Paul I. Chaleff
Professor of Fine Arts/Art History
Calkins Hall 116C
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Degrees: MFA, 1971, CUNY City Coll; BA, 1969, CUNY City Coll
Since 1970, I have been a professional artist working in fired clay. Most of my clay works are objects that refer to function. Their strength derives from their being rough, gestured, split, and impure. I deliberately include "mistakes" -- cracks, stones, splits, glaze flaws and warping – mistakes that are planned accidents. By pushing my materials beyond their physical limits in the firing I cause the object to split. The subsequent repair ascribes an importance to the object that is not overtly stated, thereby instantly transforming an everyday artifact into an heirloom. Other objects I deform in the making, causing deliberate variations in an almost flawless form. I put stones and deliberate glaze flaws into my materials. I use imperfection as a device to push the viewer to consider the difference between perfection and beauty. Although at first glance the surface suggests metal or stone, closer examination reveals imperfections that can only be deciphered as ceramic in origin.
I am one of the "first generation" of American practitioners of traditional Japanese wood-fired (anagama) techniques. In the early 1970’s I started experimenting with unglazed clay surfaces on pottery forms as well as on large sculpture and murals, trying many surface techniques without satisfactory results. By 1976 I was able to travel to Japan to study their wood-burning kiln techniques. I toured Japan from pottery to pottery and visited many ceramic museums and kiln sites. Luckily I found some excellent Japanese potters to study from and to work with, most notably the fourteenth generation potter, Takashi Nakazato with whom I studied for the summer of 1976. I eventually spent another year working and studying with a gifted young potter, Shigeyoshi Morioka. In Japan, I learned about the elegance of understatement and humility in their art. I returned to Japan in 1981-82 for another six months to continue my studies.
By pushing the scale of wood-fired objects and extending their firing time, I have been able to achieve remarkable multi-colored, ash-glazed surfaces on large stoneware objects and am fortunate to have been recognized for this innovation. In 1980 the Museum of Modern Art purchased four of my first pieces from the anagama kiln and accepted them into the permanent design collection. Today MoMA owns eleven of my pieces. In October of 1980, eighteen of my wood-fired works were exhibited at the White House for an official State dinner, and throughout the eighties and nineties, museums continued to collect my work. In 1998 the Princeton Art Museum acquired three of my works. In 1999, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired one of my early split and repaired wood-fired pieces from 1987 into their permanent collection. This piece was included in "Clay into Art", their first exhibition of contemporary ceramics. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art included a large piece into their collection; the Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution acquired five of my pieces; the Yale University Art Gallery and the Arkansas Center for the Arts each recently acquired and exhibited a large piece in their collections. Presently my work is in at least twenty-five public collections as well as in numerous private collections.
In 1989, I started a regular collaboration with the British sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, which continues to this day. Over the past thirteen years we have created nearly fifty works together. Most of these pieces are figurative but some of the largest and most interesting are architectonic and abstract. Many of these are in museum collections all over the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. My own work was greatly influenced by this collaboration, I am now as well known for my colossal clay sculpture as for my early anagama work.
In 1997, after twenty-eight years as a working artist, I started teaching at Hofstra University. The experience of working with young, enthusiastic students within the intellectual environment of the university has been and continues to be an exciting and enriching part of my life.
In 2006 I began work on a large public fountain/ sculpture in granite for the Thayer Academy in Braintree Massachusetts. The main stone of this nineteen-piece sculpture weighs over twelve tons. This represented a major shift for me in material, technique and working style. The Thayer Sculpture was completed and dedicated in June of 2007.
There are many influences that have affected my work. Neolithic pottery, Medieval Japanese pottery and firing techniques, Rhenish pottery, the steel sculpture of Anthony Caro and Richard Serra, the ceramic work of John Mason and Lucy Rie, Polynesian wood carving and the stone sculpture of Isamu Noguchi have all played a part in my development. I want my work to function throughout this broad sweep of history. I believe my work explores some positive areas of human emotion and inquiry. The work has an implied reference to the ingenuity and centuries of effort it has taken us to create a functioning society. Indeed, in today’s art world, the very notion of creating a permanent object is itself a positive, optimistic statement. The most frequently heard comment about my work is: "I know I shouldn’t like this, but I do," a result of my separation of the concepts of beauty and perfection. At first glance the historical associations cause the viewer to seem familiar with, but be unable to categorize my work. Upon closer examination, while touching, sitting upon, or holding onto these pieces, the viewer "discovers" the clues and starts to find their implicit assumptions. This moment of discovery is akin to a language student's first grasp of grammar, the finding of a new place in the brain, a new way of thinking about thinking.
Split Form 2004. 144"l x 74"w x 120"h Stoneware clay with copper lead and tin on a steel base. (private collection)