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.” Maija Grotell came from a world apart. She arrived in the United States in 1927 from her native Finland, where she had received more than six years of training at the Central School of Applied Arts in Helsinki. She had studied pottery there with the Belgian artist Alfred William Finch (1854–1930). Soon after she landed in New York, Grotell found work teaching at art schools and community socio-educational cooperatives such as the Henry Street Settlement, all the while building up critical notice for her work through small gallery shows and exhibitions. By 1938 her renown in craft circles was such that Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) invited her to take over as head of the ceramics department at the Cranbrook Academy of  Art—a post she would hold for nearly thirty years. Grotell’s skill at the potter’s wheel was impeccable. Her forms, whether round, ovoid, cylindrical, or flared, are always in perfect proportion (see Figs 4, 5). What excites the collector, though, is the continuous refinement of her artistry with glazes.6 “In the twenties, her work was often decorated in an almost naive scenic style, but the more she was exposed to new source material, the better and more creative she became,” says Aarons. “She was always experimenting, and made one great leap—in style, scale, use of color, glazing technique, and texture—after another. Her motifs from the 1940s into the 1960s range from geometrics to lustrous chevrons, to striations, to jagged, eye-popping abstracts. She was so prolific.”

By contrast, once Gertrud (nee Amon) and Otto Natzler found their style, they never strayed from it.  And a transcendent style it was. “They among all the studio ceramists produced the most consistently amazing pieces,” Aarons says. From Vienna’s upper middle class, they both harbored artistic ambitions and bonded over ceramics. Although they took classes, they were largely self-taught, and were shocked when they took a silver medal at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Modern in Paris in 1937 (in which both Lukens and Grotell participated). The following year, the Natzlers joined the great Jewish cultural and intellectual diaspora precipitated by Nazism and moved to Los Angeles. Awards, and the attention of galleries and museums, came quickly.7 The exquisiteness of the Natzlers’ work lies in the tension between Gertrud’s delicate classical forms and the generally monochromatic, yet dramatic, vivid, and often almost violently textured glazes that Otto applied to them (see Figs. 6, 8). Gertrud “honed her skills to the point where the walls of her pots became literally eggshell thin…. [and she] spent hundreds of hours perfecting minute changes to each part [of a pot] in a quest for a harmonious and beautiful whole.”8 Otto, meanwhile, continually sought to develop new, powerful glazes. “The glazes have energy. They act! Flowing in subtle cascades…clotting into concentrations of color, boiling, cratering,” Daniel Rhodes wrote in the catalogue to a Natzler retrospective in 1973 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery.9 At the time of this show, Natzler ceramics were in the collections of more than forty museums in the United States.10 Yet, Aarons recalls with a sort of rueful amusement, he was able to purchase one of their pieces at the San Francisco department store Gump’s in 1986.

You get the sense that had Mary (nee Goldsmith) and Edwin Scheier been cast ashore, Crusoelike, on some forsaken island, they would have searched for a way to make art before they searched for fresh water (see Figs. 6, 8). The Bronx-born Edwin haunted museums, took a few crafts, arts, and performance courses, but followed no single path in the cultural world. Mary, who was from Virginia, did receive formal artistic training in New York and Paris, and in 1935 accepted a post running a federally sponsored arts center in Appalachia. Edwin had found a job as a field supervisor for the WPA Crafts Program. They met in 1937. Chafing at their bureaucratic work, they quit their jobs and traveled, supporting themselves by staging puppet shows. When they could not make ends meet, Edwin took a job running an arts center connected to the Tennessee Valley Authority. To offer the Scheiers a creative outlet, a sympathetic friend who ran the TVA industrial ceramics studio offered to let them try pottery making after hours. The couple took to the craft immediately.11 They built a potter’s wheel from old parts of a Ford Model T, built a kiln from an oil drum, and in 1938 headed to a clay-rich area of rural Virginia to open a pottery.12 Mary threw the pots while Edwin focused on decoration. Together they created a palette of soft blue, green, pink, and purple glazes. Edwin began to develop a personal ornamental style—tinged with influences of primitive and folk art—that included high-relief appliqué stick figures or incised sgraffito images. In 1940 the Scheiers won a prize in a national ceramics exhibition, and later that year their work was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. More importantly, that year both were offered posts at the University of New Hampshire, where they would stay for the better part of twenty-seven years.13 In the academic environment, Mary’s pottery forms became more daring, and Edwin’s aesthetic grew more sophisticated. He explored his far-flung interests in such topics as surrealist painting, Arabic script, and—most significantly—the runic imagery of pre-Columbian Mezzo-American cultures. From the mid-1940s on, his ceramic designs would run along the twin lines of abstraction and the display of almost mystical figural patterns drawn mainly from Mayan art.14 In 1968 the Scheiers moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, where they took up sculpture, weaving, and painting. They retired to Arizona in 1979.

If fortune seemed to smile on the Scheiers, for much of her life Leza McVey (nee Sullivan) seemed mired in a pattern of  frustration. She was always in the shadow of her husband, the successful portrait sculptor William Mozart McVey (1905–1995), and had to play the dutiful faculty wife during his many academic postings. She was also plagued by a chronic eye condition. Though trained as a ceramic artist in her native Cleveland, her early work gave little evidence that she possessed anything like a unique artistic perspective. But in 1947, at age forty, she began to blossom.15 She started down a path that would lead her to create work that, among all the studio ceramics in Aarons’s collection, is perhaps most forceful in its claim to the status of fine art. That year William McVey was hired to teach sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and as a faculty spouse Leza had the run of studio facilities and began to audit classes. She studied with Maija Grotell, whose technical fluency and nurturing demeanor emboldened her. And certainly the artistic communality at Cranbrook widened her knowledge and influences. Through canniness or kismet, four skeins of theory and technique met in McVey’s work. The first was biomorphism. Organic asymmetrical forms were already the coming thing at Cranbrook, and McVey was arguably the first ceramist to grasp the full potential of biomorphic form in pottery, and the desire to jettison classical shapes. Secondly, she began to work on pieces—some nearly three feet in height—that had the scale of sculpture. Third, she gave up the potter’s wheel, the so-called true artisan’s tool, in favor of building her forms from clay coils and slabs by hand—a technique dismissed as fit for novices. But as she argued, “Hand methods allow a form to be pushed out from the inside—to better express the energies and vitality of growing things.”16 Last, to distance her creations—which she labeled “Ceramic Forms”—from utilitarian pieces, she crowned them with elaborately styled stoppers (see Figs. 7, 9). Or, rather finials: for if the traditional point of a stopper was to keep, say, wine inside a vessel, McVey meant hers to keep things out.17

McVey’s works in matte, earth-tone ash glaze or black finishes with long off-center necks are magnificent. Some are footed and attenuated in form; some are undecorated, others have minimal dotted glazed adornments. In the later 1950s she produced some openwork receptacles in semi-traditional shapes, decorated with vertical banding. But she never gave up asymmetry or produced pieces that were not imbued with her singular character. Sadly, the one major exhibition of her work—a retrospective at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1965—was a swan song. McVey never achieved the same level of recognition again.18

Surrounded by the works in his office, Aarons emanates an almost paternal warmth. During a period when the hearts of corporate captains seem as cold as marble, it is gratifying to see that a man who has made his fortune from the operations of bulldozers, cranes, pile drivers, girders, and rivets feels so deeply for the small thing, the fragile thing crafted by hand by a solitary artist, all in the name of beauty.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1977) p. 71.
 For comment on the currency of this sexist phenomenon, see Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World (W. W. Norton, New York, 2008), p. 23.
Greig Thompson, essay in Feeling, Thought, and Spirit: The Ceramic Work of Glen Lukens (Museum of Art and Archaeology, Columbia, Mo., 2006), p. 5.
American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950 (University Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1988), pp. 25–29.
Ibid., p. 32.
Jeff Schlanger, Maija Grotell: Works which Grow from Belief (Studio Potter Books, Goffstown, N.H., 1996), pp. 7–10; and American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950, pp. 1–8.
American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950, pp. 37–45.
Ibid., p. 39.
Daniel Rhodes, “Form and Fire,” in Form and Fire: Natzler Ceramics 1939–1972 (Smithsonian Institution Press for the Renwick Gallery, Washington, 1973), p. 14.
Form and Fire, pp. 112–113.
American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950, p. 61.
Michael K. Komanecky, American Potters: Mary and Edwin Scheier (Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, N. H., 1993), p. 40.
American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950, pp. 61–69.
Komanecky, American Potters, pp. 62–65.
Martin P. Eidelberg, The Ceramic Forms of Leza McVey (Philmark Publishers, Hudson, N. Y., 2002), pp. 37–42.
Quoted ibid., p. 52.
Ibid., pp. 45–54.
Ibid., pp. 71–76.

Gregory Cerio is a regular contributor to Antiques.