Double Take: Adam Silverman
Commissioned by Friedman Benda gallery, September 2018.
Fans of Dr. Seuss – and that’s pretty much everyone – may recall his late great work, The Butter Battle Book. It tells the tale of two tribes, the Zooks and the Yooks, who engage in ever-escalating warfare to settle an ancient dispute: is it better to butter bread on the top, or the bottom? The good doctor’s allegory has taken on uncomfortable relevance of late. Battle lines are being scratched furiously into every available surface. There is a general sense of camps divided, a siege mentality on all sides. It’s Zooks vs. Yooks, wherever you look.
This fraught backdrop is one of several relevant contexts for Adam Silverman’s exhibition Occupation. He has created a setting that reads immediately as contested territory. Two walls – one white, one black – have been erected in the space, and then roughly cut through with a Sawzall. The circular cut-out is then tipped down 90 degrees to create a platform. On these table-like surfaces are groupings of ceramics, which match the color of the walls. They are a little like chess pieces, ovoid forms with various excrescences. Between these two vignettes is a great cross-shaped platform, bearing more pots. This big X toggles against the flanking O’s in a monumental game of tic-tac-toe; one can almost hear Silverman saying, “your move.”
The stark contrast between the two groupings, like the exhibition title, puts in play a sense of opposition. For some viewers, “occupation” could prompt dark thoughts – the imposition of martial law. But the word also suggests the comforts of home, or a profession: that of a potter, or artist, or both. And although, once it’s been suggested, the image of the two main groupings of pots as uniformed soldiers may be hard to shake, as Silverman points out, they could just as easily be analogized to other sorts of groups: sports teams, races, police, martial artists, workers, clergy.
Or dancers. The pots are disposed with just that combination of precision, purpose, and abstraction that has been perfected by modern choreographers; so perhaps it’s best to read them not as a troop, but a troupe. Silverman is a professed admirer of the discipline, and particularly of Merce Cunningham, who built his compositions out of everyday human movement. Simple hand gestures, hip twists, leg bends: Cunningham treated this repertoire as a set of modular components, to be combined according to intention or chance.
Just in this way are Silverman’s new pot-forms conceived. Each has the constituent vocabulary of a standard functional vessel – those anthropomorphic ingredients of rim, foot, and body. But the elements have slid round into unconventional positions, like nothing seen in ceramics before. Observant viewers may notice that there are 26 pots in each grouping. So these are alphabets of form, volumetric graphemes which can be assembled into any combination, like letters strung together into words, sentences, language, poetry. Also noteworthy is the fact that each installation centers on two pots that are taller than the others. Chess again comes to mind – are these the king and queen? – but more broadly, the placement conveys a subtle sense of internal hierarchy. The tall pair stand vigil over the larger group, and are protected by it in turn.
The scene that Silverman has devised for his white and black “performers” is theatrical, each platform like a spotlight on a stage. He has left the interior construction of the walls exposed, further drawing attention to the artificiality of the gesture. This detail is inspired to some degree by the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, who sliced and tunneled through condemned buildings, enacting baroque spatial play; Silverman’s cutouts have a comparable effect, conveying contradictory impressions of radical transparency and visual disruption. When seen from the right angle, they look not like holes, but mirrors.
Within the installations is a further pas de deux of negative and positive space, a dialectic that is as important to pottery as it is to painting. Each of the pot-forms yields views into the interior void and right through the far side, echoing the rupture of the gallery’s built fabric in miniature. It is worth knowing that Silverman originally trained in architecture, and that discipline is ever-present in his thinking. (He has said that the show has “a vaguely religious smell to it, in the most abstract sense... the religion of modernism, maybe.”) In Occupation there is a purposeful inversion of the standard pecking order, in which buildings outrank pots. The historian Tanya Harrod has pointed out that in Le Corbusier’s “machines for living,” paintings and sculptures were not generally admissible, perhaps because he disliked the idea of competition with his own aesthetic. Art in the home would therefore “chiefly take the form of craft, in the form of vernacular pots and Romanian and Berber rugs,” humble objects dominated by the prevailing geometrical order.
In Silverman’s world, this set of priorities is turned upside-down. The gallery environment organizes itself around the ceramics, which establish varied contractual relations with the space, on their own terms. (The anthropomorphic quality of the pots also reminds us that architecture, too, draws extensively on bodily metaphors.) The black and white groupings are conceived as holistic works. Though they could be resettled into another gallery or a private home, the mise-en-scène is intended to remain intact. The pots displayed on the large X, by contrast, are to be understood as one-offs. They seem to have perched there, like so many birds, just for the moment.
What all the ceramics in the show have in common is an extraordinary depth of color and texture. Silverman achieves this through a sophisticated and laborious process of multiple rounds of glazing and firing, building up his surfaces like an archaeologist working in reverse. A given pot-form may be “black,” but it will contain many, many blacks across a spectrum from cool to warm. It’s as if an Ad Reinhardt had been thrown into a blender. The overlapping veils of glaze are certainly beautiful, and they also have an important thematic implication. Though matched in color, Silverman’s groups contain endless variation. Again, it’s helpful to compare them to costumed dancers, whose strong personalities may be subsumed within a piece of choreography, but shine through nonetheless.
Thus, despite the strongly dualistic character of the exhibition – as binary as computer code, or a Yin Yang symbol, or ebony and ivory – in detail, it offers infinite nuanced variation. That is an aesthetic value long associated with pottery, of course. The slight wonkiness of a handmade vessel has often been taken as a metaphor for individualism; the mellow and glassy surface of glaze, a stand-in for spiritual depth. By these lights, ceramics seems a gentle, humane art. Silverman’s genius is to preserve this quality of the medium, while also positioning it on more challenging ground. It’s just pots on platforms, sure. Yet something seems at stake in this show. Received hierarchies of value dissolve in it. And we have the option of accepting this as a general metaphor. Wouldn’t it be nice if all our contemporary disputes could liquefy into radiant multiplicity, just like this?
 Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), The Butter Battle Book (New York: Random House, 1984)
 Adam Silverman, email to the author, May 8, 2018.
 Tanya Harrod, ‘House-Trained Objects: Notes Towards Writing an Alternative History of Modern Art’, in Colin Painter, ed., Contemporary Art and the Home (Oxford: Berg, 2002).