Jerry Rothman, 1933-2014

A Remembrance

Ceramic artist Jerry Rothman died June 5, 2014.   (

  Jerry was my professor in graduate school at Cal State Fullerton, where he was the head of the Ceramics Department for many years.  To be honest, he could be a difficult, socially awkward character and was not the most engaged teacher on a day-to-day basis, but once a week he had a truly valuable lesson for those who cared, a message grounded in his beliefs about art and art making..

  Every week, the entire department would meet for a group critique, in which  a few students would present their work for a discussion led by Jerry. As a student I had participated in many such "crits", with teachers good and bad, but never before had I experienced a group crit so explicitly structured on a stated philosophical point of view. 

  Jerry had a fundamental belief that a manmade visual object either does or doesn't "work". It's hard to say what that means. A thing "works' when all the parts become a harmonious whole. It is not necessarily about beauty, or meaning, or function. It's just that the material has been used to create something that achieves clarity and succeeds at being what it is.  

  Jerry felt that humans have an innate esthetic sense, derived from our common experience of forms in nature and the human body. He thought that you could take a group of objects from one culture and show them to a panel of viewers from another culture, and they would be able to reach a consensus on which ones worked and which didn't. Show, say, African masks, Japanese tea bowls, Inuit carvings, Maori canoe paddles, Modern kitchen appliances, or Renaissance paintings to people of a totally foreign culture. With no understanding of function, meaning, or tradition, he believed, they could agree on what works and what doesn't.

  It follows that the first obligation of an artist is to "make it work". The premise of Jerry's critiques was that until the piece "works", there is nothing to be said. He allowed no rambling on about intention, concept, meaning; no artspeak, no explanations, no excuses until it worked. And sure enough, a classroom full of undergraduate and graduate students really could reach consensus on that primary question, "does it work?" If the answer is "no", then the job is to figure out how to make it work. Maybe break it, paint it, fire it again, glue things onto it, turn it upside down, strip it down to essentials, whatever it took. Sometimes it became a different thing, and a new meaning emerged. Sometimes it became bad, or uninteresting. That didn't matter, because until it worked, it had no value, no basis for evaluation. 

  And here is the application of this idea: Young artists have a tendency to spin their wheels in a cycle of good idea, initial execution, disappointment, frustration, abandonment and moving on to the next good idea. Jerry was the antidote. Since "working" was the primary measure, and since no evaluation was possible until the piece "worked", you learned to make a commitment to anything you started. Plow through it, keep improving or re-making the piece until it worked, even though you may end up with something of a very different nature, perhaps even something you despise. Only then should you decide to continue on that path or move on.

  Persistence, completion, resolution. That's the life lesson I took home from California. Thanks Jerry. 

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