Ceramics have come a remarkably long, raucous way since the early 1950s. This was the time when Peter Volkos, inspired by Abstract Expressionist painting, elevates the medium with an increased scale, ambition and an improvisational energy that mixed wheel-throw with hand-drawn forms. Since then, some ceramists – from Ken Price to Betty Woodman to Kathy Butterley – have simply assumed that their work was part of the mainstream. He and others have regularly appeared in large exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial and have been taken by major galleries.
But the mainstream art world is always much narrower than that; Many ceramists continue to work beyond their borders. Lucky for them, they have a discerning champion whose devotion can be measured in a strong, engaging exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Shapes from Out of Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection.” It celebrates the third game-changing gift of pottery and objects to this eminent collector’s mate – it honors the museum’s 150th anniversary. A journey can be humbling, but to be humble is to be enlightening: I knew less than half of the 49 cast members on the show.
About 80 items on show – out of a total of 127 of the gifts – come upon you from all sides, with unexpected contributions from new makers, unusual examples by known people and, generally, aggressive, often bulbous, rough surface works. Which Alison seems to be attracted to. More than a few items can be awkward and perhaps unattractive and will push the limits of your taste, which is always healthy. All told, the show expands on the art historical narrative, while also clearly representing one person’s soulful vision.
Alison was born in West Texas in 1932, then moved to New York around 1962 and, without any prior training, stuck with it for 25 years, committing herself to becoming an Abstract Expressionist painter. At the same time, he also began to buy – purely on instinct – whatever ceramic objects attracted him, visiting thrifty stores as he walked around town. He bought more and more, learning as he learned, and realized that many of his acquisitions were of 19th-century American art pottery, after which he began to be more selective, choosing quality over quantity, he said. .
In 2009, Ellison promised the Met some 300 pieces, most of which were to be seen in the newly constructed American Wing that year. All were formally given in 2018. Ellison also entered European ceramics around 1900, mostly French and English, giving the Met more than 100 examples. Then it was in the 20th century. Sometime in the 1980s, Ellison recognized not the painting, but his growing collection, as his calling. He is the classic tale of the inspired, autodidactic collector who becomes an expert and scholar in his own right. He has contributed a lengthy essay to the book that accompanies the exhibition, which he has also published himself. In addition, he photographed all the works reproduced in it.
Coming from abstract painting, Ellison was attracted to artists who favored abstract form over function. His preference was confirmed at a pivotal moment in 1974, when he first encountered the seminal abstract work of American Arts and Crafts (for lack of a better word) potter George Oher (1857–1918), which appeared to be neglected. later came to light. 50 years. Oher raised his own, making improvisation in the 1890s long before Volkos. He wheeled dazzlingly thin-walled pots and then turned and pinned them to sinuas, sometimes beautifully delightful, often in contrasting forms; Their metallic glazes were also innovative. Oher’s witty, elegant utensils—actually sculptures—became a touchstone for Alison; Six of them form the heart of the show and here are the only things he is keeping. But he already gave in: 20 spectacular ohers can be seen in the American wing.
The work here focuses on the post-war period. The earliest pieces in the gift are from 1945 and by an influential Danish ceramist, Axel Salto, well-known in the design world. One of the show’s openers — his wonderfully bumpy, twisted “vase” — resembles the chasmball of a priest with a mind of his own. Further on in the show, another great Salto vase appears to be wrapped in vines, attesting to her love for nature. Another influential nature-lover is Ruth Duckworth (1919–2009), whose “Untitled (Mama Pot)” evokes a gourd with a hint of the female body.
The subsequent generation of Volkos, who largely switched to hand manufacturing, are well represented here: Price and John Mason – who were his students; Rudy Auto, Robert Arneson and others.
The new Volkos works (three of the five are on exhibition), largely solidify their presence in the collection, most notably with a sculpture from 1958, whose stacked-together forms and volumes take lessons from Abstract Expressionism. reflect. It’s aptly titled “Untitled (Chicken Pot)”—and appears to be losing the pot. The Met is getting one of the coolest Arneson pieces I’ve ever seen: his homage to the circa 1960 Minoan octopus vase, which depicts the elusive creature in stormy relief and avoids the artist’s usual corniness. It is an unfortunate secret that there is no mature work by Price, but an early one, deceptively prescient, from 1957.
More recent arrivals, such as Butterly and Alyssa D’Rigo, favor thin-walled, manipulated pieces that take their tips from Oher. Anita Regal, who was born in 1976 and is the youngest artist in the collection, strongly favors rough organic forms and blazing colors. In this presentation – expertly selected and installed by Adrienne Spinozzi, an American Wing curator – more than half of the artists are entering the Met’s collection for the first time. One example is the formidable John Gill, whose hand-building techniques result in geometric planes that almost seem to have been cut out of wood.
In some cases, Ellison chose examples of an artist’s career from different periods, as in the case of three influential pieces by Peter Callas—a former Volcos assistant from 1994, 2002 and 2016, each crusty and delicate in their own way. is. Ernie Zimmerman is represented by a type of sea monster from 1994 titled “Bladder, Tongue and Tangle”. I’ll take his “Light Green Tangle” from 2013, next to a vine-covered vase of Salto in one of the show’s best vitrines. There is also Margaret Israel’s “Vessel”, a shallow basin supported by little more than an unspooling, ribbon-like tendril of clay, and Howard Kotler’s “Forty” (1965), a thick-lipped, one-legged base. With that which turns, something heavy like a robe winding around its royal wearer.
Few pieces fall and churn, like Christina Carver’s “Rotolocus,” Gary Erickson’s “Sobornado” or Anne Marie Laurie’s “Cloud Unicus”—all of which live up to their distinctive titles. Three works by Japanese artist Kyoko Tonegawa internalize these pressures, resulting in smooth, if leathery, misshapen spheroids with open, pointed claws. They can be body parts, water bags of animal hides, or blind insects.
Another group treats the ship as an irregular canvas, applying flashy glazes in brush strokes, dab or shades of paint, among them Americans Linda Benglis and Susan Stephenson; Alison Britton and Gareth Mason, both British and Babs Heinen from the Netherlands. Some fragments seem to be on the verge of collapse, such as a pot mound by Ewen Henderson, which may have been made of patches of burlap. In contrast, three of Ramón Allojua’s pieces (from 1987, 1991 and 2001) appear to be torn apart, his colored pieces of ceramics placed above a wire or rod construction, with the most recent piece apparently designed on a computer. .
And finally, some pieces stand tall, silent, and symmetrical, as witnesses or symbols, most notably Kate Blacklock’s “Cross Your Heart” and Sid Carpenter’s “Deep Roots” and “Familiar Portraits.” Similarly restrained, but only a few inches high, is the pale cylindrical “folded form” of Mary Rogers. Its thin ceramic walls are suggestive of oher, but turn on their own, as a flower bud prepares to open.
So far, Alison’s gifts to the Met number more than 600 clay objects, largely divided into three groups. Each has in short opened a new storage area for this great institution. Unlike the first two gifts, this latest act of generosity steers the museum towards a living future.
Shapes from Out of Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Alison Jr. Collection
until August 29 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.