Archive for the ‘Design’ Category
Yesterday, a journalist asked me “What is California Design?” My response was to send her the first chapter of Wendy Kaplan’s excellent essay in the LACMA publication, “Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965.” Kaplan’s book (now in its fourth printing!) accompanies the touring exhibition which debuted at LACMA last year, and is set to open in Tokyo in March.
But as I thought about the question of definition, I realized that California Design has some strong antecedents and a marvelous mix of influences. In fact, Kaplan said it best herself when she wrote that, when speaking about California Design, scholars are “referring not to a single aesthetic but to a loose, albeit clearly recognizable, group of ideas.” It’s a movement that was fed by European émigrés, including architects Schindler and Neutra, as well as Marguerite Wildenhain and the Natzlers in ceramics. Another component was the modern craft movement, which emphasizes the connection to the hand and the recognition of the beauty of every-day objects, when imbued with a refined aesthetic. Being on the edge of the Pacific Rim, California also absorbed the aesthetic and philosophy of Asian culture in the post-WWII environment. And certainly, most accounts include the open and unbounded atmosphere for expression on the West Coast, not to mention the inviting climate.
European immigration to California came in two primary waves, the first beginning in the late teens and 1920s and the second consisting of war-time refugees, fleeing the Nazis. R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra were both early émigrés, who found in California an accommodating climate and a clientele interested in their theories of indoor/outdoor living and the use of modern materials such as steel and glass. The conditions of California were particularly amenable to the casual outdoor living promoted by these transplanted Modernists, who worked to tailor their visions to the desires of Californians.
These modern homes needed to be filled with the furniture and objects of everyday life, and the modern craft movements had a marked influence in this regard. Designers and artists strove to make their work accessible to the middle class, giving rise to the designer-craftsman. In her volume, Kaplan writes that “The concept of the designer-craftsman, though not unique to California, was most successfully realized there, particularly in ceramics.” Ceramists such as Harrison McIntosh embodied the idea that everyday items can be imbued with elegance and dignity, and that using these well-designed objects adds enjoyment to one’s daily life. Influenced by the Bauhaus-educated Marguerite Wildenhain, who fled the Nazis in 1940, McIntosh focused on simple and graceful silhouettes for practical usage.
Openness to new ideas is no doubt one of most important factors in the development of the style that came to be known as California Modern Design. A willingness to try new things led to an exciting synthesis of influences. California’s proximity to Asia led to heightened interest in the aesthetic and philosophy of Asian culture after the Second World War. Furniture and the decorative arts in particular were influenced by Pan-Asian motifs.
Thus, the question “What is California Design?” is not one that can be answered simply. California Design, like California itself, reflects the complex set of factors that shaped a region during the middle of the 20th century.
My gallery is well known for specializing in contemporary ceramics. That’s been beneficial in gaining attention from other worlds, particularly the professions of design and architecture. Just recently, Don Chadwick, the designer of the world-famous Aeron chair came to see us again at the gallery. He’s interested in the use of the hand by our artists, and, in turn, I asked him to autograph my Aeron chair.
Architects also seem to be fascinated with ceramics. Could some of the interest from architects be related to the plasticity of the material? Two architects that I know have an affinity for the intimacy of small scale sculpture, and close relationships with artists. When Frederick Fisher was designing my gallery, he told me that he conceived of the large volume of space as a container of smaller sculptural forms. His knowledge of individual sculptors led him to design a series of appropriately scaled modular boxes within the larger building. This intersection of architecture and art specifically referenced ceramic sculptors’ work, as Fred included works by Adrian Saxe and Roseline Delisle in his first concept sketches.
Frank Gehry also has a long history with ceramic sculpture. From his early encounters with Glen Lukens at USC to his recent design of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s retrospective for Ken Price, Gehry has maintained an interest in the scale and tactile intimacy of forms made in clay. Gehry’s art collection includes works by Ken Price and George Ohr, and he has been friends with ceramic artists Peter Voulkos, John Mason, and Billy Al Bengston for decades. He was also the architect for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, a museum which holds a collection of pottery by George Ohr.
Yesterday, a pair of writers from back East asked for recommendations on Pacific Standard Time shows. I urged them to take the trip to San Diego (and La Jolla) for Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at MCASD. Robin Clark’s show simply should not be missed. I singled out the shows that I’ve seen at LACMA: first, Five Card Stud, Ed Kienholz’s stunning and unforgettable installation about race and violence in America. Also (for entirely different reasons) Asco, the well-documented look at the Latino collective performance group, and California Design: Living in a Modern Way, LACMA’s delightful and rich presentation of design.
However, I forgot to send these visitors to a show that is a sleeper hit or hidden gem: Artistic Evolution: Southern California Artists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1945—1963. Perfectly chosen and presented by Charlotte Eyerman, this exhibit is the most faithful to the stated purpose of the Getty’s project: original scholarly research leading to an exhibition about Los Angeles art from the period of 1945 to 1980. Ms. Eyerman deserves a huge round of applause for a tightly curated and thoroughly researched show, presented in the rotunda of the Natural History Museum—quite similar in location to the old LA County Museum’s annual exhibits.
I was reminded of Eyerman’s contribution to the PST cause today. I read a review by Christopher Knight, and he has superb way of looking at the Artistic Evolution show. After reading Knight’s review, scroll down and read his post about Larry Bell, Frank Gehry and architecture. It’s a brilliant linking of those three elements, and Knight rightfully cites the long-term friendship of Bell and Gehry, who have often worked together on projects.
Most people know my friend Rob Forbes as an expert in design, and as a businessman. But I’ve known him for more than 50 years, from the time we met in elementary school, so I’ve seen lots of his other talents. He’s a good athlete, a gifted writer, and—here’s the point of our current show—a man with a background in aesthetics and ceramics. As Rob said recently, the task of selecting works for our exhibit is “a great opportunity for me to connect some dots between periods of both my professional and personal life, stretching back to the 1970’s when I was a potter.” Like most potters, Rob had a great admiration for Peter Voulkos (here’s a photo of the two of them).
Rob puts his curiosity and intelligence into the job of curating the show. But he went far beyond the assignment of choosing works. Rob has written and published a booklet titled “See for Yourself”, an amazing little pamphlet. His 20 short chapters break into aesthetic concepts that are abstracted from the practice of making ceramics—Form, Utility, Repetition, Humility, Color, Pattern, and Texture. He’s included dozens of photos that illustrate his points. I’ve never had anyone take the task of curating a show to this level, and I’m really pleased to have a book to help explain the show.
Like most ceramists we’ve represented, Forbes extolls the direct tactile qualities of the material: “Clay dries, shrinks, and cracks. Your arms get submerged in buckets of creamy glazes and slips. It’s like working in the garden or playing in the sandbox. Soft, unctuous material is converted into one of the hardest and most durable substances known to man. And the finished, fired surfaces range from coarse matte to brilliant glassy textures, many of which need to be handled to be appreciated. Both the process and product are about touch and feel.”
I realized a couple of months ago that the gallery is now 15 years old. Basically, that also means another milestone: we’ve presented over 150 exhibitions—about 10 per year. It is a source of pride, because in the world of art galleries, that’s an accomplishment. I thought of this again today as we are beginning to prepare the next show.
Recapitulando marks, for the artist Gustavo Pérez, a summation of his work. The Mexican ceramist, who has been exhibiting internationally since 1976, has developed several themes in his ceramic sculpture. This exhibition provides a retrospective look at those series, and presents over 48 works. Significant large scale pieces are included along with Gustavo Pérez’s more familiar vessels, resulting in a complete range of scale and form.
This will be the seventh solo exhibition of Perez’s work at the gallery. Two large scale examples of his work are included in this show, Triangulo and Tablero. The installation piece Triangulo is composed of dozens of small cylinders, cut at a precise angle and placed face-to-face in opposition. The sculpture forms an equilateral triangle, and though it is based in geometry alludes simultaneously to minimal art and optical illusion. Tablero is a wall relief, composed of 49 small abstract forms. Although the individual pieces are made by straightforward folding and forming of the clay, the resulting image has a primitive presence.
Recently, Gustavo completed an excellent interview. I’d highly recommend reading it:
For me, travel is like food. I must have it, to sustain my curiosity. Most changes in my life have come from education, travel, and art—and in the landscape of my imagination. Looking out of the window of a train from Nimes to Paris, I realized how my images of France were first taken from paintings and films. Over forty years ago, I saw the French landscape in the paintings of Courbet, Corot and Cézanne. Back then, too, I traveled through the cities and countryside in the films of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
As a teenager, I took Art History classes and studied French painting, from the Revolution to the early 20th century. It’s now clear to me: those classes were a formative influence on the way I see the world. Not just the way I see the movements, evolution and revolution within the history of Western painting. More than that, those afternoons of endless projected images burned the French landscape into my head.
Art History, as taught in those days, recounted a series of movements, and the work of artists within a school of painting, the dominant mode. Reactions against academies and reflections of cultural change were the chapter headings. The artists’ names and their works were material for memorization, for making sure that you could pass the test and pronounce the names correctly—from Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Delacroix to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
But what I saw in the darkened classroom, in paired light-filled slides projected onto pull-down screens, was the romance of the French landscape. From pastoral precedents for Impressionism to the fracturing of the picture plane that led to Cubism, those images of paintings took my imagination for a ride. I’ve never been the same since.
Santa Monica College is host to lots of art and culture. Not just KCRW, my constant companion NPR radio station—something that I’ve mentioned before in this blog. Santa Monica College also is the home of the Broad Stage, another of the generous philanthropic gifts from Eli and Edythe Broad. In the same complex at the Broad Stage is the Pete and Susan Barrett Art Gallery. Within the last year and a half, the small college-and-community gallery has presented shows by Gwynn Murrill and Edith Baumann. Coming up soon, from November 2nd to December 4th, is a show by Peter Shire.
It’s a long distance between Echo Park and Hokkiado, but back in 1992 Peter Shire bridged that oceanic gap. Not just by his travel, but in his sculpture. In a fantastic series of teapots, Peter melded stainless steel and ikebana, and mixed bolts with bamboo. As always, a post-modern constructivist sensibility was lightened by a sense of humor. This series of work, made in Japan in 1992, takes the familiar domestic object into the zany and bizarre world of Shire’s mechanical fantasy.
The playful seriousness and serious playfulness of Peter Shire was clearly evident. He continually re-invented the form of the teapot during the 1980s, and this series of works shows him at the height of his powers. Although it was decades ago that Peter Shire turned his attention to the form of the teapot, these constructed works show an artist’s delight in composition and construction.
Strong and stable at the base, the teapot-sculptures stand and support a variety of shapes. Next to the simple stainless steel planes are vibrant colored palette shapes and perforated swords. Who else would have thought to combine the hardness of the stainless steel with the organic and leafy bamboo? Who else would have kept his own color sense? Peter combined his own history with color and was pushed by Japanese colors—perhaps the deep color of a plum blossom or a leafy green.
Peter’s father, Hank, was also a consummate craftsman. Shire’s attention to detail reflects that love of the finely crafted object. So that’s the mix we see in this work: a blend of something Eastern, something Western—and a mix of the nuts and bolts of construction with the lightness and air of bamboo. One can sense the delight and playful hand of the artist.