American studio ceramics at mid century

March 2009 | Mourning the loss of aesthetic purity in the modern age, Susan Sontag once wrote that “[I]n a world that is well on its way to becoming one vast quarry, the collector becomes someone engaged in a pious work of salvage.”1 There are countless reasons why people become collectors. Doubtless there are many reasons that Philip E. Aarons, one of the nation’s leading real estate developers, became a collector. But it is clear that one impetus for his avocation was to salvage—or, better, to safeguard and celebrate—a group of artists whose reputations are not commensurate with the brilliance of their work.

Aarons has assembled one of the most important private collections of mid-century American studio ceramics, and is a passionate exponent of the talent and vision of the makers of the works he owns. Beginning in the 1930s, the studio craft movement swept through every corner of the decorative arts universe—a rebellion against the sleek-but-soulless machine age style and, later, the industrialization of design. Adherents championed the painstakingly handmade object, the idiosyncratic form, and the individual eye. In recent years, many members of the movement have been lionized—witness the accolades paid to furniture makers such as George Nakashima (1905–1990) and Wendell Castle (1932–), or to the glass artist Dale Chihuly (1941–); yet few such laurels have been accorded to ceramists. For Aarons, who collects pieces made between roughly 1935 and 1975, that fact is discouraging: “American ceramists went through a remarkable period of creativity in the middle of the century, but it has been largely ignored in studies of the nation’s decorative arts history.”

But then, ceramics have always faced a stature gap. One cause, ironically, is that the making of ceramics is so closely associated with domesticity. In a modern context, the studio movement was neglected because curators and connoisseurs had long held up fine Asian porcelains and the products of royal European manufactories as the gold standard in ceramics. Aarons offers two subtler explanations: one, he says, is that “The vast majority of studio ceramists were women,” and women have always been given short shrift in the arenas of both the fine and decorative arts.2 Secondly, Aarons notes that “to a large degree, the studio ceramists were working outside of America’s great cultural centers. They were pursuing their craft and being shown in places like rural New Hampshire, Cleveland, suburban Michigan, and Syracuse. They weren’t in New York, drinking at the Cedar Tavern with Jackson Pollock.”

To the eternal—and, by now, tedious—question of where to draw the line between art and design, Aarons offers the only sensible answer. “I want to respect the artist’s intention,” he says. “I appreciate those who believed they were creating art.” And any doubts about claims to the mantle of art are dispelled by a viewing of Aarons’s collection, the bulk of which he keeps on display in his Manhattan office. The array of forms, colors, and textures, as well as the variations in scale and in abstract and pictorial decorative motifs, are as visually energizing as a tour of any fine art gallery. Asked for a short list of the most significant artists in his collection, Aarons names  three individuals and two husband-and-wife teams. Of them only Gertrud and Otto Natzler can be said to have anything approaching a wide following among aficionados of mid-century decorative arts.

The first among the group is Glen Lukens, one of the most visionary figures in the field of American studio ceramics (see Fig. 3). Never a technically proficient potter—he generally used a mold to create his forms—Lukens first made his name as a peripatetic teacher at schools across the West, and as a tireless experimenter.  While the established eastern and midwestern ceramics makers of the 1920s were making polite pictorial pieces, Lukens “pioneered a bold approach to pottery, producing simple, massive forms that married bright colors to raw surfaces.”3 One obsession was to find a formula for a glaze that would mimic a singularly lustrous blue found on ancient Egyptian faience. He taught high school classes in Fullerton, California, and traveled to the Mojave Desert to dig for alkaline samples that would produce vibrant glazes—and perhaps the coveted blue. He succeeded after an eight-year quest; and shortly thereafter, in 1932, was invited to found the ceramics department at the University of Southern California’s architectural school.4 But the desert stayed with him. Lukens began to “introduce coarse, textured elements” into his pottery “to capture the spirit of materials associated with the arid Southwest—dried and fossilized wood, windswept and eroded clay and rock formations, and scraggly dried-out brush.”5 He took delight in defects, such as deeply crackled surfaces and hardened drops of overapplied glaze. In his love of spontaneity, Lukens anticipated by more than twenty years the love of gesture of the abstract expressionists. “Lukens was in his own world,” Aarons says. “His work is so tactile and primordial—I love that contrast with the more elegant pieces in the collection.”

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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