Torbjørn Kvasbø in the Nøstetangen room

Torbjørn Kvasbø works with ceramics and is one of the few Norwegian artists with an international career. In early works, a classical potter is seen working with utensils in the western workshop tradition, inspired as it was by the Asian, especially the Japanese pottery.

The great bridge-builder between Asian and European art ceramics was the British Bernard Leach (1887-1979). The other significant ceramic artist with whom it is natural to compare Kvasbø is the American Peter Voulkos (1924-2002). For most really great artists in this field, one can see how the talent shows itself already in their early hand-turned works in the form of vases, jugs, cups and dishes. The properties of the material and the shape of the object itself must be able to measure up to generations of outstanding ceramic art. It is nuances in the thickness of the goods, the character of the surface and the role of the glaze in the expression that are the artists' means, and it is the ability to utilize these that he is measured by. Leach stuck to the traditional workshop pottery or Studio Pottery, as it is called in English. Voulkos eventually worked with large forms, where the camp's own weight and agility were utilized for artistic expression. And it is this development we have seen at Kvasbø. After 15 years of variations on traditional forms in a richly varied and original expression, he has moved on to ceramic sculptures, often without the use value that characterized the works until the early 1990s. In works from the early 1990s, Torbjørn Kvasbø has developed one of the world's most original and magnificent works in ceramic sculpture. He has grown in size, so that you feel like you are meeting a "body", more than grabbing for an "object". But all the time it is the close-knit and technical aspects of classical ceramics that have guided his work. He finds new ways to create shapes, but it is the softness and weight of the camp that is expressed. And it is the variation in color and surface character that is used in works that have matte or mirror-gloss glazes. In recent years, he has also developed a fresh color, and large ceramic sculptures in bright blue or yellow or red, give his work a visual and physical presence that very little of today's contemporary art can keep up with. As the program goes to press, we do not yet know exactly what he will exhibit, whether the material is traditional clay or industrial ceramics.

In addition to large-scale exhibition activities and teaching here in Denmark, he has had professorships in Stockholm and Gothenburg, as well as held workshops in several places in the world. He is represented in a number of Norwegian and foreign museums and collections and he has received prestigious international awards.

Character tips

Torbjørn Kvasbø (born 1953) works with ceramics and is one of the few Norwegian artists with a significant international career. In early works, a classical potter is seen turning turned utensils in the western studio tradition, inspired as it was by the Asian, especially the Japanese pottery. The great bridge-builder between Asian and European art ceramics was the British Bernard Leach (1887-1979). The other significant ceramic artist with whom it is natural to compare Kvasbø is the American Peter Voulkos (1924-2002). For most really great artists in this field, one can see how the talent shows itself already in their early hand-turned works in the form of vases, jugs, cups and dishes. The possibilities of the material and the shape of the object itself must be able to measure up to generations of outstanding ceramic art. It is nuances in the thickness of the goods, structure and color, the profile of the object, the "lift" of the edges, the character of the surface and the role of the glaze in the expression that are the artists' means, and it is the ability to utilize these that they are measured by. Leach stuck to the traditional workshop pottery or Studio Pottery, as it is called in English. Voulkos initially shared with Leach, but eventually worked with large, heavy forms, where the camp's own weight and plasticity were utilized. And it is this development we have also seen at Kvasbø. After 15 years of variations on traditional forms in a richly varied and original expression, he has moved on to ceramic sculptures, often without the use value that characterized the works until the early 1990s. In works from the early 1990s, Torbjørn Kvasbø has developed one of the world's most original and magnificent works in ceramic sculpture. He has grown in size, so that you feel like you are meeting a "body", more than grabbing for an "object". But all the time it is the close-knit and technical aspects of classical ceramics that have guided his work. He finds new ways to create shapes, but it is the softness of the camp - so-called plasticity - and resistance that is at stake. Color and surface character are varied in works that get matte or mirror-gloss glazes. In recent years, he has also developed a fresh color, and large ceramic sculptures in bright blue, green, yellow or red, give his work a visual and physical presence that very little of today's contemporary art can keep up with.

In our time, where parts of the new conceptual contemporary art have become an academic discipline, where "renewal and transcendence" lies more in the rhetoric than in the visual structure, it may be useful to recall something of the influential Austrian art historian Alois Riegl (1858-1905 ) wrote in the book «Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste» (published in 1966, over 50 years after his death). Riegl was one of the founders of modern art history as an independent academic discipline. He worked with most genres and techniques and one of his specialties was besides oriental textiles, late Roman art industry. Riegl wrote about the importance of architecture and the art industry:

«Let us now look carefully at a second point. People typically relegate architecture and industrial arts to a subordinate category. But man is most genuinely creative in these domains. Here he uses no models but rather invents forms utterly independently. If a completely unrestricted contest with nature is possible anywhere, it is here. If man transgresses a certain boundary, he submits to dependence on nature. In this respect, architecture and industrial arts constitute a higher form of art than anyhing otherwise. »

* 1

There are at least four things about Riegl's art historical philosophy and method that are relevant to an understanding of Kvasbø's art. First, that he draws out a "worldview" - a so-called art wool or "art will" - from the thorough analysis of a work of art. Secondly, he believes that artistic ideals, such as the classical, are not eternal standards, but that the super-individual «art will» shifts from culture to culture and thus that they are historically and geographically determined. Thirdly, that he was very early in drawing in the way not only works of art are shaped, but also how spectators and users relate physically and visually to the work. He uses insights from the new gestalt psychology of the time, and that he developed a useful method for how art from different periods is best viewed from close range, from medium range or from long range. Fourth, what Riegel calls "contest with nature" and which we in Norwegian can call competition with, maneuvering with or shaping the intervention in the naturally given. Naturally, the biological structure of the human body (mental / cognitive, sensory and physical) and materials, climate and processes in nature, such as clay, rotation and fire, are considered to be particularly relevant for ceramics. - A prerequisite for understanding art is that artists and viewers in a certain period and culture share a worldview and thus «art will.

Let's try to approach Torbjørn Kvasbø's art through Riegel's method.

When Alois Riegl talks about the art industry, it is closer to what we today call handicrafts, but which in Riegel's time was also called the art industry in Norway, hence the name of our three art industry museums in Kristiania (Oslo), Bergen and Trondheim, respectively, which all have « art industry »in the name. It was not industrial production of the type that during the 19th century totally changed the Western world's production life and working conditions, with consequent changes in housing patterns and social life, one thought of. However, urbanization and proletarianization and the exploitation of labor in European and eventually American large-scale industry are a necessary backdrop, for it was the vulgarization of objects through efficient mass production and the consequent adverse social effects that gave impetus to the Arts & Crafts movement, such as today's crafts and ceramic art can hardly be imagined without.

Industrial production is series production where identical units are made. The composition of the machines must be very precise, but not so tightly put together that the parts wedge and the movement stops. There has to be a slight wiggle room for it to be possible to get the wheels - literally - to turn. A discrepancy must be accepted, but it is as minimal as possible, so minimal that people will not perceive it as a discrepancy in the result of production. The art industry, the arts and crafts and modern ceramic art differ from this.

Kvasbø uses mechanical devices. He has tools used to create elements that are related but not industrially identical. Crafts and handicrafts become production. But what kind of production? For an artist like Kvasbø, who was educated in a period of a strong counterculture within the whole structure of society, not least in college and the university system, the Marxist critique of capitalist and dynamic industrial production in factories became the phenomenon they fought against and created an alternative to . We can say that the form structure in Kvasbø's work shows a worldview that is that of the counterculture, the socially engaged counterculture. The counterculture was originally Christian Socialist and eventually Marxist and neo-Marxist influenced. With the student uprising in 1968, it took its final form and it is this that constitutes the worldview we relate to in the understanding of Kvasbø's work. From the historical avant-garde, the counterculture had brought with it an aversion to realization and mass consumption where objects become goods (use and throw away mentality), streamlining of wage labor (time clocks and strict production targets), administrative management and state regulation of production and life.

Marxism has an overarching narrative that can be divided into three - quite similar to the Jewish-Christian history of salvation - only without their metaphysics. In Marxism there is the notion of a once free human being who lived as a social being in harmony with himself, his surroundings, his fellow human beings and his activities. Real estate was collective and work was characterized by cooperation and was to cover needs for use. Then comes the next historical period with the alienation and fragmentation that occurs with capitalism and which worsens through its phases ("progress") and growth. The goal in the third phase is to get away from alienation. Splitting ceases through revolution in order to reach the classless society, where the "natural human race" can once again live as a social being, but with all the benefits of the technological development that capitalism has brought. Work and production are not a negative thing in themselves in this story. Work and effort can be good and it can be harmful. Early in his career, the young Marx wrote clearly about the harmful work of capitalism. In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts from 1844 he wrote:

Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity - and does so in proportion in which it produces commodities generally. This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces - labor's product - confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor's realization is its objectification. In the conditions dealt with by political economy this realization of labor appears as loss of reality for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and object-bondage; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

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Such analyzes are based on the fact that modern industrial production is divided up, so that each worker only sees and manufactures a small part of a larger product. The product is designed by others, the production equipment is put together and owned by others and the finished product is finished and introduced into the sales channels outside the workers' field of vision and influence. There is thus no connection between the one who produces and what is produced. The relationship becomes foreign and hostile between the worker and the product the worker is producing.

The arts and crafts and the avant-garde art in the counterculture can not be fully understood without this framework narrative. For their business becomes an alternative to capitalism's expedient production of goods. The craft as a way of life is anchored in the natural primordial state and is maintained in anticipation of the exalted final state. Torbjørn Kvasbø's work is consequently a form of production that is freed from realization and alienation. The work becomes creative since it becomes a goal in itself and the artist has full presence and room for action throughout the process. The product does not primarily become a commodity3, but a work of art that has its use value through contemplation and the free play of the senses in the face of it.

* 4

Torbjørn Kvasbø expresses himself through round and curved shapes. About such, Riegl has the following to say:

It is only logical that industrial arts drew on Organism to a much greater degree. Given that the practical function of industrial objects required their being in continuous motion (in the human hand), it makes sense that curvature had long prevailed in this domain. We also observe the direct application of organic motifs to utilitarian ends - for example, human figures as tool handles, animal bodies as vessels.

* 5

In the worldview of counterculture and Marxism, man is a goal in himself. Without divinity, man becomes the standard of all things, as he had been in the classicism and renaissance of antiquity. As the painter Barnett Newman said in the 1950s, "We make cathedrals out of ourselves." Man as a physical-mental being gives a naturalistic view of man and can lead to behaviorism. The close-knit, physical-visual encounter between artist, work of art and spectator is sought after throughout the post-war period and reaches a peak in 1960s art. Art is experienced in real time and in the order of 1: 1. For Torbjørn Kvasbø, we see how being close to the body has always been decisive for both mode and technology. When he made utensils, the works were relatively small, adapted to hand, mouth, shelf and table top. After the works were detached from a direct, everyday use, the size was increased in the direction of a biological body, like medium-sized mammals, like humans. The organic in Kvasbø's recent work is experienced both visually, mentally and purely materially and physically.

The sculptures displayed in the Nøstetangen room at Drammens Museum belong to the latter category. They are made and produced by the same person who has had an instinct (an "art will") to create an object with that and that technique and method of production. The method is based on so-called extrusion, ie that soft clay is pressed through a cylinder, where the artist with pure muscle force pulls down a long handle or lever that causes a piston to press down the soft clay so that it is pressed out under the cylinder in the form of a sleeve or a wide, hollow hose or a soft tube. The length of each of these depends on the diameter of the self-developed and specially designed "workshop machine" and the length of the clearance lever and cylinder height allows. This method results in the beginning and end of the soft and pliable sleeve having a lip-shaped edge structure. These lip-shaped edges are the kind of "edge structures" that the psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan (1901-1981) placed so much emphasis on, because this is the edge structure that is associated with the mouth, nostrils, ear opening, anus, genital opening and the body channels they lead into. At Kvasbø yet these edge structures are so relatively large and abstract that it is only in a figurative and general sense that one can speak of them with such words. That there is a latent erotic and intimate theme here is emphasized by the way the artist works when he has to put together several pieces of holster. He points one end and with one in his hand, the open sleeve opening is then penetrated with considerable muscle force. He has shaped the edge into a soft lip shape and with his hands inside the sleeve he pushes out the receiver sleeve so that it bulges out and sometimes cracks a little.

The organic metaphors that are expressed will also change based on the color he puts in the glaze, the reds will be more close to the body, the green ones may be more vegetable, the yellow and blue ones are reminiscent of man-made sleeves, such as pipe systems and flushing hoses. especially in the world at all. In the encounter with such an abstract, organic sculpture, one must be careful not to emphasize an empathy that gives these forms human emotions and properties.

Each individual sleeve or sheath carries the traces of its creation in it and this is fixed when the soft clay is burned. The sleeves are stacked and pressed against each other while the clay is still soft so that they sag down over what they are put on. Together, this becomes a stack of soft organisms reminiscent of a colony of some kind on the seabed, which gently swings with the forces of the heavy water, before they remain like giant corals like rigid shells. By shaping, glazing and burning processed nature, Kvasbø conducts his «contest with nature». He does not submit to nature, but he does not submit to nature either. It will be a mutual cooperation, a collaboration and a meeting in the middle between dominance and submission. An encounter in a place where man recognizes the stubbornness of nature, but also its possibilities. And that man, by shaping with the possibilities of nature, shows that a balance and reconciliation can be created between the nature that is a reflective human being and the nature that is not.

The organic is the basic metaphor of this artistry. But even though the human body and its mental and sensory control organs are so central, the resulting product is not infrequently "anthropomorphic", human-like. Here is no central, structure-building and supportive backbone, no heart, no brain that is each a center for inward and outward currents. It was precisely such a view of art, which builds on the human body as a core system that generates form from the inside out, Rosalind Krauss criticized in her famous essay, "The Double Negative, a new syntax for sculpture" from 1977. Against such a view of art she put a phenomenological view of art, where the structure of the work is applied from the outside and where the form is precisely a result of people stacking or organizing objects so that there is neither a formative core in the work's structure, nor a fixed, privileged place where the viewer - as the artist - can look it all from. And it is in this new syntax that Torbjørn Kvasbø works. His method is akin to process artists such as the post-minimalists Robert Morris, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Barry Le Va and Richard Serra.

It is important to take a closer look at this, because it is not unusual for Kvasbø's art to be portrayed as a result of an inner energy. That is both right and wrong. The sleeves become articulated shapes, as in a plant that grows in stages - such as forest and field reels - based on a growth code that is genetically found in the plant material. But as in a joint plant, we can not observe a physical skeleton in Kvasbø's forms. But there is something snusy and moving in the round edge and lip structures, such as sea anemones or underground, blind soft creatures that snap for air. What may be of growth code in the articulated and added casing structure must be part of the artist's and his culture's "art will". For these works are organized quite the opposite of an articulated plant or a armadillo. At Kvasbø, a link does not grow out of the previous one. The next paragraph is pressed into the previous one. The process is thus the contradiction to the growth metaphor, but it can still be experienced as if the forms grow out of each other. The fact that the forms burn and become completely rigid means that they are just as much experienced as fossilized organisms, as a ham or a shell that is thrown off, as much as moving organisms. 

In addition, what about Riegl's analyzes of close-up, long-distance and work experienced from a normal distance? Torbjørn Kvasbø's work can be experienced from all three positions. It is typical of postmodern art, that it can build on thousands of years of artistic practice and make use of different art era worldviews, and make a selection of them applicable at the same time.

When Kvasbø's newer works are experienced up close, one will concentrate on parts of the surface, and the work's materiality is emphasized by the fact that sight can be supported with touch. By looking at them closely, they become physically present, but you can not see the whole sculpture, not even the one side you are confronting. Seeing them on a plinth or on the floor in a room, so that you can approach them and walk around at a normal distance, means that they can be experienced much like a classic round sculpture where the entire physical presence of the work (all sides) can be seen by moving around. The work's dynamics and twists and vectors can be seen in their intertwined roundness. By looking at them from afar and high up, as on a pedestal on a monumental wall, a visual way of looking will intrude. The color will have an increased importance as shape-makers, shadows and highlights will to a lesser extent be perceived as three-dimensional, but more as a light-shadow play, in a relief that is perceived as picturesque.

The public can experience all three of these perspectives at the large retrospective exhibition which, in parallel with the exhibition in the Nøstetangen room, is shown at Lillehammer Art Museum. In the Nøstetangen room at Drammens Museum, the first and second ways will be possible. The size and decoration of the room do not allow for long-distance vision. But nearsightedness and normal distance will be possible. By seeing these relatively large and heavy ceramic works in a room with small, fragile objects in glass, silver, tin and faience, we will be able to comprehend how far progress has been made in the ceramic art and art industry, from everyday utility and magnificent objects to modern sculpture in full human body size. In these works of art we will see the result of a non-alienating work, where the product carries with it its entire process of creation and where we can experience what it looks like when an artist meets nature for equal competition.

In connection with the exhibitions in Lillehammer and in Drammen, the German-English art book publisher Arnoldsche Art Publishers has published the book Jorunn Veiteberg / Kerstin Wickman, Torbjørn Kvasbø Ceramics, Between the Possible1 and Impossible, (Stuttgart 2013). The book is richly illustrated and has a rich biographical section. Veiteberg gives a thorough review of Kvasbø's development as an artist and refers to influences and breakthroughs internationally. Wickman describes Kvasbø's great importance as a professor and department builder at the art colleges in Gothenburg and Stockholm.

Åsmund Thorkildsen

museum director

  1. Alois Riegl, Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, 1966, English edition 2004, quoted from the English edition page 352.
  2. The Marx-Engels Reader, Edited by Robert R. Tucker, New York 1972, quoted from the second edition 1978, pages 71-72.
  3. We know that even the most useless and incomprehensible avant-garde works of art have long been drawn into the art trade and the speculative economy. Even ceramic art of international class is traded, but like utility ceramics, price formation is not yet part of the logic of the commodity trade and the speculative economy. The artisan has used his own sales and own sales channels to a greater extent than painters and other visual artists. The price of good-use handicrafts is low and linked to labor costs, not demand, and even internationally renowned ceramic art has so far managed to stay away from the large auction houses and star galleries of the world's art capitals. But there are not absolutely dense bulkheads here.
  4. Typical of Kvasbø and other artists in the post-industrial period is that they first move into the large industry's production halls when these are to be closed down as production companies. Kvasbø has thus worked with both the last remnants of Porsgrunn Porcelain Factory's molds and porcelain mass and he cuts up technical porcelain pipes and puts them together into strange joint shapes at the factory Norsk Teknisk Porselen in Fredrikstad. In both cases, it is precisely the non-functional porcelain that is the result of the work. It becomes a consideration of a production process that is over.
  5. Riegl, Op.cit. page 370.

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