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Art reviews: 'Common Ground,' AMOCA; 'Clay's Tectonic Shift,' Scripps

February 8, 2012 |  3:00 pm

Ken Price, "S.L. Green"
The soul-shattering shock of World War II rattled American art to its core. From the ashes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, humanity's wartime collapse into barbarism propelled a roiling wave of artistic urges aimed at starting over. Two absorbing museum shows lay out a critical part of the story.

One is a sprawling survey that beautifully articulates the breadth and diversity of postwar studio ceramics, charting how they came to be. The other is more closely focused, homing in on the potent artistic revolution that grew from the larger context. Together they unfold one of the most distinctive tributaries of American art being chronicled in the raft of postwar Southern California exhibitions presented under the Getty-sponsored umbrella of Pacific Standard Time.

Perhaps nothing better expresses the prescient yearning for renewal than a 1944 Surrealist painting by Russian immigrant Mark Rothko. "Slow Swirl By the Edge of the Sea" is a hallucinatory vision of spindly, archaic forms rising up from the vapors of the primordial ooze. Painting was powerful, a sophisticated visual language in which those fundamental urges could be spoken. Yet it had its limitations. Painting wasn't omnipresent at human society's inception.

Pottery, on the other hand, was. Pottery was global in its origins, the material of the earth shaped by prehistoric humankind from the Red Sea to the Yellow River to the Rio Grande. And pottery as a primary postwar vehicle flourished nowhere more than in Los Angeles.

Harrison McIntosh, "Masonic Temple Jar"The story opens at the American Museum of Ceramic Art, where "Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California, 1945-1975" brings together more than 300 plates, cups, bowls, pitchers, figurines, decorative objects and other clay works made by 53 craftsmen. According to a wall label, the war had shut down ceramic imports from Europe and Asia, helping to fuel the rise of about 600 potteries, large and small, in the hospitable, not yet fully industrialized climate of Southern California.

Plentiful schools also played a significant role in advancing studio pottery. AMOCA director Christy Johnson settled on the influential artist and educator Millard Sheets (1907-1989), who taught first at Scripps College and then Otis Art Institute, as a sensible organizing principle for so much material. All the artists were somehow linked to him. His conception of "good design" permeates the show.

Nearly a third of the artists are women -- more than one might find in painting and sculpture surveys of the period. Industrial applications for clay were beginning to open up, and Sheets encouraged developments in mass production and large-scale ceramic murals. But the number of women partly indicates the domestic environment in which ceramics traditionally flourished. It also reveals the limited avenues open to women with artistic aspirations.

Betty Davenport Ford, "Monkey"The range of work is understandably wide. Glen Lukens' startlingly beautiful plates and bowl are chunky, rough-hewn forms with thickly applied glazes, muscular and suave. The glazes on William Manker's elegant covered box, lamp base and plate are as delicate as the blush on a variegated flower's petals. Laura Andreson achieved a plainspoken seamlessness of natural forms and matte colors.

Teaching at USC, Scripps and UCLA respectively, these three alone seeded countless students. They in turn had been inspired by the acutely crafted work of Gertrud and Otto Natzler, F. Carlton Ball and others in the show. Sheets' production-designed tea set features one of his usual stylized equestrians, the horse and rider a classical symbol for nature's harnessed power. At the extreme, ceramicists such as Susi Singer and Betty Davenport Ford skipped function altogether, instead fashioning kitschy figurative sculptures of animals and mythological scenes that revived Rococo and Art Deco ornamentation.

Throughout, the overarching design rule is a careful, balanced integration of form, surface and use. Overall unity drives decorated vessels like Sheets', as well as Harrison McIntosh's handsome, spotted "Masonic Temple Jar"; Marguerite Wildenhain's bowl, shaped like a bird in flight; and Peter Voulkos' fat bottle decorated with a Picasso-style drawing. They're conservative, hand-crafted versions of an industrial, European Bauhaus aesthetic.
John Mason, "Geometric Form, Dark"
That's where the second, much smaller exhibition comes in. Forget unity. At the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, "Clay's Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968" busts things up.

Co-curators Kirk Delman, the Scripps' gallery manager, and art dealer Frank Lloyd want the show to record a transformation -- a movement away from craft to art, started by Voulkos when he taught at Otis. (This revolutionary work is sometimes called "Otis clay.") Lloyd is very knowledgeable, but Scripps and the Getty erred in turning curatorial reins over to a dealer who has represented all three artists; the conflict of interest is obvious. That's too bad, since handsome, even powerful pieces are in the show.

Still, its conception of the "tectonic shift" is too narrow. The show essentially proposes that two things happened to make the revolution: Function was out and abstraction was in. Somehow that turned ceramics into sculptures.

Partly that's true -- but only partly. Just because a functionless piece is abstract doesn't mean it has no subject matter. Otis clay did. It made pottery its fundamental subject -- pottery as a set of formal values, an array of social customs with a range of cultural histories. Then, it started smashing crockery.

Glen Lukens, "Bowl"To oversimplify a bit, the gestural mixture of slab-built and wheel-thrown forms with messy glazes and combative surface drawing makes Voulkos the Abstract Expressionist of the bunch. Price is the Pop artist, his sleekly erotic "eggs" painted in bright, synthetic acrylic paints that make a hash of the orthodox formal integrity between earthen clay and natural fired glazes. Mason, who built huge, boxy geometric forms, sometimes letting the glaze mimic bronze, is the nominal Minimalist.

All of them assault pottery's careful integration of form, surface and use. The pottery subject would be clearer if the show included some of the plates, cups, tea pots and other traditional ceramics made by these artists, especially Voulkos and Price, between 1956 and 1968. The functional vessels they continued to make display many of the same disruptions evident in the show's non-functional abstractions.  

Besides, credit for the first abstract clay sculptures probably goes to the Argentine-born Italian artist Lucio Fontana, working a full generation earlier than Voulkos, starting in Milan prior to World War II. Better known as a painter, he made lumpy, fragmented, gestural ceramic sculptures that sometimes swallow up tiny figures.

The Otis sensibility is quite different. Otis clay takes apart pottery, conceived as a complex tradition. "Common Ground" beautifully lays out those customs, while "Tectonic Shift" cheerfully blows them to smithereens. In the spirit of starting over, think of what happened as a slow swirl by the edge of the Pacific.

Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California, 1945-1975, American Museum of Ceramic Art, 399 N. Garey Ave., Pomona, (909) 865-3146, through March 31. Closed Sun. through Tue.

Clay's Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, 251 E. 11th St., Claremont, (909) 607-4690, through April 8. Closed Mon. and Tue.


Art review: "It Happened at Pomona, Part I"

Art review: "It Happened at Pomona, Part II"

Art review: "In Wonderland: The Adventures of Surrealist Women Artists" at LACMA

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Ken Price, "S.L. Green," 1963, lacquer and acrylic on stoneware; Harrison McIntosh, "Masonic Temple Jar," 1961, glazed ceramic; Betty Davenport Ford, "Monkey," 1948, ceramic; John Mason, "Geometric Form, Dark," 1966, ceramic; Glen Lukens, "Bowl," 1939, glazed stoneware.