Something in the totality of Annabeth Rosen’s work does not lend itself to the question/answer format of the formal interview. Her conversational style, like her work, is rich and discursive, gaining in depth and resonance through additions and accumulations. The following fragments, taken from 14 hours of discussion over a four-month period, preserve her way of framing a physical and conceptual relationship to her work as organic and complex as the work itself.
Rosen’s ceramic sculptures are made in an entirely unconventional manner from a notoriously conventional material. Mysterious, almost astonishing in their originality, even her smallest works have the capacity to amaze and confound, to blow your mind. There is a sense of reckless invention, which can also be seen in the innovations of such artists as Kurt Schwitters, Peter Voulkos, Beate Kuhn, and Betty Woodman. For the past several decades, Rosen has made highly abstract, but deeply referential work strung out at the borders of feasibility, fashioning complex, aggregated objects made of broken ceramic bits and pieces kludged together with elastic bands, pools of glaze, and wire. Although she sees historic origins in her work, debts and connections to the past, to most eyes, her achievement seems unprecedented.
Rosen’s work never gives the impression of easiness or facility. Aside from its extraordinary vitality and its odd, rash, harsh beauty, it speaks of labor. She herself often seems overwhelmed by making her pieces.
Annabeth Rosen: It never comes easily. I work all the time, but I find it extremely difficult. I never know just what the intense heat of the kiln will reveal. I never know until it’s too late—until I’m already deeply committed—if I’ve done everything wrong.
Rosen’s work is primal, and it eludes the usual language of opposites. Her objects are neither natural nor artificial, neither representational nor abstract. Employing a unique logic, her pieces result from a procedure that involves merging two dimensions with three while engaging the rhetoric of repetition and variation. Her forms combine the simplicity of a repeated action with the complexity of compound structures—a process that is rhizomatic in nature and strongly analogous to growth patterns.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard introduced “intimate immensity,” the idea that certain circumstances and conditions essentially take place at two scales, the psychological/symbolic and the physical. What Rosen does within the physical realm roughly parallels how we perceive figures or architecture—merging them into another, intensely psychological arena where sight desires touch. She reveals an intense sensitivity to the micro- and macro-scales, focusing with equal intensity on the close-up detail and the distancing effects of mass. Her energies are transmitted through her materials in ways that make the size of her gesture commensurate with the completed object while giving it a heft beyond its scale.
AR: I think a lot about the made-up thing. I make these things to be real, conceivable, without question. There’s something there in those white, lumpy, cracked things that bears some relationship to the made world, or to nature, to some very ordinary thing. Although you do this very ordinary thing, you operate on information that’s from within you on a kind of subcellular level. So, if my work has to be about something, it’s about how humans negotiate life, class, education, and our understanding of culture—and the engagement in conversations about all of these things.
Seeing Rosen’s work in a gallery or museum closely parallels the experience of seeing it in her studio. The final objects preserve her process and working environment. Each work is accompanied by a strong impression of its intellectual and physical evolution, a visible form of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. Rosen’s studio is jammed with long tables bearing works-in-progress and cartons of shards; the walls are lined with immense monochromatic drawings. There’s a sense of ordered chaos, which, like an extraordinarily florid garden, reveals its internal logic and organization only after long contemplation. All of her objects consist of different parts and pieces, each one individual and articulated by surface drawing or slight changes in color. She reassembles these small ceramic fragments with bigger pieces, joining them together by glaze-fusing or by wrapping them in wire. Her sculptures are built like a wall or a thatched roof, element by element, rather than assembled. The structure comes from density, from the attachment of one bound group to the next in an architecture of fragments.
The shard acts as a gesture, a repeated but unique element that exists within the work like a pulse. This painstaking method of fabrication makes the viewer viscerally aware of Rosen’s decision-making. To see her work is to understand, at a gut level, the meaning of “Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped,” as she titled her 2017 retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.
AR: The thing about the shard is—each part, each piece is a fragment of a body of my work. I love the broken part; it has the idea of continuing. I love the idea that the imagination continues through pattern.
If I were to gather up all of my work, it would be a mountain of shards, shards set almost like tiles in a pattern. It’s like Yayoi Kusama’s net paintings—pattern, thousands of marks, dots, touches. They come together to make a larger statement; every broken part is finished in my mind. The viewer sees a shard and imagines where it’s from, and I imagine where it may go. It’s like continuity through process—the breaking, wiring, putting together is part of an interior process.
Rosen’s interaction with clay is fraught with a simultaneous embrace and rejection of ceramic history. She’s constantly pushing the limits, the rules—firing and re-firing, creating conditions that will chip and blister glazes, hammering off bits that don’t work, always proceeding via the controlled accident. A master of glaze technology, she has even invented a glaze that bleaches off areas of glaze painting she no longer needs, likes, or wants. Rosen does with clay what school teaches you not to do. Her accomplishments have resonance because they carom off a canon that defines not only a well-made ceramic object, but also the compositional rules that seem to regulate most contemporary sculpture.
AR: My interest has been to investigate, question, and tinker with the hierarchy of the process of ceramics. My process may allude to a desire to blur daily experience into something as timeless and familiar as ceramics itself. With the invention of digital technologies, ceramics is an absurd thing to do, medieval really. Do a drawing, use light, have a projection, with VR you could be inside the object or be the object—no years in production, no weight, no mass, no kiln, no crate. And yet there is nothing like clay and glaze. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been seduced by its immediacy, its immutability.
The inevitable association of clay with craft and function represents one of the heavier burdens placed on ceramic sculptors. Until quite recently, viewers and critics alike seemed unable to make the conceptual leap from the clay in their coffee cups or cereal bowls to the material’s indexically dissimilar presence in a sculpture. This has relegated those working with clay to quasi-outsider status.
Despite the fact that Rosen holds the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at the University of California, Davis, has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Pew Fellowship, a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Award, and a 2018 Guggenheim fellowship, and has had solo exhibitions at numerous national and international venues, she still flies under the mainstream art world radar. This lack of visibility probably also has to do with the immense conceptual and intellectual complexity of her work, which combines feminist issues, humble materials, craft, decoration, repetitious labor, and a highly formal rigor. The trajectory of the nervous energy in each piece is launched from certain perceived absurdities of Minimalism, something also reflected in the work of Eva Hesse, Jackie Winsor, and Yayoi Kusama.
Rosen’s disjunctive, packed, gestural surfaces underscore an extraordinary level of skill, knowledge of ceramic technology, and extreme focus on color, form, and surface. Yet her skills are camouflaged by the questions posed within her work: What are the boundaries between the formless and the highly defined? What is beauty? What comes out of the collision between nature and artifice?
AR: Each piece that an artist makes asks another question—getting closer not necessarily to an answer, but even better, to the next question. I have always been skeptical of technical wizardry; ceramics comes with a compulsion toward technique, toward the value and distinction of craftsmanship. After a lifetime of experience, my work has been overlooked for its rawness, misunderstood as unintentional, and thought to have employed a minimum of craftsmanship. My work is deliberate. I make these things up, but I want them to be as understood and real and convincing as any other knowable, recognizable thing in the world.
Clay is an unheroic material, heavy and wet; I’m continually tinkering with it and pushing its limits. Ceramics demands energy and is time consuming, but, to me, it seems alchemical, in the realm before chemistry. It’s the original, but most contemporary and relevant interdisciplinary conversation between art and science—transformative in how it combines so many different kinds of knowledge with the imagination.
This article appears in the March/April issue of Sculpture.