Earthen Works at the Austin Museum of Art Revolution in Clay

by Rebecca Levy

The minute I saw the invitation, I was hooked. Revolution in Clay, selections from the Marer Collection of contemporary ceramics, called out like an old friend I hadn't heard from in a long time. In fact, I associate the clay medium with my best friend in college, a potter who stopped making pots a while back to finish a degree in landscape design.

I studied ceramics so I could work "aside of her" -- as she used to say with her Pottsville, Pa. patois -- one kick-wheel away. It was a meditative experience. As her forms rose majestically from the wheel-head, I would meditate on their symmetry and wonder why my own imperfectly centered globs of clay flew halfway across the studio. Judy was then -- and is still -- a strong, often silent woman. The clay medium suits her; it is a common material given to uncommon grace in the right hands. As a potter, she harnessed the elements -- earth, fire, and water -- to do her bidding. When she gave up making objects to learn how to create whole environments rooted in the earth, I wasn't surprised.

The Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria presents the Marer Collection, which includes work by most of the important names associated with clay in the last 50 years: Laura Andreson, Hans Coper, Shoji Hamada, Kenneth Price, Lucie Rie, Paul Soldner, Peter Voulkos, and more. The entire collection -- some 900 works -- was donated to Scripps College, which organized the current traveling exhibition of 71 objects. They provide a fine overview of the evolution away from function to the stylistic pluralism that exists today in the world of ceramics. In other words, these finely crafted vessel forms and platters make no effort to be anything other than aesthetic objects. They are pieces of art made of clay. Michel Conroy, associate professor of art at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, describes the show as "astounding." She intends to bring her beginning ceramics class to the museum for their final exam. Advanced classes will also be encouraged to see the work.

While the Marer Collection does not represent the entire spectrum of ceramic art over the last 50 years, Mary Davis MacNaughton, director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripts, asserts, "The collection is remarkably wide-ranging and contains works of many different sensibilities and cultures." It reflects the "highly personal and idiosyncratic view of its collector." Marer, formerly a mathematics professor at Los Angeles City College, is a man of modest means. He began collecting in the early Fifties when he purchased a bowl by Laura Andreson, one of the leading ceramists in Southern California. The catalogue accompanying the show -- an unusually well-written, beautifully illustrated volume -- suggests that this purchase "piqued his interest in clay." In 1955, he was attracted to a vase made by Peter Voulkos, who had just begun teaching at the Otis Art Institute. They became friends. Voulkos introduced him to other young artists associated with Otis. Marer became friend and patron, purchasing work directly from artists' studios, often as it emerged from the kiln. He and his wife invited the artists to dinner in their home and encouraged their work. When he traveled abroad, his friends helped him gain entry to studios in other countries and his circle of acquaintances (and the breadth of his collection) grew. His is the "best kind of collecting," says Austin ceramist Claudia Reese. "[He was] collecting because he loved it."

Marer often bought work directly from artists whose careers had not yet "taken off." The collection reflects energetic exploration and experimentation by both artist and patron. Fortunately, Marer had a very good eye. Unfortunately, the collection presents an incomplete representation of certain artists' production because, as their reputations took hold, their prices became too high for him to afford. Visitors to the AMA might be well-served to look for the Laura Andreson bowl that first caught Marer's attention and motivated him to take on extra teaching jobs to pay for his acquisitions. It is interesting to speculate how a patterned stoneware bowl of modest proportions could have sparked so intense a craving. I have always wondered what motivates the truly passionate collector.

Even though the exhibition represents the point of view of one individual, it is hardly a homogenous assembly of work. The catalogue divides the work into three sections. "The Studio Pottery Tradition, 1940-1970," includes Andreson, Michael Cardew, Coper, Hamada, Vivika and Otto Heimo, Toyo Kaneshige, Kanjiro Kawai, Bernard Leach, William Staite Murray, Antonio Prieto, Rie, Marguerite Wildenhain, and Beatrice Wood. According to Kay Koeninger, whose catalogue essay focuses on their work, these artists affirmed "the importance of individual style and the status of pottery as a legitimate artistic expression." Their work tends to be small in scale and, though not necessarily functional, still holds close to familiar forms. For those in the know, these objects alone provide sufficient reason to trek to the museum and see the exhibition. They have the elegance and grace of an aging movie star who has lost none of her zest for life.

"The Otis Era, 1954-1960" ushered in a more boisterous, no-holds-barred approach to the medium. Peter Voulkos, Mac McClain, and Paul Soldner studied ceramics courtesy of the G.I. bill after WW II, then became innovative artists and teachers. "I don't teach students how to make pottery. I teach them how to think," said Voulkos. When he came to California from Montana's Archie Bray Foundation which he'd helped found, Voulkos was prepared to combine his prior experience in clay with the influence of Zen philosophy, Japanese pottery, his appreciation for abstract-expressionist painting, and jazz. By the mid-Fifties, Voulkos himself had become a "revolution in clay" looking for a place to happen. Unfortunately, the man who hired him to teach at Otis was not prepared for the new spirit that Voulkos and his student Paul Soldner were about to unleash in his studios. Their stay at Otis was relatively short-lived, but during that time Voulkos and Soldner dramatically expanded the horizon. They made ceramic objects that were often large in scale, bold, and sculptural rather than functional.

There are a number of Peter Voulkos' works in the exhibition, and they may be among the most challenging to comprehend as art. What distinguishes his small "Vessel," a heavy, squashed pot, from the ashtray your daughter made in school, or "Walking Man" from your son's Play Dough efforts? The answer has to do with the artist's craft and technical control and a long-term commitment to exploring the medium. It also has to do with his attitude toward accident. Voulkos said, "There's no such thing as a mistake. It's just a continuation of your thinking." His appreciation for painting, poetry, and music also fed his work. The painterly, sometimes colorful surfaces and his sensitivity to texture give each piece (he is represented from 1955-1990) an undeniable presence. In fact, each of the works in this exhibition engages the viewer on its own terms. The pillowy Betty Woodman "Pitcher," totemic Voulkos vase from 1975, Paul Soldner's rangy, flailing "Pedestal Piece," June Kaneko's funky-colored, figurative floor sculpture, and Lucie Rie's elegant striped bowl are radically different from each other, but equally fascinating.

All the artists in this exhibition, including those in the third area of concentration, "Contemporary Ceramics in the Marer Collection, 1960-1990," display a consummate understanding of craft and passion for their medium. "It's the `first' material," says Claudia Reese, who goes on to discuss clay's malleability. "Other materials have never appealed to me." Austin artists Reese, Conroy, Janet Kastner, and James Tisdale were tapped by the museum to give a short talk at the art school last weekend. With a larger building, the AMA might have curated an exciting exhibition of work by regional artists to run concurrently with the Marer Collection. "There are hundreds of potters and sculptors working in Texas," says Conroy, who prepared an historical overview of Texas clay work since 1940.

When asked to explain why she chose this particular medium for herself, Conroy says "Clay has its own pace," referring to the long process of drying, firing, glazing, and firing again. "It lets your ideas catch up with what you're doing."

"It's so sensual," says my friend Judy when I call her long distance to describe the current exhibition and to talk about clay. "When it's wet, there's no other material like it." As we speak, she acknowledges an aching to return. "I have a feeling I'll be dragging that old pottery wheel out of the garage in the next year," she admits. I imagine working "aside of her" again. For me (and maybe for Fred Marer?), clay is not only about a friendly association with the forces of nature -- earth, fire, and water -- it is about friendship. n

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