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The Pottery Happening: M. C. Richards's "Clay Things to Touch...

" (1958)
Author(s): Jenni Sorkin
Source: Getty Research Journal, No. 5 (2013), pp. 197-202
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the J. Paul Getty Trust
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The

Pottery

Happening:

M. G. Richards's

Clay

Things

to Touch

. . . (1958)

JenniSorkin

In 1958MaryCarolineRichards(1916-99)createda one-evening
eventinNewYork's
toPlantin,toHangup,toCookin,toLookat,toPut
toTouch,
EastVillagetitledClayThings
forthiseventis a single
Ashes
in,toWear,andforCelebration
(fig.1).Thedocumentation
in
Richards
at
the
Research
Institute.1
the
Caroline
poster
papers
Clayitems
Getty
Mary
thattherewasanything
leftinthe
theopening,
andthereisnoevidence
weresoldduring

aftertheFridayeveningevent,eventhoughtheposterindicatesthattheevent
gallery
ranuntilMay31.
which
Ifitweren't
fortheposter'sdate(April25,1958),andtheevent'sattendees,
MerceCunningincluded
thecomposer
JohnCage,thedancerandchoreographer
likely
innercircle,
thishand-drawn
DavidTudor,
andothers
from
Richards's
ham,themusician
- an example
blockletterswouldmerely
be a merry
bitofephemera
posterofgraphite
detritus
oreveryday
TheearlydateofClay
oflate-i950S
NewYorkavant-garde
whimsy.
hasthepotential
toalterthetraditional
narrative
ofpostwarexperimental
perThings
18Happenings
in6 Parts(1959)and
AllanKaprow's
formance
art.Createdoneyearbefore
TheStore(1961)(fig.2),Clay
threeyearsbefore
ClaesOldenburg's
environment
sculptural
movesRichards
tothecenter,
rather
thantheperiphery,
ofexperimental
practice.
Things
LikeKaprow'sandOldenburg's
was alsoheldina spaceonManhatevents,Richards's
a crosstan'sLowerEastSide,inthiscase,attheNonagonGallery(99 SecondAvenue),
winter.2
sitewhereCharlesMinguswouldrecorda livealbumthefollowing
disciplinary
Richards
was an Englishprofessor
at BlackMountainCollege,an experimental
liberalartsschoolin NorthCarolina,from1945to 1951,andchairofthefaculty
from
at BlackMountain
a lifelong
commitment
to
1949to 1951.Herexperiences
inaugurated
communal
herdeparture,
shebecametheepicenter
oftheexperimenliving.
Following
inRockland
talGateHillCooperative,
New
an
artists'
often
County, York,
community
in1954byfourcouples,allBlackMountain
knownas StonyPoint,whichwasestablished
Richards
andherpartner,
DavidTudor;thepottersKarenKarnesandDavid
refugees:
thearchitect
PaulWilliams
andhiswife,
andJohn
Weinrib;
Vera,a writer;
CageandMerce
inestabRichards
had
for
the
she
was
interested
Cunningham.
highhopes
community;
whatshecalleda '"weekend
BlackMountain,"
whichnevercametofruition
dueto
lishing
thelackofpedagogical
onthepartofherpeergroup.3
interest
Written
as a seriesofcommanding
infinitives:
"totouch,""toplantin,""tohang
no.5 (2013):
Sorkin
Research
2013
Jenni
Journal,
197-202
Getty
197

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toTouch
Poster
for
Richards
Caroline
in,
,toPlant
1916-99).
Things
Clay
(American,
Fig.i.Mary
Los
and
toHang
in,toWear,
at,toPutAshes
1958. Angeles,
in,toLook
forCelebration,
up,toCook
Caroline
Richards.
Estate
ofMary
box1.Courtesy
Research
Institute
(960036),
Getty
format
ofRichards's
posterprefigures
many
up,""tocookin,""tolookat,"thedirectional
ofKaprow'sinstructional
piecesoftheearly1960sandeventhoseofthecoreFluxus
Paintings(1961-62)andAlison
group,mostnotablyYoko Ono's seriesInstruction

Makea Salad(1962).Withpots,whichareusedforalloccasions,atthecenter
Knowles's
theirusefulness,
Richards
oftheevent,
nearly
uponthehistoric,
commenting
exaggerates
.Yetthe
as teapot,as casserole)
oftheceramic
excessive
utilitarianism
object(as planter,
ofuses:"toputashesin"seemsdour,signaling
breakdowninherlitany
death,
categories
her
as
of
"to
silliness
untilitispairedwiththespirited
wear," though "clay
proto-Fluxus
and
of
ceramic
a
could
be
frivolous,
proneto cracking
bangles purely
jangle
things"

and
theirpathofstability
careenfrom
Rootedinverbsofaction,theinfinitives
breakage.
whichcommandeers
"andforcelebration,"
arereplacedbythefinalpronouncement,
andgoodfun.
merriment,
revelry,
198

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b.1929).
Posterior
TheStore,
American,
1961,
(Swedish-born
Fig.2.ClaesOldenburg
letterpress,
x20^16
x22Vin.).NewYork,
67.6x51.9cm(26V8
71.8x56.2cm(28V4
composition:
in.);sheet:
ofModern
Museum
Ellen
Meehan
ClaesOldenburg.
Art,
Fund,
56.1999.
1961
Mary
Copyright
Thereisa potlatch
toRichards's
onesparked
event,
(nopunintended)
quality
bya
Theprocessofmaking
andstoring
approach.
go-for-broke
goodsrequired
heavyceramic
ina festivity
monthsofcarefulplanning
andculminated
markedbythegenerousand
ofgoodsduring
theopeningcelebration.
completedistribution
Takingplaceina space
thatsoldworksofart,Richards's
eventforeshadowed
TheStorequiteliterOldenburg's
as gallery
exhibitions
ally:bothfunctioned
nominally
openselecttimesanddaysoverthe
duration
ofa month.4
Yetthe1958openingnightitself
wasjustoneina seriesofevents
Richards
andherfriends
wouldtraverse
thecityto attendthatevening.
As shewrote
onthebackoftheposter:
afterward,
Terrific
Scadsofpeople.Goodpunch.I wasina dazzleofjoyandexciteopening.
ment.I'mnotsurehowmany"pots"gotsold,butas faras I'mconcerned,
itwas
alla smashing
success!Morefuntonight:
success
goingtoJimHerlih/sBroadway

BlueDenim
ofanexhibit
ofJohn's
,thentoanopening
scores,
WOWEE,bigwhirl!5
Heraccountreferences
theoverlapping
events,interconnected
people,and avantworlds
that
a
in
the
late
Richards,pivotalfigure
1950s NewYork,linked
garde
during
"John"wasJohnGage,andhiseventscoreswereas hermetic
as JamesLeo
together.
hadlimitedappeal
Herlihy's
Broadway
playBlueDenimwaspopulist.Gage'snotations
his
immediate
milieu
of
musicians
andvisualartists,
whileHerlihy's
dramawas
beyond
a coming-of-age
narrative
aboutAmerican
midwestern
sexual
mores,andan
teenagers,
SorkinPottery
Happening 199

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out-of-wedlock
incommon.
YetCageandHerlihy
hadsomething
Eachreprepregnancy.
sentedsuccessive
the
of
New
York's
homosexual
avantgenerations
(Gagebeing elder)
atBlackMountain.
garde,andbothhadworkedcloselywithRichards
Aself-described
career
"teacher,
potter,
poet,"6Richards
beganhermultifaceted
PhD
in
as an academic,
her
in
ofCalifornia,
receiving
English 1942fromtheUniversity
at
a
time
when
women
were
from
Berkeley,
discouraged
routinely
pursuing
graduate
studies.
AtBlackMountain,
ininitiating
Richards
wasinstrumental
thecollege'sexperimentaltheatrical
andpublications.She translatedErikSatieandJean
productions
Cocteauforcollectivetheaterperformances,
directedseveraljointstudent-faculty
most
Antonin
Artaud'sTheTheater
andIts
and,
productions,
notably,
begantranslating
Doublein1951;
thefirst
translation
ofArtaud's
collection
ofmanifestos,
English-language
itwasthenpublished
alsoinitiated
theBlackMountain
byGrovePressin1958.Richards
used
for
thecollege'sliterary
whichlatermorphedintotheBlack
Press,
publications,
Mountain
Review
the
that
reinforced
thecollege'sreputation
as a haven
,
literary
journal
ofexperimental
poetry.
Richards's
ownintellectual
hasbeensubsumed
labor,however,
byherproximity
tothefamous
menofhercircle.Sheisperhapsbestknownonlyas oneofCage'scollabotheoften-unnamed
fromatopa ladderinTheater
PieceNo.1(1952),
rators,
poetreading
A nowapocryphal
BlackMountain
workwidely
Cage'slegendary
Collegeperformance.
credited
as thefirst
theworkwasneverdocumented
andno score
Happening,
visually,
hasbeendefinitively
identified.
Variousversions
ofitsretelling
do notcreditRichards
at
excisedcompletely.7
all,andsheis sometimes
Thisgenealogy
ofearlyperformance
isdestabilized
,whichprompts
byClayThings
thenatureofinfluence
andobscurity,
andrevealshowavantlarger
questionsregarding
are
casual
rather
than
accurate
gardemythologies perpetuated
by
retellings
historically
accounts.
ItseemsthatRichards,
notKaprow,
whatisarguably
docuthesecond
organized
mented
itsmedium ceramics appearsantithetical
totheantiMoreover,
Happening.
performance.
objectstanceofpostwar
Sucha reorientation
ofpostwarhistoryis tantalizing:
tantamount
to assignbutimportant
collaborator
a centrality
thatwouldmakemany
inganoftenoverlooked
arthistorians
uncomfortablenotleastbecauseofthedearthofsubstantial
informationsurrounding
thenatureoftheeventandtheartist'sintent.Additionally,
artists
andhistorians
havea tendency
towarddocumentary
andnostalgic
ofartrecollections
historical
suchas recording
oralhistories
moments,
yearsafterthefact,thatproveelusivematerially
orconceptually.
AsidefromRichards's
firsthand
accountonthebackof
theposter,
thereis anutterabsenceofanyothereyewitness
accounts.8
AsthearthistorianJudith
Rodenbeck
the
of
the
ismired
i96os-eraHappening
pointsout, fragile
history
ina profound
thelocationofthe"work,"
whether
itsphotographic
or
struggle
regarding
material
suchas textsororalrecollections,
caneverreallyconstitute
a
documentation,
substantive
ofthework,sincethereisnoindexical
betweenthe
accounting
relationship
time-based
workanditshistorical
afterimage.9
200

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translation
ofRichards's
coincidedwiththepublication
GiventhatClayThings
for
havebeena sourceofinspiration
andItsDouble
ofTheTheater
, thetextitselfmight
that
andItsDoubleis rootedinthenotionofa radicaltheater
TheTheater
theeventitself.
thatis,theactorwhodidnotrepeatgesas a "living
advocated
fortheartist
instrument,"
theaudience.Richards's
turesorbecomeparalyzed
pots,
invigorating
thereby
byaffect,
imbued
instruments"
utilitarian
withtheirmyriad
uses,maybereadhereas literal"living
In
valuebutalsoa senseofconstant
withnotonlytheirliteralexchange
re-performance.

contobe reenacted
totheobjectsthemselves,
istransferred
thisway,theperformance
in
life.
tinuously everyday
towardspiriRichards
herself
working
potmakinginthismanner,
approached
ina mediumthatwas oftenplaguedbytechnical
andcommunalism
tualengagement

theroleoftheenlightened
achievement.
Sheinsteadembraced
andindividual
concerns
for
and
then
amateur,
giving
away(orselling verylittle)mostofherpots,utilizing
making
In guiding
students
towardnon-object,
as thebasisforaneventitself.
theirproduction
a
unfired
suchas returning
production,
clayto thegroundaftermaking
process-based
thatoffered
a participatory
as a medium
treatedpottery
collective
experipot,Richards
Her
own
version
ofmidto
its
in
itself
was
one
which
the
ence,
secondary process.
object
intothe
socialengagement
then,becomesa modelforreintroducing
ceramics,
century
ofcraft
as either
anobject-based
thetraditional
creative
ideologies
overturning
process,
oflabor(fig.3).
ora fetishization
commodity
inPottery,
Hermost
In 1964Richards
, andthePerson.
Poetry
publishedCentering
is unlikeanyotherpotter'sbookoftheera.It is a
achievement,
Centering
important
contactwith
forunmediated
text,onethatusesclayas a metaphor
philosophical
purely
LosAngeles,
unknown.
ca.1960-65.
Caroline
Richards
atStony
Point,
Photographer
Fig.3.Mary
1.
Estate
of
Caroline
Richards.
box
Research
Institute
(960036), Courtesy
Mary
Getty

SorkinPottery
Happening 201

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therawmaterials
oftheselfandtheworld,thereby
ceramicsas a fluidand
pioneering
medium.
becomesa testcasefortheparticipatory,
ClayThings
dynamic,
socially
engaged
In thisway,Clay
forwhichRichards
advocatesinCentering.
community-based
lifestyle
ofsociallyengaged
notjustCentering
butthecollectivity
andvitality
Things
anticipates
artistic
practice,
fifty
yearslater.10
at the
arthistory
andcticalstudies
JenniSorkinisan assistant
essorofcontemporary
prof
Shewrites
ontheintersection
SchoolofArty
art,mateUniversity
ofHouston.
ofcontemporary
StandardTimefellowat theGetty
nal culture,
andgender.
Shewasa postdoctoral
Pacific
Research
Institute
in2010-11.
toTouchy
toPlant
Notes 1. Poster
forClay
in,toHang
in,toLook
at,toPutAshes
in,
up,toCook
Things
Richards
toWear,
andforCelebration,
Research
Caroline
Institute,
1928-94
1958,
papers,
Getty
Mary
M.C.Richards
Theposter
ispart
ofanaddition
totheoriginal
box1;hereafter
acquisi(960036),
papers.
tion
that
theGRI's
M.C.Richards
archive.
completed
2. Charles
16January
ofCongress,
JazzWorkshop,
D.C.,
1959,
Washington,
Mingus
Library
folder
Charles
box
Music
Collection,
Division,
48,
7.
Mingus
ofConnecticut,
from
Richards
toCharles
10September
Storrs,
Olson,
1957,
3. Letter
University
OlsonResearch
CollecArchives
8cSpecial
Collections
attheThomas
J.DoddResearch
Charles
Center,
tion(MSS19690001),
series
II,box208,folders
1957-59.
in
61Fourth
NewYork,
18
6
Parts
Avenue,
4. Allan
Kaprow'sHappenings attheReuben
Gallery,
The
flier
isreproonOctober
and
October
at
each
occurred
6-10,1959,
4
8:30p.m. evening.
beginning
inEvaMeyer-Hermann,
andStephanie
Allan
:Art
asLife
Andrew
duced
Rosenthal,
eds.,
Perchuk,
Kaprow
Fortheoriginal
seeGetty
Research
InstiResearch
Institute,
2008),120-21.
poster,
(LosAngeles:
Getty
flat
file
1.
Claes
The
was
held
DecemAllan
ca.
Store
tute,
1940-97
(980063),
Kaprow
papers,
Oldenburg's
were
1to6p.m.,
ber1-31,
attheGreen
NewYork;
itshours
Street,
1961,
107EastSecond
Fridays,
Gallery,
isintheprint
collection
oftheMuseum
ofModern
andSundays.
Theletterpress
Art,
poster
Saturdays,
NewYork.
Ashes
toTouch,
toPlant
ofposter
for
in,toLook
at,toPut
in,toHang
5. Back
up,toCook
Things
Clay
M.
Richards
box
1.
to
and
C.
in, Wear, forCelebration,
1958,
papers,
andthePerson
6. Mary
Caroline
inPottery,
Richards,
[1964](Middletown,
Centering
Poetry,
Conn.:
Press,
3.
1989),
Wesleyan
University
themost
isWilliam
oftheevent
abound,
7. Numerous
descriptions
comprehensive
though
Seealso
John
Theatre
Pieces:
Notations
and
York:
Fetterman,Cage's
Performances
(New
1995).
Routledge,
Martin
Black
Mountain:
AnExploration
inCommunity
Dutton,
Duberman,
347-54;
(NewYork:
1972),
Mary
Mass.:
MITPress,
andBranEmma
TheArts
atBlack
Mountain
226-28;
Harris,
College
1987),
(Cambridge,
MITPress,
Robert
andtheNeo-Avant-Garde
Mass.:
denW.Joseph,
Random
Order.
Rauschenberg
(Cambridge,
258.
2003),
toTouch,
toPlant
8. Back
ofposter
for
at,toPutAshes
in,toHang
in,toLook
Things
up,toCook
Clay
M.C.Richards
box1.
and
in,toWear,
1958,
forCelebration,
papers,
Allan
andthe
Invention
F.Rodenbeck,
Radical
9. Judith
(CamKaprow
ofHappenings
Prototypes:
MIT
Mass.:
16.
Press,
2011),
bridge,
inNatoThompson,
10. See,for
thecompendium
ofcivic
andsocial-practice
work
ed.,
example,
MITPress,
Mass.:
asForm:
Art
1991-2011
from
2011).
Living
Socially
Engaged
(Cambridge,

202

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