California Pottery:
From Missions to Modernism

 

SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
JUNE 20, 2001 THROUGH OCTOBER 14, 2001

AUTRY MUSEUM
JULY 4, 2003 THROUGH JANUARY 25, 2004

CURATED BY BILL STERN

By the early 20th century “California” had become as marketable a brand as “Champagne,” a distinction no other part of the United States could claim. Although “California” didn’t signify luxury the way Champagne did, the name “California” could be counted on to get America's attention. Today we still expect it to be attached to something new to use or pretty to look at or even a whole new approach to life, for California has been responsible for innovations ranging from Levi’s to patio living, from hot tubs to iMacs, from the Miata to modernist pottery.

California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism, an unprecedented exhibition drawn from forty-seven California collections, documents a significant aspect of the Golden State’s contribution to American design. Its displays of aesthetically and historically significant tableware, gardenware, and tiles were produced by forty-four of the more than 600 commercial potteries that flourished here between 1900 and 1955. They range from color-splashed interpretations of traditional forms to radical innovations that changed the way we have lived for almost a century.

California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism, installation detail, at the Autry Museum.

Practical pottery was first made in California by indigenous peoples, but the first pottery multiples—roof tiles and floor and patio pavers—were formed in the late eighteenth century from local red clay at Spanish colonial missions and military outposts. This same type of clay was used by the commercial pottery industry that burgeoned—along with the state’s population—in the first decades of the twentieth century. It was then that California pottery producers began freeing themselves from the European ceramic traditions that had dominated American taste since the founding of the Republic. The state’s fresh contributions to American design were the result of a unique interaction of cultures in the United States: Mexican, Spanish-Moorish, Chinese, and Japanese.

The first great cultural fusion in California pottery design took place when the planners of the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in San Diego hired Bertram Goodhue to design the event. The New York architect chose to ornament the exposition’s Balboa Park buildings with glazed tiles featuring Spanish-Moorish geometric designs that Muslim invaders had brought to Spain in the eighth century. Almost immediately, California designers reconfigured those traditional patterns and then replaced the pale Hispano-Moresque tones with saturated Mexican colors.

The next big event took place in the 1930s when California pottery’s solid-color revolution—led by Brayton Laguna, Catalina Pottery, J. A. Bauer Pottery Co., and Pacific Pottery—swept America from west to east. This was followed by an extraordinary burst of innovation in both form and decoration. Between 1941 and 1945, however, many of California’s commercial potteries focused their production on the defense effort or merely imitated the English and Japanese dinnerware and decorative items no longer available on the American market.

But the immediate post-World War II decade was a time of extraordinary innovation out of which came much of the subsequent good design in American ceramics. In this period J. A. Bauer; Gladding, McBean/Franciscan; Metlox; Vernon Kilns; and other California potteries represented in this show added modernist designs to their lines. But even before this development, the new era was heralded by two young ceramists—Barbara Willis and Edith Heath—who would make lasting contributions to the quality of commercial ceramic design in America. Their work, which can also be seen in this exhibition, is notable for its unprecedented introduction of studio pottery techniques and aesthetic standards into commercial pottery production.

This extraordinarily colorful exhibition ends with some strikingly color-free work by a company whose fifty-year-old designs seem remarkably modern even today. Ever since Architectural Pottery was established in Los Angeles in 1950, its white cylindrical planters and other ceramic forms—and their imitators—have greeted us in office buildings, banks, gasoline stations, and other public places, as well as in private homes. Unlike other commercial California potteries, Architectural Pottery was honored right from the beginning: products from its first catalog were selected for inclusion in the 1951 Good Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism includes the work of such recognized figures as famed tile maker Ernest Batchelder, eminent painter/illustrator Rockwell Kent, and acclaimed ceramic designers Harrison McIntosh, Beatrice Wood, and Eva Zeisel. Also on view are designs created by numerous heretofore unheralded talents, among them Fred H. Robertson, Gale Turnbull, May and Vieve Hamilton, Jane Bennison, Tyrus Wong, Rupert Deese, George James, Malcolm Leland, and LaGardo Tackett.

Totems, La Gardo Tackett, Architectural Pottery, earthenware, ca. 1955

 

Although the production of some of the pieces in this exhibition involved varying degrees of hand finishing, they were all made as multiples for commercial distribution and are not artworks in the conventional sense of the term. It is no surprise that even when the creator of an individual commercial piece cannot be identified, his or her mark is inherent in its design. What is astonishing is that many of these works had never been exhibited publicly before their inclusion in this exhibition.