Many of the country’s best-known artists working in clay are included in an important group of contemporary American ceramics gifted to the Crocker Art Museum in 2016 by Elaine and Sydney Cohen of Phoenix, Ariz., and 60 of these remarkable works are up in a dazzling exhibition on the museum’s third floor.
They fill important gaps in the Crocker’s ceramics collection, begun in the 19th century by the Crocker’s daughter Jennie Louise Crocker Fassett, who collected exquisite Korean ceramics. Now with 6,000 works in clay, the Crocker is among the top five ceramics repositories in the country, said the museum’s Associate Director and Chief Curator Scott Shields.
The Cohens became ceramics collectors by happenstance, Shields said. When they moved from Chicago to Phoenix, settling in a 1987 Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin-designed home with no wall space for paintings but built-in niches perfect for pottery, they began their collection with no plan other than buying what they liked. Fortunately for the Crocker, what they liked was not only spectacular but adds important pieces by Jun Kaneko, Rudy Autio, and Edwin Scheier, who became their friends.
Kaneko, who is arguably the most important clay artist working today, Autio and Scheier are represented by multiple pieces in the display of works from the Cohen collection, allowing viewers to appreciate the evolution and breadth of their visions.
Kaneko’s bold minimalist pieces are among the first to greet you as you step out of the elevator. “Untitled Platter,” 1987, a seemingly simple white oval with a blue-black circle in the center and a scatter of small, nearly subliminal, wound-like, red markings, is breathtaking. So is “Untitled (Slab),” 1989, a glazed stoneware rectangle that might be cut from rock except for a bronze sheen that appears when the light hits it right. Set into the long narrow rectangle is a vibrant orange rectangle lined with red that glows like a jewel and echoes the larger form.
Autio, who taught at the University of Montana for 28 years and has been called the “Matisse of Ceramics,” is represented by works that demonstrate his progression from abstraction to figuration. “Animal Fair,” 1984, is a glazed porcelain vessel that morphs into a charming biomorphic sculpture with images of a nude woman, a dog, a ram and a horse that take on a life of their own. “Talisman,” 1994, is a larger piece that takes this approach to an even more intense level, placing a nude and several horses in motion against deep red passages that serve as the ground for a passionate scenario.
Ten expressive untitled vessels of glazed stoneware by Scheier with colorful glazes in intense shades of blue and rich surfaces incised with sgraffito or applied bas relief decoration, make an impressive display along one wall. Done between 1988 and 1999, these elegant singed and earthen vases bear motifs derived from African, Mexican and Oceanic art, each offering fascinating figurative narratives that seem to spring from archaic cultures.
In contrast, Tom Rippon’s “Domestic Icon #8,” 1994, a strange, suavely executed, satin-glazed, porcelain sewing machine with odd appendages and extrusions, draws on Surrealist sources, such as Andre Breton and Salvador Dali. Viola Frey’s brightly colored “Space Vessel,” 1970, a small atypical piece of her work, reflects the psychedelic ethos of its time.
I was also taken by David Peters’ subtle, elegantly simple, “Three Vases,” 2011; Rick Dillingham’s magical, rust-glazed stoneware, “Gas Can with Tree Branch,” 1989; and Frances Whitehead’s strangely beautiful, shimmering green faience glazed piece, “Arguably Alive (the Virus Taxonomy) Tobacco Mosaic,” 1999.
One of my favorite sections of the show is installed in the sunny, semicircular Weborg Gallery. Here you will find rough, raw, earthy works, mostly wood-fired and salt-glazed pieces, like Don Bendel’s “Ice Bucket” from the mid-1990‘s; Don Reitz’s “Salt-Glazed Platter,” 1998; and Ryan Mitchell’s “Void,” 2006. I don’t know why I love these basic, almost prehistoric (in the case of Bendel’s “Ice Bucket”) ceramic works. I just do.
But the whole show is of exceptional quality and the Crocker is lucky to be the beneficiary of the Cohen’s generosity.
If you go
The Elaine and Sydney Cohen Collection of Contemporary Ceramics
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St.
When: Through Nov. 18. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; closed Mondays.
Cost: $12-$6, free for museum members and children 5 and younger; every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”
Information: (916) 808-7000, crockerart.org