Richard Notkin (American, born 1948)
All Nations Have Their Moments of Foolishness, 2006
Earthenware tiles fired in sawdust-filled saggars with watercolor highlights 46 in. x 62 1/2 in. x 4 1/2 in. (116.84 cm x 158.75 cm x 11.43 cm)
Crocker Art Museum Purchase with funds from the Marcy and Mort Friedman Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Art and William L. Snider2006.98
As Cold War Tensions mounted to new heights during the 1980s, artists such as Richard Notkin began to address the anxiety of the time in their art. Notkin used clay to sound a voice of protest and through provocative, nuclear war-themed teapots question the era’s “brink of destruction” rhetoric. Ever since, the skull has figured prominently in Notkin’s work as his chosen emblem of humanity’s shared fate. It thus can be counted on to appear among the finer details of All Nations Have Their Moments of Foolishness. Notkin has written extensively about this particular mural, elaborating on the technical feat it represents as well as its open plea for sanity in the global political arena. He considers it a transitional work because of the new vocabulary of techniques he adopted so that he could “speak” monumentally. An amazing accomplishment of illusionism, All Nations is a composite image of 344 separate tiles the artist arranged by shades of gray and attached to a backing with silicone glue. Like a puzzle coming together, tiles were added one-by-one to the composition until the image of the 43rd President of the United States emerged. From afar, All Nations appears nothing more than a giant blackand-white photograph. Notkin says that he picked this particular press photo because of the prominence of the President’s dark irises. As the viewer moves closer, three-dimensional relief becomes apparent and iconic images impressed into the tiles—Guernica’s screaming horse, Notkin’s skull emblem, the hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib, and Michelangelo’s Pieta— stand out. This is a complex tapestry of signs, symbols, and references to historic and current events, which marries the aesthetic of Photorealism to clay more successfully than any other achievement in the medium.