New Acquisitions Debut in Exhibition of 20th-Century American Art Pottery

BOSTON, MA (December 1, 2014)—From the Arts and Crafts movement through Mid-Century Modernism to Studio Craft and Contemporary practice, the exhibition Nature, Sculpture, Abstraction, and Clay: 100 Years of American Ceramics highlights the creative themes that have inspired ceramic art for over a century. On view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), from January 17, 2015–January 3, 2016 in the Bernard and Barbara Stern Shapiro Gallery, the exhibition features over 70 American objects drawn from the MFA’s rich holdings and select local private collections. Recent acquisitions include important works from The Daphne Farago Collection and The Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons Collection, given in honor of Jules and Jeannette Aarons. Many of these objects—dating from the late 19th century to today—have never before been on display in a museum. Presented with generous support from the John and Bette Cohen Fund for Contemporary Decorative Arts.

Vibrant and expansive, the field of ceramics demonstrates an extraordinary potential to express artistic ideas. This exhibition illustrates three major themes in ceramic art across the last century—“Sculpture and Abstraction,” “Nature and Landscape” and “Surface and Decoration”—showing how the same creative threads have been interpreted differently by each generation. Occasionally, these themes prompt similar results from artists working years apart. Together, the works demonstrate unprecedented experimentation not only with forms, colors and glazes, but also with the role of clay as an artistic and sculptural medium. Highlighting the connections between contemporary art and the art of the past, the exhibition explores how the potter has evolved as an artist, and how ceramics have been redefined as a vehicle for artistic expression.

“The breadth and depth of the MFA collection of American ceramics, especially now with the many outstanding recent acquisitions, allows us to tell stories and make connections that many other institutions cannot,” said Nonie Gadsden, Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture. “We hope to emphasize the similarities over the 20th and 21st centuries rather than the differences.” 

Critical to the exhibition are more than 25 objects from the Aarons Collection, which includes works by most of the leading potters working at mid-century. Given to the MFA in 2012, many of the works are on view for the first time, including three “Desert” bowls from 1935-45 by Glen Lukens (1887–1967). One of the first in a pioneering generation of West Coast ceramic artists, Lukens incorporated raw materials from his native landscape to capture the spirit of the windswept Southwestern desert, using striking colors, dripped and cracked against bold earthenware forms. Another important part of the mid-century story is told with works by Austrian immigrants Gertrud (1908–1971) and Otto Natzler (1908–2007), also part of the Aarons collection. The Natzlers thoughtfully harmonized form and glaze over the course of their practice, creating balanced, organic vessels. Otto developed more than 1,000 different glazes, each to complement his wife’s exquisite wheel-thrown forms. His “sulpher crater glaze” (seen in the MFA’s Large bottle (no. K884)(1960)) is blistered and scorched, with volcanic force. 

Nature and Landscape

Ceramic artists not only draw creative inspiration from nature, they literally transform it by taking clay and minerals from the earth and manipulating them into something new. This emphasis on natural, organic forms is carried over from the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century, and persists in contemporary practice. A tile titled The Pines, manufactured by Grueby Faience Company about 1906-20, illustrates ceramics innovator William H. Greuby’s style of “organic naturalism.” The flat lines of the trees reduce the image to an abstract pattern, a characteristic of Arts and Crafts movement design. Contemporary artists like Colorado native Wayne Higby (born in 1943), incorporate the American landscape in innovative ways. His Mirage Lake (1984) shows a landscape scene across the interior and exterior surface of a large bowl––uniting form and decoration to illustrate a panoramic mountain view. 

Sculpture and Abstraction

Many works in the exhibition engage with ideas of sculpture and abstraction in ways that may reference traditional ceramic formats or look toward pure sculptural play. Ceramic Form No. 11 (about 1949) by mid-century artist Leza McVey (1907–1984), is an animated, asymmetrical cylinder fitted with a stopper. Far from utilitarian, her works are transformed from functional vessels to works of art by their title, Ceramic Form. Similarly, Float/Aloft (about 1989) by Adrian Saxe (born in 1943), part of the Daphne Farago Collection, is a five-part gourd-shaped garniture set––a gleeful reinterpretation of a historic form. The most recent work in the exhibition is a new acquisition, December (2013) by Cheryl Ann Thomas (born in 1943), the first by the artist to enter the MFA’s collection. Thomas takes the familiar coil-built pot and renders it purely sculptural, collapsed and folded into itself. 

“It is an exciting prospect to showcase contemporary artists within the broader context of ceramic artistic practice over the course of the last century,” said Emily Zilber, Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts. “We are keen to make connections between today’s vibrant landscape and past creative innovation, and do so here by placing contemporary ceramics on view with their historical counterparts.”

Surface and Decoration

Works in the exhibition also feature a range of surface treatments––some glossy, smooth and lustrous, others frothy, bubbling or fissured. For many artists, the porous surface of ceramic is a three-dimensional canvas for experiments in design, pattern, color or texture. An early Pair of Vases (Twin Stars of Chelsea) (1884-1890), with a deep red glaze and lustrous blue highlights, features an innovative technique developed over many years by ceramic artist Hugh C. Robertson (1845-1908) of Chelsea Keramic Art Works. Maija Grotell’s (1899–1973) graceful works rise in a masterful combination of form and decoration. Her striking Vase from about 1942 provides an expansive platform for an abstracted pattern in dazzling platinum. Also on view is a Teapot and stand (2001) by contemporary artist Ralph Bacerra (1938–2008), which incorporates a variety of textures, colors and tones in one piece.

“The past century of American ceramics is a story of creative innovation. Bringing these objects together for the first time illustrates a collective spirit of ingenuity and a confidence of artistic expression,” said Caroline Cole, Ellyn McColgan Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Art of the Americas. 

Another important element of the exhibition is a glossary of ceramic terms explaining the different technical approaches used to create the works on view. Helping visitors to explore this diverse medium, relevant terms will be mounted on the wall with explanations.

Art of the Americas

Since the Museum’s founding in 1870, it has been committed to collecting art of North, Central and South America from all time periods. Its diverse holdings rank among the most significant in the nation and feature masterpieces ranging from gold of the Ancient Americas, Maya ceramics and Native American (prehistoric to contemporary) objects, to one of the finest collections of art of the United States from colonial through modern times. Additionally, the MFA’s Art the Americas collection contains more than 13,000 examples of American decorative arts (furniture, silver, ceramics, glass, and metalwork) and sculpture made in North and South America from the 17th century to the present––embracing masterworks of artisan and artist alike. More than 5,000 objects from the Museum’s collection of works from the Americas are on view in the 53 galleries of the Art of the Americas Wing, as well as in the Carol Vance Wall Rotunda and Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Rotunda and Colonnade of works by John Singer Sargent.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.

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