African houses, Mexican Indian art, textiles, Eastern and early European art and Cycladic sculptures are among the sources that revered ceramic artist Karen Karnes says inform her work. Also playing into the mix are elements from the natural world mountains, fields, rocks, water, windblown snow and sand.
Of these things she makes earthy yet elegant ceramics that express a pure modernism and at times venture into the realm of the figurative and erotic. A major retrospective of her work, which spans 60 years, is on view through Sept. 30 at the Crocker Art Museum. It features 69 masterworks from a seminal artist now in her 80s.
Creator of some of the most iconic vessels and sculptural objects in American ceramics, Karnes has been in the forefront of the studio pottery movement since the 1950s. Her work is prized for its understated yet rich surfaces and its gorgeous biomorphic forms, which sometimes mimic landscapes and at others the human form.
A solitary genius who has plotted a singular path in the ceramics world, she has been a mentor to other studio potters and is one of the most beloved figures in her field. Though she had contact with legendary Japanese ceramist Shoji Hamada and abstract expressionist ceramic artist Peter Voulkos when she and her then-husband David Weinrib were in charge of the pottery program at North Carolina's Black Mountain College in the early 1950s, she has rigorously followed her own path, producing works prized for their purity and originality.
Born in 1925, Karnes was the child of Russian and Polish immigrants who were actively involved in socialist and union circles. She grew up in a Bronx cooperative where she was allowed to grow an independent and industrious spirit.
Though she studied at Brooklyn College and later at Alfred University, she is largely self-taught. After her stint at Black Mountain, she joined an artists commune in Stony Point, N.Y., where she continued to produce functional pieces, most with salt-glazed surfaces that gave a rough, tactile feeling to her pots. In 1979, she moved to Vermont with her life partner, Anne Stannard, an English ceramist, and began making wood-fired vessels.
The Crocker show, organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramic Research Center, includes examples from all her periods. From an elegantly rustic teapot, creamer and sugar bowl from her Black Mountain days to the quixotic "Three Forms" from 2002, the show is a stunning tribute to her individuality and seriousness of purpose.
While in recent years she has moved into sculptural forms with openings which she calls "boulders," her work remains rooted in the vessel form, reminding us that she set out in the beginning to make things people could use. Here, then, are goblets and coffee sets and candleholders from her earliest period. But even as she moves toward less functional pieces, she always remains true to the ethos of "the pot."
Among the stunning works on view are a deeply pitted, cobalt blue salt-glazed vase from 1978; a large wood-fired, glazed stoneware vase from 1998 which resembles a minimalist though sensual female figure; and a playful wood-fired flower container from 1997 in gorgeous colors of green and blue.
Also on view are examples of her groundbreaking, flameproof casseroles with Mobius strip handles which were a mainstay of her practice in the 1970s, long-necked vases and covered jars with sculpted lids from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and "winged" vessels from the late 1980s that are poised between the functional and the sculptural, as is a handsome split-footed bowl from 1990.
While Karnes' glazes are often muted and subtle, they are rich with undertones of green, yellow, purple and blue emerging from dark surfaces. These truly sublime examples of the potter's art culminate in an unglazed, wood-fired sculptural vessel from 2008 that seems to be pure, passionate poetry. You won't want to miss this show or the fine catalog that accompanies it.
A CHOSEN PATH: THE CERAMIC ART OF KAREN KARNES
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, through Sept. 30.
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
Cost: $10 general, $8 seniors 65 and older and college students, $5 ages 7 to 17. Free for children 6 and younger and members. Every third Sunday of the month is "Pay What You Wish Sunday."
Information: (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org