Ceramics has come a remarkably long, raucous way since the early 1950s. That’s when Peter Voulkos, inspired by Abstract Expressionist painting, upended the medium with an increased scale, ambition and an improvisatory energy that mixed wheel-thrown with hand built forms. Since then, some ceramists — Ken Price to Betty Woodman to Kathy Butterly — have simply assumed their work was part of the mainstream. They and others have appeared regularly in big exhibitions like the Whitney Biennial and they’ve been taken on by major galleries.
But the mainstream art world is always narrower than it thinks; plenty of ceramists continue to work beyond its borders. Lucky for them, they’ve had a discerning champion whose devotion can be measured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a robust, riveting exhibition titled “Shapes From Out of Nowhere: Ceramics From the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection.” It celebrates this eminent collector’s third game-changing gift of clay vessels and objects to the Met — this one honoring the museum’s 150th anniversary. A visit can be humbling, but to be humbled is to be enlightened: I knew less than half of the 49 artists in the show.