A Tribute to Ralph Bacerra
I’ve been remembering Ralph Bacerra as we prepare to present a show of early work tomorrow. I see some of his personal interests as we arrange the works. Ralph was an avid gardener who cultivated exotic orchids, a traveler, a man who loved his dogs, and he was a gourmet cook. Yet what is fascinating, as I look back, was his outlook on life. He had a singular vision—to be a ceramist. He told me about when he saw a stoneware vessel in high school, and learned about ceramics from Vivika Heino at Chouinard, and how he had an immediate affinity with ceramics. He was incredibly focused and directed from that time on. He became a leader in the movement of American studio ceramics, not just because of his generous talents, but also because of his vision and hard work in the studio.
In his long career, Bacerra addressed everything from the small cup form to a huge 3,000-piece tile mural. In an interview for the Archives of American Art, I asked Ralph to describe the difficulties or opportunities presented by his largest public work, a commission.
He said, “Well, there weren’t difficulties. I mean, if you know what you’re doing and you have your vision. You have your idea, and it comes out. But all those things are sort of intuitive. You do research, you read books, you see the shows, and they’re sort of in the back of your head, and as you begin to work, it all begins to come out. I think that most of the creativity comes from the actual doing–using your hands, using the clay, using the materials. And you can’t sit there and think about it. My philosophy is you get in the studio and you get out the materials.”
You may think that I am an art dealer, but actually…I became a student of Ralph’s. His questioning voice and his challenges were always there. When I stopped by his studio and brought his work to the gallery, he would tell me how it was made. When we traveled to San Francisco, he walked me through the collection of the DeYoung museum, and pointed out the prime examples of Asian Art. If my gallery showed new work, he came to test the ring of the pot, and pronounced it properly fired—or, not. I began to grasp the concepts of glaze “fit” and the order of firing.
It wasn’t easy, but I guess I passed the tests. Because when Ralph took you on as a student, there was tremendous loyalty. He didn’t let go. He was a true supporter of the gallery, and never missed an opening…even the one three days before he died. I wish he could be here tomorrow.
Photo by Sid Felsen