Lathe biosas is an ancient Greek motto that means “live secretly,” or “live in such a way that you are unnoticed.” It is a core principle of Epicurean philosophy, and a fitting description of the enigmatic ceramic sculptor Stanley Rosen’s chosen path in life. Rosen, now in his 90s, once stood at the vanguard of ceramic art in the 1950s alongside such luminaries as Peter Voulkos and John Mason. However, he renounced a life of showing and selling, opting instead to work quietly in his own studio, on his own terms, while teaching the principles of ceramic art at Bennington College in Vermont, to a generation of students.
Some of these students have achieved prominence as form-makers in their own right. For example, Elana Herzog, an artist currently teaching in the Yale art department, Mary Barringer, studio artist and editor of Studio Potter from 2004–2014, and Josh Green, executive director of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), were all Rosen’s students. While Rosen chose to be a mentor to other artists rather than to participate in the art world directly, he is not, or not simply, an outsider artist in the usual sense of the term. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, Rosen served in the Navy during World War II. After his discharge, he used the GI bill to attend the Rhode Island School of Design for his BA, and later received an MFA from Alfred University. In 1956, he took a job at the legendary Greenwich House Pottery studio in New York City, where he formed a loose collective with other like-minded artist friends, and traded work with Voulkos, who also taught there. In 1961, he joined the visual arts faculty at Bennington College, where he taught for 30 years. He was hired because the faculty there saw in Rosen’s work the promise of a new direction for ceramic art, in which it would be liberated from the constraints of functional form. At the time, Bennington College’s art department was heavily influenced by post-war American Abstract Expressionism. Rosen’s work was seen in light of this artistic lineage and philosophy.
However, Rosen’s artworks are as enigmatic as the artist himself, and they resist being placed into any stylistic narrative that one might impose on them. In some ways, Rosen’s ceramic sculptures can be seen as a Modernist investigation of the relation between medium and form. At the same time, however, their small size and often architectural sensibility place them outside of the large-scale expressive gestures that were characteristic of 1950s-era abstraction. Rosen’s works are non-functional, yet often contain mysterious interior spaces. Rather than using the wheel, Rosen’s pieces are handbuilt, often by means of a meticulous accumulation of small, hand-rolled cylinders pinched together into strangely evocative forms. Ceramic art is the medium that most directly involves the use of the human hand in its formation, and Rosen’s work often foregrounds that relationship. This concern for clay as a medium was passed on to Rosen’s students in his teaching. According to Josh Green, Rosen was always concerned with materiality. He would ask the student why they were making something in clay. “The way that you touch the clay was always of utmost importance to him,” Green said. Given the great sensitivity and painstaking care with which Rosen’s own pieces are made, this observation makes sense.
I asked Green to tell me what it was like to have Rosen as a teacher at Bennington, and what kind of a formative influence it had on his work as a ceramic artist. He recalled that Rosen did not speak much and spent a lot of time looking at student work. A few hours after my phone interview with Green, I received an email from him with another memory of Rosen in the classroom that he felt compelled to share:
“I recall a couple of reviews near the end of semesters, during which we were asked to have our work out on the table. Stanley moved from table to table. As he prepared to settle in before the works, he would light a small candle (menorah or birthday-cake sized). It was a kind of time-keeping device, I suppose. Stanley would consider the work and wrote comments as the candles melted down, one-by-one. Perhaps a little odd and anachronistic as opposed to using a mechanical timer or watch . . . We didn’t yet have mobile phones. This process added a sense of wonder and meditation to this otherwise institutionally imposed task. In some way, I also wonder if the flame was also part of his cosmological appreciation of the ceramic process. Fire hardens, transforms . . . maybe it could help with the transformation involved when touch transfers to material, material into form, form into perception, perception into thought, and thought into words. I sense that Stanley was often considerate of what felt like the impossibility of these transformations occurring without loss of meaning.”
Green’s beautiful description here gives us some insight into Rosen’s mysterious, almost mystical approach to making and looking, a presence others have described as shamanic in character. Rosen’s approach to ceramic sculpture taps in to its ancient heritage and its most elemental characteristics, while at the same time managing to move the medium forward with his own expressive integrity.
Rosen is a giant in the history of ceramic sculpture, hidden in plain sight, neither seeking nor wanting acclaim. And yet, despite his characteristic ambivalence about being in the spotlight, the attention has finally arrived. The Museum of Arts and Design in New York recently acquired six of his pieces. Rosen’s one-person show, entitled “Beginnings,” at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (www.shfap.com) in New York City, was on view from October 18–November 26, 2017. A solo exhibition of Rosen’s work, “Holding the Line: Ceramic Sculpture by Stanley Rosen,” opened at the Bennington Museum (https://benningtonmuseum.org) in Bennington, Vermont, this past spring (see 5), and traveled to Alfred University (https://ceramicsmuseum.alfred.edu/exhibitions), in Alfred, New York, where it will be on view through January 1, 2018.
the author K. E. Gover teaches philosophy at Bennington College. Her book, Art and Authority: Moral Rights and Meaning in Contemporary Visual Art, will be published by Oxford University Press in Spring 2018.