A vessel is a vessel is a vessel, and so called for an obvious reason: It is a hollow container invented to serve a purpose, primarily holding liquids, for storage and portability.
That, certainly, is one way to look at it. Boring, though, right?
An alternative, more beguiling case is seductively laid out in a new show at the Museum of Fine Arts called “Nature, Sculpture, Abstraction, and Clay: 100 Years of American Ceramics.”
In a relatively small gallery in the Art of the Americas Wing, MFA curators Nonie Gadsden, Caroline Cole, and Emily Zilber have laid out more than 70 ceramics, all made in America between 1881 and 2013. In every instance, you’re invited to appreciate beauty, technique, and imagination over function.
Why? The short answer is because that’s what motivated the makers of these works. Another, more pressing answer is that the works themselves leave no choice: Singly, and together, they’re simply ravishing.
Filled with colors, textures, patterns, images, and sculptural forms, the show was conceived in response to several recent gifts to the MFA, including works from the Daphne Farago Collection, and more than 25 mid-century ceramics from the Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons Collection.
The exhibition as a whole demonstrates not only the range and innovation in so-called “art pottery” over the previous century, but unexpected kinds of continuity underlying so much invention.
Walking into the exhibition is a delight. The vessels have been displayed in informal clusters on wide shelves protruding from three of the gallery’s four walls.
Trying to cover so much ground in such a small space (and with three curators pitching in!) could have produced anarchy. In fact, the show gives off a remarkable sense of cohesion. This is partly thanks to rhymes and echoes established between forms across the room, but even more, I think, to the curators’ careful attention to colors.
Several clusters, for instance, are marked by bright primary colors — red, yellow, blue — while one larger cluster is made up entirely of works in shades of blue.
The display is chronological, but the gallery is crisscrossed by creative dialogues that reach across time. I was reminded of Oliver Sacks’s account of a conference for deaf people, at which dozens of conversations were held simultaneously in sign language by people on opposite sides of a room.
One work near the show’s beginning, for instance, is a wheel-thrown gourd-shaped vase with a clear and glossy gray glaze. It was produced in 1899 at the all-women Newcomb Pottery in Louisiana, one of several turn-of-the-century potteries that were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, and pioneered art pottery in the US.
It’s beautiful. Looking at it, you register the way it would coolly fit the hand; you thrill to the ogee kick of its twice-swelling outline, you drink in all the somatic associations of its roundness.
Then, looking across the room to vessels made a century later, you see that its distinctive shape is echoed in a 1989 arrangement of five gourd-shaped forms, each with a letter attached. Arranged one way, the letters spell “FLOAT.” Rearranged, they spell “ALOFT.”
The piece, by Adrian Saxe, is by no means my favorite, but it epitomizes changes that occurred in art pottery in the last decades of the 20th century. Purely formal and aesthetic concerns were overtaken by a new sense of self-aware play, extending into the realms of language, pop culture, and politics..
Sometimes, as in Saxe’s “Float/Aloft,” the new dispensation found expression in an arbitrariness that, while typical of postmodernism across the arts, nonetheless thwarted craft practitioners as their pleas for art world acceptability grew louder.
A chair as a pear? Fine, but why not just make a pear, or a pear-shaped bear? Why, in other word, cling to the work’s functional DNA at all?
Possible answer: Why not? And indeed, in some hands, the liberation from functionality produced superb new expressions of specific creative intelligence without ever entirely dispensing with basic functional forms.
In the hands of Ken Price and Kathy Butterly, for instance, ceramic vessel forms are transformed into canvases for colors of terrific vivacity; the forms themselves have been reworked with a freedom indistinguishable from modern sculpture.
Butterly’s work here, “Zilla,” brilliantly evokes the mortal, collapsing body even as it celebrates insouciance, display, and a kind of erotics of hide and seek that seems native, on reflection, to vessels.
Price plays similar games with inside and outside. Like many of his contemporaries, he was inspired early in his career by George Ohr, the extravagantly mustachioed so-called “Mad Potter of Biloxi.” And so we jump across the room, back in time to Ohr’s “Large Vessel With Snake.”
The work’s date is not given, but Ohr died in 1918. His ceramics presumably looked utterly bizarre when he made them because they still do now. Note the lively, but oddly random colors and textures of the glaze, the arbitrary crumpling of the cup, and the mystifying presence on the saucer of a snake.
It’s wonderfully weird, and strangely beautiful. (Was it unprecedented? Not really: Go to the MFA’s Kunstkammer Gallery and you will see a 16th-century French oval dish decorated with leaves, flowers, frogs, and crayfish, with a snake squirming across the center.)
The mid-century works from the Aarons collection largely eschew this kind of playfulness, and have no time for figurative imagery. They’re adamantly abstract, but no less compelling for being so.
Some, such as Glen Lukens’s earthenware “Desert Bowls” from the 1930s and ’40s, radiate saturated color — turquoise, orange, and red. Others, such as the bottles and vases made by Gertrud and Otto Natzler in the ’50s and ’60s, use volcanic and sulfur crater glazes to create extraordinary textures. (The Natzlers, by the way, are one of several married couples represented in the show: the others are Polia and William Pillin, and Edwin and Mary Scheier.)
Highlights of this middle section include several large works by Maija Grotell, the Finnish immigrant who headed the ceramics department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. She is sometimes referred to as the “mother of American ceramics.” Her influence fans out throughout the second half the show.
Grotell’s unglazed blue stoneware vase with its technically astounding platinum luster glaze pattern is something to marvel at. But what really impresses about Grotell, who is represented here by half a dozen works, is not just her technical command but her range.
She was an artist; she felt free to experiment. She turned out plates with polychrome figurative imagery in the 1930s, huge round vases in muted colors and simple decorations in the ’40s, and slender monochrome turquoise vases in the ’50s.
There are dozens of other artists in this show of great standing, including Ralph Bacerra and influential Native American ceramicists such as Dorothy Torivio, Sandra Victorino and Lucy M. Lewis. A highlight — and a great note to end on — is Cheryl Ann Thomas’s 2013 piece “December.”
Resembling a pile of off-cuts on Issey Miyake’s workshop floor, “December” is described on the label as “repeatedly fired and fused coil-built porcelain forms with added color oxides.” Porcelain it may be, but it’s no longer even pretending to be a vessel: It’s a sculpture. No longer something to hold, it is truly something to behold.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.