California Design at the Auckland Art Gallery

At Auckland Art Gallery, just recently opened is the exhibition CALIFORNIA DESIGN 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.  It’s on for three months until late September and there is a lively and very full programme of talks and films to accompany it. The talks have a strong emphasis on particularly the architecture and the fashion of the times but with the current world-wide interest in mid-century modernism and all that accompanies that, not least the opening of mid-century furniture shops and auction interest as the aftermath of the ceramics auctions at places like Art and Object, awareness is heightened.

Last year in the USA was a California-wide co-ordinated series of exhibitions at a variety of galleries and other public spaces that focussed upon California’s mid-century influence upon art, architecture and design. I saw a number of these, including some focussing particularly upon ceramics, either as a survey of the work of  ‘the Mama of Dada – Beatrice Wood’ or the interrelationships between painting and sculpture of the time with the work of the so-called abstract-expressionist ceramics of Voulkos, John Mason and Paul Soldner, and others of the post-war ceramic ferment at Otis in Los Angeles.  I saw an extensive show of the work of the influential tertiary teachers of the time, Glen Lukens, Susan Peterson, Carlton Ball et al, at the American Museum of Ceramics in Pomona and a small survey around the exhibition programmes of Ferus Gallery which featured Ken Price and Ron Nagle, among others. Outside of this there was the Ken Price retrospective exhibition at LACMA right at the end of my stay and which has now moved to The Metropolitan in New York where the show is designed by Frank Gehry. So, this show at AAG is right on the button it seems! Here is a ceramics viewpoint on the show…

Some works from several of these luminaries are present at Auckland Art Gallery right now. As you enter there is a large (1958) bowl by Gertrud and Otto Natzler. If you saw it in a 2D image it could be small as it is very close to typical rice bowls in profile and proportion but here is the first acquaintance with American scale.  War escapees from Vienna (1938, the same year Lucie Rie fled to England) the Natzlers brought with them their European wheel with its heavy cast fly-wheel which quickly became a model for many of the schools teaching clay in Southern California. It was Gertrud who was the thrower while Otto was the glaze chemist and this bowl has one of his typical lava-type glazes stained with copper and well integrated to surface. Double-layered, his glazes relied upon kiln atmosphere variations to partially separate and reveal the lower glaze within the crater effects engendered. The subtle mutations in underlying colour seem to me more probably to derive from agate clay rather than glaze variation. Gertrud was a skilled and sensitive thrower who strived for ‘purity of line’ and the surfaces complemented rather than overwhelmed the form. It’s a fine piece, and a good example of their work. Their aesthetic, like Rie’s, was influenced by Adolf Loos in rejecting the prevailing ornate decoration characteristic of the Wiener Werkstatte when they were students. Gertrud died some years ago and Otto has continued to develop new glazes. Last I heard he had ‘rediscovered’ Chinese yellow.

Gertrud Natzler (b. Austria, 1908–1971, active Los Angeles) Otto Natzler (b. Austria, 1908–2007, active Los Angeles) Bowl, 1943 Earthenware Height: 3 1/2 in. (8.8 cm); diameter: 8 1/2 in. (21.5 cm) LACMA, Gift of Rose A. Sperry 1972 Revocable Trust   © 2007 Gail Reynolds Natzler, Trustee of The Natzler Trust. Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA.

Gertrud Natzler (b. Austria, 1908–1971, active Los Angeles)
Otto Natzler (b. Austria, 1908–2007, active Los Angeles)
Bowl, 1943
Height: 3 1/2 in. (8.8 cm); diameter: 8 1/2 in. (21.5 cm)
LACMA, Gift of Rose A. Sperry 1972 Revocable Trust
© 2007 Gail Reynolds Natzler, Trustee of The Natzler Trust. Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA.

There are pieces from noted institutional teachers, Glen Lukens and Laura Andresen – examples typical of the era and then you come to the work of two of the most potent independents. Beatrice Wood is represented with one of her typical bowl forms – deep, straight-sided on a high foot almost like an elevated half a large, softened tin can. It has a reduced copper lustre glaze offering a dark pinkish-ruby gleam. She used the lustres she was famous for, technically quite difficult, not for their preciousness but for their manipulation of light and colour. The one here is not lit to full advantage of the glaze, but nevertheless you can see the appeal. It is a bowl, not one of her figurative tableaux that impressed me with its dimensions when I first viewed one in 3D. I knew then that she was well in her nineties and expected a modest scale. At about 70cm tall, carrying the title ‘Young Men and Chocolate’, I swiftly revised my view of elderly ladies! She carried her reputation of being Duchamp’s lover with pride and her associations with his New York Dada circle meant her expectations for her art were different to a more formalist view. She continued to work until just prior to her death at the age of 105 in 1998. There is a residential school at her old estate on the outskirts of Ojai, north of Los Angeles.

The other potency is also female and a war refugee. Margeurite Wildenhain was a French-born and Bauhaus-trained in ceramics and who was to northern California what the Heinos were to the south. Pond Farm, where she settled after a couple of years in San Francisco, became her base and is at the northern reaches of the huge wine country valley across the Golden Gate Bridge. She lived there for the rest of her days, teaching in summer (only highly dedicated, selected students apparently) and producing stoneware tableware also on a heavy fly/kick-wheel. She was fiercely opinionated and famously fought with the Otis/Los Angeles school of ceramic thought, influenced by New York’s abstract impressionist artists, claiming that they had ‘destroyed form’, to which Voulkos et al retorted that they had ‘reinvented form’. Her influence was almost as much due to her bucolic lifestyle at Pond Farm (where she taught many returned servicemen who subsequently took up her lifestyle) as it was her unique use of texture that she credited to ideas derived from her natural environment and which she abstracted via surface tooling. There is a 1965 stoneware vase in the show.

Perhaps of most interest are a few examples of the post-war LA-based ferment that radically altered American ceramics. The students in that group went on to become the leading artists, teachers and designers in US ceramics through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Most notably, there are two works from Peter Voulkos, initial leader of that tumult, made but a few years apart and illustrating the end of one phase of his work and the beginning of the next. Voulkos began, as did most at that time, with functional tableware but contact with abstract expressionism and its challenge to traditional pictorial space changed his work. We are offered a 1956-8 vase form called Standing Jar.  This is one of his large-scale vessels, heavily, informally gouged, inverted and ruptured then loosely painted with weak solutions of iron and a dirty cobalt. It is a confrontational assemblage of thrown elements that is forcefully grounded, its central mass, while elevated, with visual weight above any imaginary central horizon in the usual prescribed manner, simply seems to emphasise the heft it undoubtedly carries. The gestural, vertical lines of colour underscore the visual downward thrust. It’s a risk-taking work where despite being a hollow vessel, any suggestion of functional utility is sublimated to that of presence.

In contrast is an early sculpture, 5000 Feet (1958) made up of a mass of paddled, wheel-thrown forms at base and topped by slabbed, irregular columns, its bulkiness off-set by encompassing space and the overall iron/manganese-wash contributing to its effect of cohesive, swelling, organic growth. These were, for the first time, identifiably, uniquely, American ceramics. From here there was to be no turning back.

We have only ever had one earlier show of Voulkos’ work in New Zealand – back in the mid-nineties, I think – and only shown then at The Dowse. They were later pieces than we can see here at AAG. Here is a chance to get some glimpse of what substantially influenced traditional concepts of form and surface for clay in the USA and set it on a vastly different path to what would be followed here. In part this is due to their university setting for ceramic education where the potter was no longer isolated from mainstream art.

There is an early vessel by Paul Soldner who had not at that time started his unique form of raku but perhaps the most remarkable work in this exhibition is by Robert Arneson. In 1961 he was demonstrating wheel-throwing when, making a series of bottles, he capped the top of one and labelled it ‘No Deposit, No Return’ making a first alliance with the nascent Funk movement and started using the everyday as subject. Thus began a (startling for the time)  run of toilets, sinks and the scatological of many descriptions followed by a repositioning of everyday objects such as telephones, toasters with slightly burned fingers emerging and the typewriter, with painted fingernails as keys, that added a surrealistic, even macabre mien.

Where the Otis based abstract expressionists were unsmilingly, seriously earnest, even macho in attitudes to expression, the Bay Area Funk group that formed behind Arneson were irreverent, often deliberately offensive, insouciant and punning with a target of anything that might loosely be described as popular culture. The new style was nourished by the relaxed unstructured teaching environment at Davis campus – in Arneson’s own words, ‘No academic hierarchy, no worshipful old-timers whose word is law… no one to say this is the right way and that wrong…’ A whole new movement was begun and this piece we have here in Auckland Art Gallery is the first of those. It started the ceramic ‘art object’ – a new type of art. Form was equally balanced by a concern for context and meaning and ceramics could no longer be classified as tasteful bric-a-brac for middle-class mantelpieces.

It’s rare we see here the significantly historical in other than 2D on a page or screen.  Alongside some highly and immaculately crafted points of the preceding decorative vessel school that generously enclosed the war years, we have noteworthy beginnings of two major movements in our medium. Sadly, the third, the ‘fetish-finish’ works of Price and Nagle, also in reaction to the gravity and passion of Ab-ex clay, are not represented. I looked, in mounting excitement for their existence to no avail. However, the rest of the exhibition is also well worth viewing for the domestic contexts, architecture, furniture and fashion plus photography which is interesting and relevant. (Two views of the same corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, where LACMA now stands, taken a few years apart, are amazing transitions from oil donkeys and airstrips to the beginnings of smog city.) There are 300+ objects altogether. The ceramic content is not a lot, but there is more than I have listed here and ceramics is included within the many short video clips viewable along the way( including Harrison MacIntosh describing how he achieved his remarkable ‘spotty’ surface – carefully formulated engobes and sgraffito you won’t be surprised to learn). Oh, how I wished for a chair or two here and there.

However, to see more you’d need to go to LA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where parts (sometimes very small) of their extensive ceramics collection are regularly on display, or book a visit to Otis College of Art to see the Marer Collection that is housed there and which splendidly covers the full Abstract Expressionist clay movement. This show’s next stop is Brisbane. Go see before it disappears across The Ditch. Exit via the Gift Shop where you will see not only the books and posters but what AAG considered appropriate by way of contemporary ceramics to place on sale…. And ponder.

La Gardo Tackett (1911–1984, active Los Angeles area) Architectural Pottery (Los Angeles, 1950–71; thereafter Group Artec) Garden sculpture, c. 1955 Earthenware Largest totem, height: 81 in. (205.7 cm); diameter: 14 in. (35.6 cm) Collection of the Lawrence family; lent in honor of Max and Rita Lawrence   © La Gardo Tackett Estate. Architectural Pottery, Vessel® USA Inc. All rights reserved. Photo © 2010 Museum Associates/ LACMA

La Gardo Tackett (1911–1984, active Los Angeles area)
Architectural Pottery (Los Angeles, 1950–71; thereafter Group Artec)
Garden sculpture, c. 1955
Largest totem, height: 81 in. (205.7 cm); diameter: 14 in. (35.6 cm)
Collection of the Lawrence family; lent in honor of Max and Rita Lawrence
© La Gardo Tackett Estate. Architectural Pottery, Vessel® USA Inc. All rights reserved. Photo © 2010 Museum Associates/ LACMA

As for the associated public programmes…. For ceramists there are relevant talks on a variety of aspects of this major cultural phenomenon. You just missed Valerie Monk – writer of two books on Crown Lynn ceramics but she is talking and displaying her collection again on Sunday 4th August.

You also missed Douglas Lloyd Jenkins (so did I unfortunately) on design from mid-century California on New Zealand and its influence upon New Zealand modernism. (If someone out there did go hear it – feel welcome to post a review….) That may have included some ceramics but it’s hard to see what Voulkos and Co did to Castle, Brickell and Smisek as the thrall of the oriental was at its highest, influenced both, but in vastly different ways. Much later (70s) and the visits to California of Cornish, then O’Connor and Hawkesby did indeed bear local fruit. But Douglas is always interesting to listen to.

This coming weekend’s emphasis is on fashion with Driss Lambaraa and Doris de Pont.

There are ‘show and tell sessions’ between 12-2 and talks at 1pm and also sometimes at 3pm plus showings of iconic films from the period at 3pm and ‘late’ sessions at 6pm occasionally for which there is a small cover charge because of the music! The Art Gallery is a different place these days.

Of particular relevance with potential for application might be…

August 4th from 12 is Crown Lynn from Valerie Monk, take a quick look at the her display and then at 1pm  put those designs into context with a talk on Californian culture as Chris Mousdale leads the way from Central Avenue jazz to hard-core LA ‘noir’ and bad-ass custom cars.

Sunday 11th  and Billy Apple will talk about his collection of  Dorothy Thorpe designed Crown Lynn production. Apple has been putting together this collection over many years. The most famous have those ball handles. He knows the back-stories to these pieces and it’s absolutely worth a look for examples of some of the least functional tableware you are ever likely to see. Function rendered completely subservient to high style. 12-2pm.

At 1pm, Jeremy Hansen of HOME magazine will talk on his favourite mid-century houses. They are still influential today and your tableware could end up in one or something like it so it’s useful to understand how trends transfer and develop over time.

Sunday 18th  12-2 is Tango’s Driss Lambaraa again on fashions in vintage clothing, jewellery and furniture etc

1pm that day is Misha Kavka from Uni Auckland on the film and TV impact of California design on Hollywood film and cinematic interiors. Try not to miss this one. I have heard a number of lectures by Misha Kavka as a student – totally worth the effort – a ‘rock star’ of a lecturer!

Sunday 25th 12-2  Dan and Emma Eagle, founders of Mr Bigglesworthy; a store for mid-century furniture .

At 1pm is a talk on Charles and Ray Eames followed by a film on the period’s most famous design couple at 3pm. Invest the afternoon!

And so it goes… right through until late September. For the full programme of films, talks and show and tell sessions and events go to…




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5 responses to “California Design at the Auckland Art Gallery

  1. Fascinating – thanks for this. Wish I lived on the other side of the world. You’ve probably seen this, but just incase you haven’t you might want to take a look at this lovely film of Beatrice Wood

  2. rfw

    Juliet, thanks for posting about that u-tube clip…just looked at it and its great! Given her exotic looks and dress I always expected her to speak with an exotic accent but of course – she was 100% American!
    Nice to hear Mark Del Vecchio in the background – no credit but I feel sure it’s he and then Perrault and Garth … but best of all is she…. and that boisterous laughter at the end about chasing men! Ha! She can still make one change the mind about old ladies! Hope for us all maybe?

  3. rfw

    More…. If you did live this side of the world you’d think again. This is the first exhibiting of ceramics at the Auckland City Gallery in more than 20 years! Last one I can readily bring to mind was our own mid-century show. When they do put up something of clay they miss opportunities for an appreciative specialised audience. With three/four hundred or so aficionados for ceramic art in Auckland alone they have neglected approaching that audience.
    There is acknowledgement of the commercial with exhibits and attention to Crown Lynn of course – as our only industrial ceramic giant it has a collector base. But so does the hand-made, here and everywhere else, as that grew in those post-war years also.
    And there was opportunity for specialist talks for the ceramics audience… there are talks for architecture interests, fashion, film, furniture and the factory-made…even for those fascinated with surfboards, but they missed the ceramists. Why? They probably don’t know there is a seminal work and several quite important and interesting pieces contained in that show…. such a pity. But I hope the clay community goes and sees it.

  4. Hi, Moyra.

    I’m fairly sure that the person who was reported to have rediscovered or reinvented Chinese Yellow was Otto Heino, not Otto Natzler.

    Best —

    • You are probably right! I had a newspaper clipping sent me by a friend but cannot lay hands upon it, where I read of the ‘elusive Chinese Yellow’ and Otto’s Rolls Royce etc. At least I got the Otto bit correct and apologies for my mistake.

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