Shaping Stoneware:
The Ceramic Forms of Claude Conover

by Glenn Adamson

Revolution or resolution? In modern ceramics, the former gets most of the acclaim. The disciplinary rupture brought about in the 1950s by Peter Voulkos in California, and by comparable figures in other parts of the world, was a paradigm shift, to be sure.  But it wasn’t all that was happening. There were other, equally vital currents flowing through ceramics at midcentury, less explicitly avant-garde, but equally rooted in modernism. 

Claude Conover deserves recognition as one of these alternative protagonists. In many respects, he was the direct antithesis of Voulkos. Based in the Midwest rather than America’s “left coast,” he went about his work with quiet professionalism. Voulkos’s work was disjunctive, built from typical pot-shapes like slabs and thrown cylinders but piled up in highly experimental configurations. Conover’s vessels are sublime in their coherence, constructed in a totally unconventional way that somewhat disguises its own innovativeness. Even their biographies crisscross: Voulkos was a skilled potter who battered his way into sculpture through sheer force of will, while Conover initially trained as a sculptor and found himself making pots almost by chance.

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Claude Conover

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in New Castle, PA, Claude Conover served as art editor of his high school’s publications before attending Cleveland School of Art. There he studied painting and sculpture and, after graduating, became a successful commercial artist. He served in this capacity for several decades except for the years between 1940 and 1945, during which time he worked in a war plant. Throughout those years he continued working in sculpture during his free time, focusing mostly on portraits and busts of terracotta or carved stone.

Conover began his career as a potter in an organic way in 1958 when, while wedging a block of clay, a jug shape came to his mind to which he added a neck and handle. He hollowed out the form, fired it, and entered it in The May Show in 1959, an annual exhibition sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Titled innocuously as “Pottery Form A,” it not only won an award but was acquired for the museum’s permanent collection. Thus began his decades-long dedication to ceramic vessels and forms. Conover continued exhibiting in The May Show for years to come, eventually winning the silver medal for excellence in craftsmanship, and by the mid-1970s he gained representation in galleries and other outlets across the United States.

A disciplined and tireless craftsman, Conover worked until the age of 83 by which point he had created and sold over 4,000 works, each unique in shape, color, and decoration. His creations are held in over twenty museums across the country, including the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as numerous private and corporate collections.

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