At 80, Ceramics Legend Ron Nagle Is Still Perfecting His Otherworldly Sculptures
Portrait of Ron Nagle by Whitney Irvin. Courtesy of Ron Nagle Studio.
Ron Nagle, G.P.S., 1997. © The artist. Courtesy of The Perimeter.
Leave it to Ron Nagle to imbue something as mundane and funky as cheese with poetic significance.
On a recent afternoon in his San Francisco home and studio, the 80-year-old sculptor hiked up his sleeve to reveal an upper-arm tattoo depicting a hunk of holey Swiss, or maybe Tilsit. “Cheese means good things in one’s own lifetime,” Nagle told me with a smile. “And I guess I got the cheese.”
In Nagle’s unique parlance, cheese stands for success—and a couple weeks after his 80th birthday, we spoke about what that big, slippery word means to him. He just opened large shows at London’s The Perimeter and Vienna’s Secession, following exhibitions earlier this year at New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery and Kassel, Germany’s Fridericianum. Now, he’s preparing for a major survey at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive in 2020. As early as 1998, critic Dave Hickey gushed over Nagle’s work: “If Fabergé had lived in California, loved hot rods and surfboards, and had been blessed with an impudent art-historical wit, on his best day he couldn’t compete with Nagle.” But recognition didn’t come easily, especially as an artist who started making small ceramic sculptures in the late-1950s, well before clay was an “acceptable” medium.
Ron Nagle, Infusion Sez, 2014. © The artist. Courtesy of The Perimeter.
Nagle started making a name for himself in his twenties, when he banded together with a cohort of like-minded artists. Alongside Peter Voulkos and Ken Price, he rebelled against conventional applications of clay: throwing pretty, functional pots and slip-casting decorative objects. In the process, the artists made vehement enemies of both traditional ceramicists and white-cube-approved sculptors working in metal and wood.
In a 2010 essay, art historian David Pagel candidly paraphrased the hurdles faced by Nagle and his peers, whose activities came to be known as the “California Clay Movement”: “When Nagle was coming into his own as an artist, making tiny cups in bright colors was just about the dumbest thing an artist could do—especially if he wanted to be taken seriously.” Indeed, Nagle wondered: Would his work ever be recognized? Would death, like so many artists before him, be the force that pushed him out of obscurity? In a song he wrote for a 1970 album (Nagle is also a prolific songwriter and musician), he mused, “Cheese now, there’s no time like the present—do I have to die to get it?”
But, ever bullheaded, Nagle stuck to his vision, compulsively perfecting his weird, microcosmic sculptures for 60 years. Even now, when most of his peers are dead or long retired, Nagle heads to his studio every day, right after breakfast. “I can’t chill out. I tell people I’m writing a book called The Man Who Couldn’t Have Fun,” he laughed. For Nagle, aging has triggered something of a deadline he’s racing: “I feel like I gotta work my fuckin’ ass off before it’s time to go to the great clay pit, or whatever it is.”
Ron Nagle working in his studio. Photo by William Pruyn. Courtesy of Ron Nagle Studio.
Nagle was born in San Francisco in 1939, to parents he described bluntly as “fascist in more ways than one.” From an early age, he followed his instinct to revolt against their close-mindedness. “[They were] racist, homophobic, elitist—I had to fight that; I wanted to be something different than that,” he recalled. The Bay Area’s burgeoning beatnik culture offered refuge, and he found rebel heroes in characters like James Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause (1955). The era’s avant garde music and art became escape routes, too; he secretly listened to doo-wop and jazz on a radio he hid under his pillow and started making jewelry in his teens.
Despite profound disagreements with his parents, their interests seeped into his later work. He bonded with his father over two more permissible activities: making model airplanes and obsessing over hotrods, whose lacquered, buffed surfaces enthralled him. (In 1957, the artist painted his beloved ’48 Ford coupe in a British racing green.) As Nagle remembered, his dad imparted two valuable lessons during these interactions: “One was: You sand with the grain,” he told me. “The other was: You never do a job half ass.”
His mom hosted a ceramics club in the basement of their Mission District home, where she and her friends created porcelain tchotchkes. But it wasn’t so much her love of clay as her criticisms that motivated Nagle to become an artist: “She told me I had no talent,” he recalled. “She said, ‘What do you mean artist?’”
Ron Nagle, Schmear Campaign, 2012. © The artist. Courtesy of The Perimeter.
Nagle set out to prove her wrong. Working in clay became a form of rebellion—in more ways than one.
While Nagle enrolled at San Francisco State in 1958 as an English major, he swiftly began focusing on art. “I had a briefcase that was full of books and one day, symbolically or not so symbolically, I dumped all the books and filled it with ceramic tools,” he laughed. His obsession with the clay galvanized hard and fast, spurred by an introduction to Voulkos’s work through his friend Rick Gomez, a whiz on the pottery wheel. Nagle was so intent on being in the school’s ceramic studio at all hours that he’d bribe the janitor with a half-pint to secure nighttime access: “He’d have a couple of nips and leave the window open for us.”
His development as a sculptor took its first momentous turn when, during college, he met Voulkos in person for the first time. By then, Voulkos had already been upending traditional ceramics processes: making massive clay constructions, sometimes up to eight-feet-tall, by piling irregular forms he threw on the wheel. He abandoned classical glazes, too, marking his surfaces with expressive, unruly painted gestures. “I brush color on to violate the form, and it comes out a complete new thing,” he said in an interview for The Art of Peter Voulkos (1995), a catalogue for the Oakland Museum of California. “These things are exploding, jumping off…That’s different from decorating the surface, which enhances form…I wanted to change the form.”
Voulkos began experimenting with these new methods while living in Southern California and teaching at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (today the Otis College of Art and Design). His iconoclastic approach grated on the school’s traditional ceramics department. Lucky for Nagle, Voulkos was fired and promptly hired at UC Berkeley with tenure. Now both in the Bay Area, the two non-conformists became fast friends, with Voulkos becoming Nagle’s mentor.
Ron Nagle's studio, March 2019. Photo by William Pruyn. Courtesy Ron Nagle Studio.
Voulkos’s teaching style was hands-off, and Nagle mostly learned by osmosis: “He just came in and said, ‘I’m not going to tell you how to do anything. You can watch me work and it’ll stick to the right people,’” Nagle explained. “That’s what happened to me.” He observed as Voulkos’s work took shape. By fusing age-old Japanese techniques with Abstract Expressionist abandon, Voulkos’s forms “embraced the irregular, the mistake, and the imperfect with complete control,” Nagle said.
Gunning to work with Voulkos more closely, Nagle applied to Berkeley for his MFA. When he didn’t get in, he was heartbroken and “cried real tears.” After hearing the news, however, Voulkos stepped in and gave Nagle a job as a studio tech and space to work.
Ron Nagle, Mutha Fakir, 2015. © The artist. Courtesy of The Perimeter.
Nagle also befriended Voulkos’s buddies Ken Price and Michael Frimkess, part of a crew orbiting around Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery. He took regular pilgrimages to visit them, driving down the coast in his Chevy panel truck. In contrast to Voulkos’s work, their pieces were brighter and smaller, and infused with pop culture. Part of the “Finish Fetish” movement, they drew from the wax-slathered surf boards and shiny hotrods (already an obsession of Nagle’s) that were touchstones of flashy, sun- and sex-soaked 1960s L.A.
Nagle met Price in 1961, the same year he saw Italian artist Giorgio Morandi’s paintings in person for the first time at Ferus. “He pared stuff down. One table plane, one wall plane, one object, a shadow,” Nagle said of Morandi, whose work became a lifelong influence. It was through these subtle arrangements of objects—“pots with soul,” as he calls them—that Nagle discovered the potential for small, everyday forms to convey profound emotions. He was drawn to the intimacy of small, subtle work—“the fact that it was an object you could hold in your hand,” he said. At this scale, sculptures evoked “the illusion of something much grander, boiled down.”
Nagle built on all of these influences in his work. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he forged rugged, lopsided, vessel-inspired forms that palpably paid homage to Voulkos. Examples include Fireplug Jar (1958), American Legion Cup (1958), Perfume Bottle (1960), and Talbot Tombstone (1961–62). Their surfaces were lumpy and pocked; their slithering handles and knobby humps appeared to have been Frankensteined onto mismatched vessel forms. But by the late ’60s, Nagle had gravitated more towards Price’s aesthetic: small-scale forms, hyper-polished surfaces, and hot, saturated hues. They looked like they’d been siphoned right off L.A. sunsets, with their oily, spellbinding iridescence.
His sculptures were becoming smoother and more pared down, too, á la Morandi. Instead of the dark-hued, high-fire stoneware clay that Voulkos used, Nagle started slip-casting with low-fire clay, a method employed primarily at the time by hobbyists, including Nagle’s own mother. He started making forms with smooth curves, crisp edges, and glazing in bold colors. In 1968, his first solo show at San Francisco’s Dilexi Gallery featured a series of three-inch-tall cups, each constructed from wonky, graphic shapes, which were cast, assembled, then coated in shimmering china paint. He embedded these in vacuum-formed plexi, nestled them in boxes, and hung them on the wall. In a deliciously irreverent twist, Nagle proffered cups—traditionally down-home, functional objects—like paintings. His San Francisco community loved them, and he even nabbed an effusive review in the city’s paper of note, the San Francisco Chronicle.
By the early ’70s, Nagle’s music career was ramping up, too. While music and art had always coexisted, producing and songwriting began to take over. In 1970 he recorded Bad Rice, a solo album under Warner Brothers. Then in 1972, not long after Berkeley sacked him from his job—a very low moment in Nagle’s life—he landed an unexpected gig creating special sound effects for The Exorcist (1973),the famed cult horror flick which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Sound. Over the next several years, Nagle penned songs for Pablo Cruise, Jefferson Airplane, and Barbara Streisand. But all the while, ideas for sculptures percolated, too.
Ron Nagle, Ms. Artismal, 2018. © The artist. Courtesy of The Perimeter.
In 1975, San Francisco gallerists Rena Bransten and Ruth Braunstein offered Nagle a solo show that jogged him from his ceramics hiatus. The work he presented that November built on the process he used for the Dilexi cups, but abandoned their plexiwood frames. These sculptures stood on their feet, unapologetic about being objects. Like the work at Dilexi, they were non-functional; he built them by gluing together several hollow ceramic casts, leaving their seams visible. Some works, like Chinese Modern (1975) tilted jauntily to the side, exuding a kind of confident swagger; others, like ’55 (1975), boasted sumptuous, curved profiles and handles that jutted out at wonky angles. They gleamed with candy-hued gradients or vibrated with painted speckles drawn from surfaces found in 1950s middle-class kitchens, rather than Jackson Pollock drips. They were small, glistening sculptures that referenced everyday actions and aesthetics as much as they conjured miniature worlds and jostled deep-seated emotions and memories.
They also established Nagle’s mature vocabulary, one he’d iterate on from that moment forward. Morandi was a spirit guide in this respect. Nagle worshipped the subtle shifts in his work—every year, the painter perfected his compositions of vessels, enhancing their ability to evoke feeling. “He got better and better and better,” Nagle told me, admiringly. “That’s sort of my goal.”
Ron Nagle, Early Bird Special, 2018. © The artist. Courtesy of The Perimeter.
Nagle has done just that over the years. Series upon series have emerged from his Bernal Heights studio. All the while, he taught ceramics (mostly at Mills College, until he retired in 2010), and kept writing and making music. Today, his technicolor works are as deeply witty and formally idiosyncratic as ever. His inspirations range from ancient Japanese vessels to architecture; Instagram food pics to Philip Guston; his dog’s poo to doo-wop. Each one drips with personality and buoyant energy. “Hopefully there’s some essence [in the work],” he said, “or some intangible [quality] that moves you or makes you feel a certain way.”
Nagle remains a compulsive workhorse, too. When I met him, he’d recently recovered from gallstone surgery—one that the doctor said would have killed him had he waited a day longer to head to the hospital. In his studio, drawings reminiscent of the sharp deposit that was removed from his body litter one table. A mockup for a new sculpture has materialized from these sketches; different parts will be cast and fused together. Right now, in its infancy, it looks like an alien landscape, or maybe the wild, roiling innards of an 80-year-old artist who just can’t quit.
Nagle plans to make many sculptures over the next few months, as he prepares for an exhibition of new work at London gallery Modern Art in 2020. He’s also looking back at his entire career, as he puts the finishing touches on his first major museum survey at Berkeley. A lot has changed since the beginning of his career, including the sense of self-doubt that once consumed him. “In the early days, I beat myself up so much because I wasn’t as good as Morandi. I always pick the tough ones,” he laughed. Over time, though, Nagle’s let go of that pressure. And, despite the working title of his imagined autobiography, he’s enjoying himself. “It does feel fun,” he said of his long days in the studio. “You may even catch me dancing.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to The Perimeter as Perimeter Gallery. The text has been updated to reflect this change.