a commission from MIT to do a very large mural, 220 feet long and 18 feet high. It was a great opportunity to do something big, one continuous wall. The best place to make the tiles was at a factory in Los Angeles that was run by a former student of mine. The work had to read from the interior as you walked down that corridor, as well as from the street itself, and even across the street. That was an interesting challenge. Anyway, the design referred to the research being done by scientists in biology. The part of the wall I liked most of all was at the far right where you can see a black circle that's larger than the space: it was the iris of the eye of looking. Actually, quite a few years before I decided that a crack was something to work with, I met a physicist whose field at Cal was porcelain nose cones. I asked him about cracks, and he said there are two things I should know about them. One is that they are not random. And two, they show where the bond between molecules was weak. When a bolt of energy went through them, it would separate the molecules and cause a crack. Like rivers will take the path of least resistance, so will the energy shooting through a tile. One of the first things I did was to break up some titles. I decided to make a drawing of the cracks and see what I could do. I did the best I could with the tiles I had. And then I thought I should put in a line with red crayon, where I wish I'd have a crack. What I found was that it didn't take much to reveal the structure, the interior structure of a tile. It's a wonderful thing, that you can just liberate something from a material. I loved that.
Rail: The idea of embracing chance, like Duchamp accepting the cracks in The Large Glass, using what had happened unintentionally, is something that is typical of your work in general, and certainly in this series. Tell us a little bit about this piece called Blue.
Melchert: That’s an example of what you do if you simply trace the edge of a shard. And I decided to have them fan out as opposed to being parallel. You can let the shape of the shards determine the design. It’s like letting the tile speak.
Rail: Now, you have retired from teaching and are able to spend a lot of time in your studio in Oakland. And it must be an amazing experience now to have this time.
Melchert: I think, too, of the paths I’ve taken on this rather ad hoc career of mine. I don’t recommend it, but it’s kept me singing.