Jim Melchert


Jim Melchert: Gallery Paule Anglim

Artforum International


by Porges, Maria

For over twenty years, veteran Bay Area conceptualist Jim Melchert has been experimenting with ceramic tile--specifically, with what happens when he breaks it into pieces by dropping it onto a hard surface. The wall works that result from these investigations consist of the reassembled shards of one or more large floor tiles, patterned with drawn or painted marks. But Melchert is interested in something other than the accidental beauty of the skeins of spidery lines created when the brittle object shatters. Instead, in a slightly perverse exploration of "truth to materials," he focuses on what these lines reveal about the intrinsic composition of the clay itself.

Commercially manufactured tiles may seem identical and uniform, but on a microscopic level they are quite different. Clay's molecular structure consists of tiny plates that either stack neatly on top of each other to create a bond or form a more jumbled, weaker arrangement. Like all ceramic objects, tiles break according to the specific distribution of these strengths and weaknesses. In the works shown here, Melchert used various systems to foreground the visual information exposed by his Zen-like experiments. North Atlantic (Phoenix Series II), 2005, is a grid of twenty reassembled square tiles, four wide and five high, measuring an imposing eight-and-a-half by six feet. Each tile's shards have been painted separately with one-inch-wide stripes of dark blue glaze, spaced one inch apart. These stripes, running parallel to the shard's longest side, suggest ripples emanating from a pebble dropped into a pond or isobars on a weather map. The effect of stripes meeting stripes at every possible angle is hypnotic but unrelenting, leaving no place for the eye to rest. Similarly, in another large multi-tile composition, Feathers of the Phoenix (Red), 2004, the density of the patterning threatens to induce dizziness. Here, the motif painted on each shard is a stylized image of a feather's striations, compressed or expanded depending on the size of the piece, and the slightly curving chevron patterns created generate the optical illusion of an uneven surface.

By comparison, the "Eye Sites" series (2005), verges on the austere. A thick diagonal line of either graphite or glaze leads from the acute, knife-sharp points of selected shards into those fragments' broadest expanses. As is frequently the case with Melchert, the punning title offers multiple readings. Perhaps the line's function is to lead the viewer to a visual resting place (a site for sore eyes)? Each line is also the same shape as the letter I. The edges of the graphite marks have a ghostlike softness, as if rubbed deep into the tile's surface, reminding us that the cracks they lie between constitute a kind of drawing too. But throughout a long and varied career shaped by administrative as well as artistic responsibilities, Melchert has always made time for drawing of one kind or another.

The works in this show, which suggest antecedents ranging from sixteenth-century Japanese potters to Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and Sol LeWitt, also invoke an important truth: One may emerge "Phoenix"-like from the fire at any age, with work that not only looks good on the surface but has something compelling to say about the secrets that lie within.

An Interview with Jim Melchert

Conducted by Renny Pritikin

At the Artist's home in Oakland, California

September 18 and October 19, 2023


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with James Melchert on September 18 and October 19, 2002. The interview took place in Oakland, California, and was conducted by Renny Pritikin for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This interview is part of the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America.

….But Pete Voulkos was the one who really changed everything for me – the way in which he believed in doing things larger than you’re used to doing, so that you become physically involved. You know, I’d go home at night and I’d just be physically exhausted, and I’d sleep wonderfully well. And it was energizing. I loved –

MR. PRITIKIN: But even though abstract expressionism – that was one of their ideas, that the whole body be involved in painting. You didn’t really get it until Voulkos had you doing that with ceramics.

MR. MELCHERT: And I think I got it through Voulkos –


MR. MELCHERT: – because he was the one who was looking at Rothko, and [Franz] Kline particularly, and [Willem] de Kooning, and others. And I found myself going beyond anything I had imagined I’d ever be doing – and how my world expanded that summer. As a result, I taught one more year in this little college and then moved to California, expecting to start graduate school a second time at the Otis Art Institute [Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles], only to find that Pete had lost his job there and had been hired at Cal Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley]. So we came here instead. And so for two years I worked closely for Pete as his assistant.

But it had to do with the piece coming alive only when being completed, only when it was being used. And you had to be able to see that here was the potential. There was always potential, and never realized.

MR. PRITIKIN: So you were bringing conceptual and environmental installation ideas into the ceramics.

MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, into the ceramics, yeah. And that’s also part of the ’60s.


MR. PRITIKIN: Arneson put an end to that prejudice.

MR. MELCHERT: Yes, that’s right. He did put an end to it, indeed.

Well, I made a mold, a press mold, in which I could – a press mold is where you have your plaster form, then you press clay into it, pull the clay out, and you have something to start with. And so I would put these heads on the lid on the box, and each box would have a different theme. The first one, I remember – the first two were sort of sketches for what might follow. And out of it came a series where each box had a theme, had its own theme.

Now, I don’t work that way anymore because I’m not working with wet clay, for one thing. And also, I’ve been working with tile for quite a few years now, trying to see what can be done with it, and I’m finding that what intrigues me most about it now is that when you drop it and it breaks, the breaks reveal a structural element inside the tile and, consequently, is as much a part of the material and the way it’s made that allows a lot to work with. So I’m working with a structural aspect of the tile, of clay, that I wasn’t doing when I made those ghost boxes.

MR. PRITIKIN: So that’s a difference?

MR. MELCHERT: That’s a difference.

MR. PRITIKIN: But you are working with units.

MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes, that’s true. I’m working with units, and I probably always will. I tend to work in clusters too. You know, I’ll do a number of pieces that all have to do with the same issue, and then when I feel that I’ve done as much with it as I care to, I’ll leave it alone and go on to another. But I’ve been trying to work longer with some of my clusters than I used to.

MR. PRITIKIN: Elongated clusters. [Laughs.]

MR. MELCHERT: Elongated clusters, right, that go on and on.

MR. PRITIKIN: It sounds like astronomy.

MR. MELCHERT: [Laughs.] Yeah.

MR. PRITIKIN: Well, it seems to me, you know, sitting here talking to you and looking over your shoulder at these beautiful pieces on the wall, that one reason you’re so – you seem so happy and satisfied with your work in the last decade is that you really have synthesized your early ceramic interests with your mid-career conceptual interests in a way that very few people really integrate.

MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. I’m glad to hear you say that because I remember talking with a fellow artist, who is a conceptual artist, about tile, and this person absolutely refused to believe that there could be any connection between a material like clay and conceptual concerns. But I hope the work shows that there can be.

MR. PRITIKIN: Is there any other through-line that we can discover from the early work to these?

MR. MELCHERT: Well – all right. Within, sort of, American ceramics and so on – it’s a connecting thread. I’ve always looked for a way of working that hasn’t been really sufficiently explored yet. When I was doing those ghost boxes, for example, the color I used was from what we call China paint. It’s over-glaze enamel. You glaze the piece and fire it, and then with a combination of ceramic pigment and oil, you apply your color and your drawings and so on, and I was using decals. And now, goodness, it’s commonplace to use decals, but it wasn’t then. Decals were strictly for hobbyists, and a serious ceramic artist in 1964 was not using decals or China paint.

MR. PRITIKIN: So we didn’t really touch on this earlier, but an argument could be made that even at your most committed to ceramics, you were pushing the boundaries or –

MR. MELCHERT: Yes, I’ve always tried to. And – now, where I am now with the tile pieces is that there are people devoted to ceramics who aren’t sure whether I am seriously involved with clay, because I am at an edge somewhere that – like, say, with conceptual art – that it’s the edge of what is considered to be ceramic. I don’t make the tiles –

MR. PRITIKIN: Because they’re commercially manufactured.

MR. MELCHERT: – I use commercially manufactured tiles. Now, I do – if I use glaze or if I use pencil, the pencil is ceramic pencil, so that it’s fired on. And I do respect the relationship of materials – the clay is fired, so I think that the pencil should be fired, too. It creates a bond there.

But I think that an obligation that an artist has, in a way, to his or her field is to keep it alive and growing, which is to say that your edges keep moving. And I’m very interested in what the boundaries are, like the definitions of a discipline.

MR. PRITIKIN: Right. So the true through-line is that you’ve never given in to being academic.

MR. MELCHERT: Well, that’s – [laughs] – that’s interesting. I think you’re right. Well, maybe we can –

MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah, a good time to stop.”

[tape stopts, re-starts.]