Revisiting the Annual Ceramic Exhibitions of 1950–64
Northwest Modern: Revisiting the Annual Ceramic Exhibitions of 1950–64
Kat Perez, curator of Northwest Modern, introduces the exhibition and its survey of the ceramic annuals.
Northwest Modern: Revisiting the Annual Ceramic Exhibitions of 1950–64
The Pacific Northwest, and Portland in particular, is recognized today as a significant hub of creativity. What may not be obvious, however, is that the Northwest has drawn talented, rigorous craftspeople to the area for many decades.
In 1937, the Museum of Contemporary Craft was founded as the Oregon Ceramic Studio (OCS) by arts advocate Lydia Herrick Hodge and a group of dynamic collaborators. From 1950–64, these dedicated volunteers organized an annual juried exhibition series with the goal of stimulating and advancing the work of Northwest ceramists. It was their implicit hope to demonstrate how clay could be a legitimate art form—with local and regional artists leading the way.
The Annuals were largely successful for both the organization and the participating artists, perhaps both due to and because of the radical shift in West Coast ceramics at the time from functional, classically-shaped vessels to abstract, expressionist sculpture. A look back at the Annuals visually illustrates this exciting period in the history of West Coast art and craft, placing Portland at the near-center of it all.
“Craft work in some form is an essential expression of all times. Our purpose has consistently been to spend our efforts in helping to keep alive and stimulate work in the various mediums of craft…”
— Lydia Herrick Hodge, Executive Secretary, Oregon Ceramic Studio
Statement to the Studio Advisory Board, 1951
The Paradoxes of the Everson's Ceramic Nationals
Ezra Shales, associate professor of art history at the School of Art and Design at Alfred University, New York, provides national context to Northwest Modern and illustrates the role that the annual exhibitions played in relation to the national ceramic exhibitions in Syracuse, New York.
The Paradoxes of the Everson's Ceramic Nationals
“We ought to be put on the art map,” demanded the third director of the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts and founder of the Ceramic Nationals exhibitions, Anna Wetherill Olmsted in 1933. But was she asserting the value of her institution or clay as a medium? One can imagine hearing this battle cry coming from the mouth of Rose Slivka thirty years later in the offices of Craft Horizons (where she served as editor from 1959-79), as status has been a constant source of anxiety in the studio craft movement.1 From 1932 to 1972, ceramic biennials held in the Everson Museum of Art (originally the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts) staked out a problematic ambition: The museum would organize a representative survey of ceramic art democratically from all corners of the United States, select the best and then tour the finalists in order to demonstrate excellence to the nation. But was this a vehicle planned to spur vernacular and regional production or to seed national fads and aesthetic consistency?
The bedeviling issue of the status of clay in the fine arts was never latent or suppressed. Olmsted publicly advocated that the exhibition series feature sculpture, yet privately bemoaned the inclusion of hobbyists and the practice of awarding prizes to “best designed piece or pieces of pottery suitable for mass production.”2 She sought corporate funding yet nimbly avoided being controlled or beholden to the local patron of the exhibition, Onondaga Pottery (maker of Syracuse China), a firm that was interested mainly in large-scale manufacturing. On the one hand, the small institution tried to represent excellence on a shoestring, sometimes with an annual exhibition budget of a mere four hundred dollars, yet it also leveraged the idea of a national aesthetic with great success. Olmsted’s bold ambitions to make Syracuse’s museum both a regional center and a national arbiter of taste were always in tension.
Depending upon one’s perspective and affiliation to clay as a medium, one can see the Ceramic Nationals, as the program came to be called, as a narrow-minded or risky undertaking. The Everson’s Nationals came to represent and define a slice of American art when the exhibitions toured seven cities and in a few years traveled to multiple international venues. In 1937, for instance, the Ceramic National went from Syracuse to the Whitney Museum, as well as on a European tour of Finland, Sweden, Copenhagen and England. In most years, the exhibitions traveled to six or eight other venues over a two-year period. The National was a sprawling catch-all which contained over five hundred works, including teacups, figurines, and architectural ornament. In hindsight, it might seem impossible that a small, regional exhibition program could extend such a reach, but, if contextualized in the milieu of the WPA and the 1930s when cultural institutions endeavored to expand audiences first and foremost, the idiosyncrasies of the Ceramic Nationals seem less peculiar, all save the monastic devotion to clay working. Even that is difficult to categorize; a little known fact is that the program’s devotion to ceramics was inclusive of enamels too. Medium-specific craft shows are now the rule, with museums catering to practitioners and collectors as special-interest groups. While the Everson is deemed noteworthy mainly in reference to the history of American ceramics, the Ceramic National and its international aspirations is an eccentric history, a tonic to the usual story of American art and design that dominates the conferences of academia with MoMA-centric blinders.
Syracuse’s Ceramic Nationals tread precariously between obscurity and notoriety as a program to document and dispute aesthetic revolutions. In the words of Richard Bach, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator and liaison to the field of industrial design in the 1920s and 1930s, the Everson’s shows became “an experiment station where criteria of quality may be established.”3 However, it is both rare and near impossible for an institution to pronounce artistic judgment with a sure hand and also to identify the unknown and emergent artists of value with its other five digits. With the post-war institutionalization of the crafts in academic degrees, the prestige that came with medals came to be more meaningful and more competitive. The Nationals included ornamental concrete, a development that surely fueled ceramicists’ anxiety about the ontology and taxonomy of artistic status. The usual structure of a Ceramic National was to hold regional juried shows for a year in advance and then winnow the show from the actual artifacts in Syracuse. Hundreds of artworks were shipped each season for a firsthand inspection. The Everson’s permanent collection of ceramics, now on display as a study center in the basement for two decades, is the result of buying the medal-winners’ work. The uneven range of the collection defies order or easy categorization; wonderful surprises and surprising gaps abound.
The program came to a dramatic halt in 1972, when practitioner-jurors Peter Voulkos, Robert Turner and Jeff Schlanger were asked to look at slides and argued that they could not distinguish quality by sorting through four thousand images. Voulkos, Turner and Schlanger decided that the show no longer served the medium’s interests. Their decision, whether it was fueled by a counter-cultural rebellion or plain and simple frustration, provided an excuse for the director at the time, Jim Harithas (who had no passion for clay as an institutional mission), to cancel the Ceramic Nationals during his brief tenure. The jurors’ decision can be seen as anti-authoritarian and a sign of the era’s social unrest and loss of faith in standards of criteria, but it was in many ways an elitist act too. A door of opportunity was closed, especially to ceramicists focused on function and design. The jurors had themselves emerged from earlier Nationals: Turner had exhibited bowls in the 1940s, while Voulkos had shown elegant vases with figurative ornament in the 1950s. Yet in 1972, they argued that the show might hinder the public from recognizing ceramics as art because the work was weak.4 “Art” had become the reigning paradigm, not the notion of democratic representation, or the celebration of the medium.
Corporate sponsorship for the Nationals had been vigorous in the 1940s and 1950s, but diminished thereafter in direct proportion to the clay-workers’ desire to be granted the prestigious title of artist. Ceramic companies such as Homer Laughlin and Syracuse’s local businesses, such as Carrier, an air conditioner manufacturer, funded later shows but the larger cast of patrons in earlier years is worth recalling. In 1941, Thomas J. Watson of IBM was directly involved in sponsoring the 10th Ceramic National and for a decade awarded the largest cash prize. High-end department stores, such as Gump’s in San Francisco and Marshall Field’s in Chicago, were venues for the touring show or sponsored cash prizes. In 1958, Neiman Marcus sponsored the participation of French ceramists and in several years the retailer brought the show to the top-floor galleries of its Dallas shop. Whereas Ceramic Nationals in the 1930s “circuited” the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, by 1969, despite the growing insistence by clay-workers that they were “artists,” the venues tended to be outside of major metropolitan cities. In 1969, the twenty-fifth National circuit traveled far but to fewer major cities: Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, Illinois; Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, Michigan; Neiman-Marcus, Dallas, Texas; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pennsylvania; Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio; Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, Wilmington, Delaware; Craft Center, Worcester, Massachusetts; Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire. The degree of marginalization coincided with the composition of regional juries and national juries increasingly being composed of ceramic artists. Medium-specificity was a self-fulfilling ghettoization. There were fewer appearances by craft luminaries in other media, such as Dorothy Liebes, whose presence as a co-exhibitor of an ancillary textiles display in 1940 and as a juror in 1958 surely had enriched and expanded the critical criteria of the Ceramic Nationals.
When the 21st Ceramic National came to the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, in the summer of 1961, the field itself was experiencing a paradigm shift that can be read in the catalogues. William Hull, Everson Museum of Art director, deemed the 21st National (and ceramics in general) “reassuring” as it was an art form “disciplined by considerations of craftsmanship.”5 Henry Varnum Poor, a renowned painter of plates and murals, had similarly seen the result of his work jurying the 20th Ceramic National as a triumph of collective expression: “the rare and beautiful things in ceramics have been the expression of a whole people, of a time and a place more than of individuals, and to find that this holds true today… is to me the most exciting thing about this first international show.”6 After 1961, the Nationals favored a criteria based on the notion of avant-garde estheticians such as Rose Slivka. Liberation from convention and collective style was what Slivka saw as “The New Ceramic Presence.”7 She valued work that was “personal” three times more than shapes that were traditional or evocative of long-standing cultural conventions. Slivka argued for ceramics that was “motivated by a personal aesthetic and a personal philosophy,” and expressive of “rugged individualism.” Her mantra, “individuality, the aloneness of each man’s search,” reads like an amalgam of Abstract-Expressionism and existentialist aphorisms.8 The improvement of mass production, then, was considered a joke. In 1962, new director Max Sullivan applauded ceramic art in Slivka’s terms. Sullivan welcomed a re-orientation toward “personal,” “direct expression” and “experimentation,” and went so far as to describe the “distortion of form or destruction… taking precedence over the making of fine utilitarian objects” in a favorable light.9
Ascertaining the impact of the 21st Ceramic National on Portland, or vice-versa, is not an easy task. The 7th or 8th annual had already traveled to the Portland Art Museum in 1938, and numerous other Nationals had visited west coast venues, from the University of Oregon Art Gallery to the San Diego Art Museum. One would have to argue that overall the rebellious art of the 1960s was a syndicated sensibility. In the studio pottery movement of the 1960s, regionalism was not visually legible any more so than today. One sees a similar phenomenon in the Oregon Ceramic Studio’s annuals and biennials, and also those established at Scripps College, CA. The revolutionary heat in 1960s ceramics, largely considered a West Coast, Voulkos-ic eruption, turned from a skeptical to a doctrinaire liberation theology within only a few years. Needless to say, patrons such as IBM were less interested in exhibiting one of Voulkos’ pummeled plates that had ceased to be recognizably useful. The Ceramic National and most of these other biennial group shows began to serve a more limited audience of academic practitioners. In evaluating their jurying of the 24th Ceramic National, Paul Soldner and Ken Ferguson noted that “technical proficiency” was no longer a criterion in ceramics, as if such an explanation were not visible in the illustrations. Cookie jars, which had been Arthur Baggs’ winning entry in 1938, no longer competed in the fray. Companies ceased to enter the contest or win prizes, as Glidden had in 1947. Individual self-expression was what was valued and on display.
In reconsidering the Ceramic Nationals as a vehicle to promote the medium, it is difficult to determine the aftereffect of its long run. They were certainly well attended. Were they representative of the diversity of American aesthetics? If in the 1930s, Olmsted had articulated an “art complex” and desire for greater prestige, in the 1960s this same sentiment, inflected with a more severely individualistic vision, spread through the social networks of ceramics as a virulent dogma. These days, it seems the Everson struggles to value medium specificity. Syracuse China, the local manufacturer and supporter, closed in 2009, so ceramics are no longer a local point of pride or a boon to the civic coffer. The Nationals did serve the growth of academic programs, which is why it seems most confusing that ceramic academicians helped terminate the shows. Looking around at museum exhibitions today, aesthetic pluralism seems less palpable and visible in the art collections than the proliferation of an over-theorized Postmodern and multi-cultural era would suggest. In comparison, 1930s Ceramic Nationals included Pueblo potter Maria Martinez and African-American clay workers William Artis and Sargent Johnson. Recent revivals of the National in the 1990s have mainly been stocked by middle-class academics.10 Ceramics might be victimized as a “lesser art” but its practitioners are as affluent as those in other art worlds. Perhaps in fifty years, once circuits such as annual SOFA fairs recede into history and we realize the degree to which 1960s artistic liberation was dependent upon cheap foreign fuel and natural resources, perspective will be gained to evaluate these complex attempts to corral ceramics into the high temple of art. Only then will we be able to write the story of regional variety and national identity in twentieth-century American clay.
Ezra Shales, associate professor of art history at the School of Art and Design at Alfred University, New York, 2011.
1. Letter from Olmsted to Carlton Atherton (ceramic instructor at Syracuse), 16 February 1933, Everson Museum of Art Ceramic Archive, Syracuse, as cited in Cheryl Buckley, “Subject of History? Anna Wetherill Olmsted and the Ceramic National Exhibitions in 1930s USA,” Art History 28: 4 (2005): 514.
2. Contemporary American Ceramics Selected from the 12th Ceramic National (Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, 1948), 9. “My one desire is to reach the INDIVIDUALIST potters, working as Mrs Robineau worked, not to commercialize the thing by getting factory pieces. Nothing then would stop Onondaga Pottery from sending some of their inartistic worst.” See Buckley, “Subject of History? Anna Wetherill Olmsted and the Ceramic National Exhibitions in 1930s USA,” 513-514.
3. Anna Olmsted, “Decorative Arts,” Official Catalog, 1939, 32, as cited in Cheryl Buckley, “Subject of History? Anna Wetherill Olmsted and the Ceramic National Exhibitions in 1930s USA,” 521.
4. Marsha Miro, Robert Turner: Shaping Silence—A Life in Clay (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2003), 99.
5. William Hull, 21st Ceramic National (Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, 1961), 5.
6. Henry Varnum Poor, Foreward to 20th Ceramic National (Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, 1958), np.
7. Rose Slivka, “The New Ceramic Presence,” in Ceramics Monthly, 21: 4 (1961): 35, reprinted in Garth Clark, ed., Ceramic Art: Comment and Review, 1882-1977 (New York: Dutton, 1978), 131-142.
8. Slivka, “The New Ceramic Presence,” in Garth Clark, ed., Ceramic Art, 142.
9. Max Sullivan, 22nd Ceramic National (Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, 1962), 7.
10. Barbara Perry, “Modernism and American Ceramics,” in Craft in the Machine Age, 1920-1945, ed. Kardon (New York: Abrams, 1986), 104-5. For a trenchant interpretation of recent Ceramic Nationals see Edward Lebow, “American Ceramics Now: The 27th Ceramic National,” American Craft 47: 4 (1987): 26-33, 69-70.
A Moment Captured
Kat Perez, curator of Northwest Modern and exhibition coordinator at Museum of Contemporary Craft, dives into the Northwest ceramic annuals and examines the role the region played in recognizing ceramics as an art form.
A Moment Captured
It is a rare opportunity when one is able to envision what “the past” was like. A good historian knows that we are always looking back through a lens of today, imagining the past while subconsciously making assumptions about what we believe to be true, or “knowing what we now know.” Revisiting the Annual Exhibitions of Northwest Ceramics, a juried series that took place at the Oregon Ceramic Studio in Portland, between 1950-64, has been an experiment in looking back. The Studio (or OCS, now Museum of Contemporary Craft) organized these exhibitions in order to both stimulate the artists working in clay and legitimize that medium as an art form. Today, the artwork and archives that remain act as clear evidence of how the OCS played a part in the transition of how ceramics were perceived, capturing one of the most exciting periods of art history in the Western United States.1
In 1950, the volunteers of the Oregon Ceramic Studio launched the First Annual Exhibition of Northwest Ceramics, using a model set forth by the annual Ceramic National Exhibitions at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (now Everson Museum of Art), New York. “Calls for Entries” were sent out to artists in selected Northwestern states, asking for work made within the last year to be entered into the competition.2 Actual work was shipped to Portland, where a panel of guest-jurors reviewed the pieces and made their selections for the exhibition, awarding a range of donated monetary prizes to the best work. On display in the Museum’s original location in southwest Portland for one month, each exhibition gained much press and attention, attracted crowds and, with them, patrons, as the majority of the work in each Annual was sold to local Portlanders.3 Fortunately, almost 60 award-winning works spanning the 14 years were later donated to the Museum of Contemporary Craft or purchased directly out of the exhibitions by the Portland Art Museum; almost all of these works are now on view together for the very first time, visually demonstrating a documented shift in ceramic artwork from functional, classically-shaped vessels to abstract, expressionist sculpture.
Perhaps one of the most telling things about how the Annuals demonstrate this shift in ceramic work through the years, is the subtle change in the structure of the “Call for Entries.” For each exhibition, the Studio asked that artists submit their work to the jury in specific category, either “Pottery” or “Sculpture.” This differentiation, and the fact that these labels were even used, highlights the segregation that the Studio would eventually hope to dispel, and the very issue that the American Craft Movement would take on itself: the age-old art vs. craft debate.
In the first Annuals of the early 1950s, it is clear that the Studio stressed the importance of the simple, decorative function of the entries. Emphasizing use in private homes, the volunteers even installed some of the clay vessels in the exhibition holding dried flowers so that visitors could envision what the pots would look like when purchased and on display in their living rooms.4 The connection between contemporary craft and modern architecture was encouraged, and the OCS aimed to show the public that their artists were interested in designing objects for domestic use, but in an updated, non-folksy way. The subdued, grayed glaze hues in pieces like Frances Senska’s Cream and sugar set and Lee Tillotson’s Gunmetal bowl, both from 1950, and the brown salt glazes, golds, mustards and copper-blues from works in the Third through Fifth Annuals especially show the leading colors in the region as predictably earthy but pleasantly complementary to use in one’s modern home.
“The entries indicate a truly Northwest type of ceramics is developing, and that craftsmen in the area are doing a serious job of utilizing materials at hand.”5
The work entered and exhibited at the time also represented an interest in artists in working from the life and landscape around them. Swirl motifs, organic curves and leaves were incorporated onto traditional vessel forms, and artists used wax relief and sgraffito techniques to add designs to the surface.6 Several of the award-winners each year were visual interpretations of Northwestern wildlife or livestock, as seen in Peter and Henry Meloy’s Decorated bowl (1950), Eugene Bunker’s Branch bottle (1953), Peter Voulkos’ Babe the Blue Ox (1954), all decorated with line drawings in clay of steed in motion or grazing. In many cases, the work remained functional (even if the function was purely decorative), with the artists working the smooth surfaces in clean, simple ways.
There were, of course, the stand-out pieces in the earlier shows, which represented a more sculptural and conceptual treatment of clay: Voulkos’ primative Carved Pot (1951) inspired one juror to remark, “you could build a room around it;” Tom Hardy’s haunting Ram (1950, not on view but in the collection of the Portland Art Museum) left audiences wanting more from the 29-year-old Oregon rancher; and Betty Feves’ modernist Three Figures No. 4 (1955) was photographed and featured in three separate periodicals that month, as it was the third time almost in a row she had won the highest-paying award in an annual.
Year by year, works in the “Sculpture” category started to outnumber those in “Pottery,” and the awards given were eventually listed in the exhibition catalogs as “unspecified.” Finally, in 1954’s Fifth Annual Exhibition of Northwest Ceramics, for the first time the awards were not tagged by category at all (in the Museum’s archives for that exhibition, however, it is noted that there was more “Sculpture” exhibited in this Annual than any other before, so they were still being entered by category).
Then, in 1958, just as local Portlanders were realizing that the exhibition series was a regular place to see and purchase top quality work each year, the Studio decided to take a year off, shifting the series to a biennial “so that the Studio could give time and encouragement for artists to work in other clay forms.”7 The Studio was ready to break from the mold, and they held the eighth exhibition not as a regional juried show but as a national invitational, in order to take a greater survey of trends within the field, illustrate the diversity of what could be achieved with clay, and to prove just how powerful the medium could be. Along with going as far as titling the exhibition Ceramic Sculpture, in the foreword in the catalog, Board Chairman Walter Gordon alluded to the special effort put in that year to emphasize the “Sculpture” over “Pottery” element, arguing (not-so-subtlety) that the artists would make “more meaningful and spirited work” when commissioned to do large-scale sculptures that could be incorporated into public buildings—as opposed making the domestically-scaled, functional objects that had been the norm up until that point.
“Featuring ceramic sculptures alone is a departure for the studio’s annual exhibit. At previous showings sculptures have been in the minority, indicating that this creative use of clays merited further exploration. It is to encourage this exploration that the studio now offers an exhibition devoted entirely to ceramic sculptures.”8
This change to a more curated, intentional exhibition marked the beginning of a larger transition within the OCS. Looking back in the 75-year history of the Museum of Contemporary Craft it is clear that the middle of the twentieth century was a period of great growth, excitement, collaboration and discovery. It is fitting, given ceramic art on the West Coast was going through a similar transition. After World War II, the United States’ higher education system witnessed an increase in creative activity and the birth of many new programs. Because of this, more experimentation and sharing of ideas was happening particularly in the field of ceramics. As fine art programs bloomed into the 1950s and a general interest in handmade objects rose, other museums across the country began hosting regional juried exhibitions of ceramic work that resulted in record attendances.9
In the beginning of the 1960s, the New York-based American Craft Council expanded by incorporating representatives from six regions (including the Northwest).10 At the same time, Rose Slivka’s “The New Ceramic Presence” (Craft Horizons, July/August 1961) confronted readers with a declaration of what clay was becoming, lighting ceramists across the nation on fire. Since its founding in 1937, the Oregon Ceramic Studio had been part firing studio and supply shop, part center for learning about clay, and part retail gallery. Early in 1960, Lydia Herrick Hodge, founder and unofficial director of the Studio, passed away at the age of 74. The Oregon Ceramic Studio was at a crossroads. In March, under the suggestion and advice of Activities Committee member Sue Cooley and artist-in-residence/clay technician Ken Shores, the OCS discontinued its sales of ceramic supplies and firing of individuals’ work in the Studio’s kiln room. Not only was that component becoming more expensive than it was worth, but around that time other local institutions such as schools were building kilns and acting as other community resources for craft supplies anyway. The volunteers managed to mount a vigorous Ninth Biennial that year, but the Studio had already begun a process of a physical expansion and reprioritizing. Ken Shores stepped in as a part-time paid director, with longtime volunteer Barbara Weber as secretary and bookkeeper.11
Almost as if to mirror the organization’s tumultuous shifts during this period of instability, the ceramic work in the last few biennials of the early 1960s showed an interesting change as well. The images of objects on the catalog covers for both the Ninth and Tenth Biennials, for example, show off the brighter colors, deeper textures, radical forms and exaggerations in scale of the seemingly diverse yet completely resolved sculptures. Looking through the dozens of archival slides of small groupings and arrangements of objects from the First Annual (1950), contrasted with those from the Eleventh Biennial (1964), one sees the dramatic change from the simple elegance in the earlier compositions to the monumental experimentation and controlled disorder of the objects in the final exhibition. By this Biennial, the pieces were as varied as slab-built, wheel-thrown, minimally glazed, brightly (or multi-) colored, mixed media, figurative and abstract; but the resounding difference from the first exhibitions of the series is remarkable.
“Amazingly, there seems to be a real connection between all craftsmen working in the Northwest — it’s an active feeling of development and interest, coupled with a professional attitude of high standards.”12
It is also in the configurations of artwork in the installation images that an increase in dynamism is visible, with pieces working well together for the first time. As critic Catherine Jones noted, “the show has a greater variety of forms than previous, quality is high and there is a finished look about the entries that shows the potters to be in full control of their media.”13 For as different as the energetic painterly strokes of glaze in Rudy Autio’s oversized Stoneware Coiled Vase (a.k.a. Enormous Jar, 1960) to the shape of Jean Griffith’s nonsensical Raku Bottle (1962) to the violent drips of Robert Sperry’s Tray (1962) are, they appear to be carefully curated into the exhibitions and consciously installed. No longer are the objects placed together as if to mimic a domestic, liveable setting, on low cabinents or rows of shelving, but the pieces have been positioned on pedestals or hung independently on walls, finally given enough space for one to walk around.
Looking at the collected objects on view together in Northwest Modern: Revisiting the Annual Exhibitions of Northwest Ceramics of 1950-64, or a visual slideshow of the installation images (also on view), the gradual shift from domestic, functional, classically-shaped vessels, to abstract expressionistic sculpture with painterly surface treatments, exaggerations of form and a sense of rebellion, is unmistakable. In its synthesis of sculpture and painting, ceramic-work was becoming a legitimized, hybrid medium for both function and creative expression, with the Oregon Ceramic Studio leading the charge to prove the Northwest region was both a revolutionary and a leader in a field where tradition is typically honored above all else.14
Accordingly, it was becoming clear that OCS had much to be proud of. It had an even larger goal: to widen its mission and include other craft media. In order to take itself more seriously as a educational center that focused on craft as a broader subject, the Oregon Ceramic Studio finally changed its name to Contemporary Crafts Gallery by the end of 1964. But would it be able to simultaneously support its local artists, gain national attention for its exhibitions and educate its public at the same time? Clearly the story does not end here.
The Studio had certainly accomplished what it set out to do with the Annuals: support and advance regional ceramists, and aid in the change of how clay was treated in the visual arts nationally. Truly, “no other group of artists in the United States comes close to matching the influence of West Coast ceramists on the character of American ceramic art today.”15 The record of these eleven exhibitions is a pivotal one in the cultural history of the region; without the primary sources preserved in the Archives of Museum of Contemporary Craft, and the objects in the care of regional public and private collections, this unusual opportunity to look back into this time period would be lost.
Kat Perez, Curator, Northwest Modern and Exhibition Coordinator, Museum of Contemporary Craft, 2011.
Special thanks to those who have helped in the various stages of this exhibition: Ann Eichelberg, Nicole Nathan, Ezra Shales, Leia Wambach and Namita Gupta Wiggers.
1. The Archives of Museum of Contemporary Craft contain records in several forms: exhibition archives, artist files, scrapbooks, an image library of slides and photographs, and a collection of over 1,000 objects.
2. British Columbia was later included.
3. Some of the work shown over the 11 exhibitions still resides in many private collections in the region.
4. Whether it was The Oregonian or the OCS that stressed the importance of placing these objects in homes as decoration is unclear.
5. Catherine Jones, The Oregonian, June 4, 1950.
6. Sgraffito is a technique used in ceramics where the maker etches into the clay slip before firing the piece.
7. Lydia Herrick Hodge, as quoted in Van Cleve, Jan, “Golden Service: Portland’s Contemporary Crafts Gallery Marks Its 50th Year,” American Craft (October/November 1987), 38-41.
8. Jones, Catherine, “Works of 20 Nationally Known Artists Appear in Display at Ceramics Studio,” The Oregonian, Sunday, April 20, 1958.
9. Peterson, Susan, “Ceramics in the west: the explosion of the 1950s” in Lauria, Jo, ed., Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000, (Los Angeles: Rizzoli International Publications, 2000).
10. American Craft Council Newsletter, Vol. 2/No. 6/October, 1961. For interesting thoughts on how “potters” identify themselves see essay/lecture by Paul Soldner.
11. Board Meeting minutes and Ken Shores’ report, March 23, 1960.
12. “Jurors Select Winners In NW Ceramic Show,” The Oregonian, May 1964.
13. Catherine Jones, Sunday Oregonian, May 15, 1960.
14. A breakthrough in sculptural ceramics would finally come in 1966 with Artforum editor John Coplans’ exhibition Abstract Expressionist Ceramics, held at the University of California, Irvine, which featured Peter Volkuos and John Mason among others.
15. Clark, Garth, “Otis and Berkeley: crucibles of the American clay revolution” in Lauria, Jo ed., Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000, (Los Angeles: Rizzoli International Publications, 2000), 124.
Digital scans of photograph and slide documentation from each Annual Exhibition of Northwest Ceramics, 1950-64, Oregon Ceramic Studio, Portland, OR. Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Craft Archives.
August 18, 2011 – February 25, 2012
Curated by: Kat Perez, Exhibition Coordinator, Museum of Contemporary Craft
Museum of Contemporary Craft presents Northwest Modern: Revisiting the Annual Ceramic Exhibitions of 1950–64, an examination of juried exhibitions held at the Oregon Ceramic Studio, now Museum of Contemporary Craft. Concurrent with the Museum’s 75th anniversary year, the exhibition provides visitors with a deeper look into an important time period in the life of the institution, as well as the trends in ceramics during the mid-twentieth century.
Northwest Modern is installed chronologically by each Annual exhibition, with original artwork and ephemera from the Museum’s archives shown alongside reproductions of photographs that tell the story of West Coast ceramics. The survey of these eleven exhibitions also provides a behind-the-scenes look into the inner workings of the institution at that time. Northwest Modern: Revisiting the Annual Ceramic Exhibitions of 1950–64 is the curatorial debut of Kat Perez, Exhibition Coordinator at Museum of Contemporary Craft.
EXHIBITIONS AND PUBLIC PROGRAMS ARE SUPPORTED BY:
We are grateful for 75th Anniversary Anchor Support from the following
PNCA+FIVE Ford Institute for Visual Education
The Collins Foundation · The Ford Family Foundation · The Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc · Meyer Memorial Trust · James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation · Western States Arts Federation · National Endowment for the Arts · Whiteman Foundation
Cynthia Addams · Ginny Adelsheim · Bank of America · John & Suzanne Bishop · Mary & Brot Bishop · Virginia Campbell · Maribeth Collins · Truman Collins · Sue Cooley · Anne & James F. Crumpacker · Czopek & Erdenberger · Carol Edelman · John Gray · Ray & Jere Grimm · Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation · Ronna & Eric Hoffman · Sue Horn-Caskey & Rick Caskey · HW Irwin & DCH Irwin Foundation · The Jackson Foundation · Selby Key · Connie Kiener · Anne Koerner · Sally & John Lawrence · Dorothy Lemelson · Doug Macy · Mary Maletis · Linda & Ken Mantel · M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust · Widney & Glenn Moore · Linda & Bill Nicholson · Oregon Cultural Trust · Oregon Potters Association · Paul G. Allen Family Foundation · PGE Foundation · Regional Arts & Culture Council · Dick & Deanne Rubinstein · Luwayne “Buzzy” Sammons · Arlene & Harold Schnitzer · Bonnie Serkin & Will Emery · Manya Shapiro · Joan & John Shipley · Ken Shores · Carol Smith-Larson · Al Solheim · Cornelia & William Stevens · The Standard · Susan Thayer Farago · US Bank · Vibrant Table Catering · Larry & Dorie Vollum · Steve & Tisha Vollum · Wessinger Foundation · Wyss Foundation · ZGF Architects LLP · ZIBA
With special thanks to: Portland Monthly