Innovation and Change: Great Ceramics from the Ceramics Research Center, Arizona State University Art Museum Collection

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Innovation and Change: Great Ceramics from the Ceramics Research Center, Arizona State University Art Museum Collection


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


Clay is one of the oldest materials known to humanity and has been used for utilitarian purposes and creative expression since prehistoric times. Clay tablets were used as the first writing medium when inscribed with cuneiform script around 3,000 B.C. When fired, clay was used for ceramic bricks, tiles, pots, bowls and dishware.

As civilizations evolved, ceramic materials, techniques, purposes and design all became more sophisticated and expressive. With the addition of different minerals and firing methods, clay was used to produce earthenware, stoneware and porcelain, allowing for even greater uses and versatility. Over the past 5,000 years or so, ceramics occupy a distinguished status in the history of numerous civilizations and cultures, both East and West and both ancient and modern.

Innovation and Change: Great Ceramics from the Ceramics Research Center, Arizona State University Art Museum Collection highlights 79 masterworks by many of the leading international artists of our time, offering a panoramic survey of the potential of clay as an expressive art form. The objects on view range from functional ware for everyday use to more expressive sculptural forms.

The exhibition provides an in-depth survey of American studio ceramics since the 1950s. There are also several examples of major European and Asian ceramic artists who were major influences to generations of American potters. The exhibition features works by such prominent artists as Robert Arneson, Rudy Autio, Hans Coper, Rick Dillingham, Ken Ferguson, Shoji Hamada, Karen Karnes, Maria Martinez, Lucie Rie, Akio Takamori, Peter Voulkos and Betty Woodman.

Some of the artists started their careers when the studio movement in America was in its infancy. After World War II, there was renewed interest in the craft movement, with many universities establishing programs and more museums presenting their work. Influenced by European modernist design, as well as Asian pottery traditions, emerging ceramic pioneers created a new American aesthetic.

The studio pottery tradition also was inspired by the arts and crafts movement in the United States during the early 20th century. This tradition focused on the importance of the individual craftsman and his personal style, rather than the pottery making, as it had for centuries.

During the 1960s, the craft field matured and prospered. Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada were influential people in the field, disseminating the value of functional pottery in everyday life. But an American revolution in clay began under the charismatic leadership of Peter Voulkos, who redefined the potential of clay as an innovative form of contemporary art that embraced individual expression rather than following the crowd. Rules were broken and a new ceramic frontier was born.

The figure became a prominent foil for artistic expression in clay and witnessed a resurgence of interest in the 1960s, primarily from West Coast artists, including Robert Arneson and Viola Frey.

During the 1970s and 1980s, another significant change took place. Many artists began using the vessel format to express painterly concerns or to convey personal stories, either as painted narration on the surface or as fully integrated form and design.

With each successive generation, emerging artists have forged a new voice within the ceramic idiom. Borrowing freely from different time periods and cultures, incorporating new technologies and materials, as well as being more fluid between art mediums, they are not limited by restrictive past traditions, but continue to expand the potential of the ceramic medium.

Innovation and Change: Great Ceramics from the Ceramics Research Center, Arizona State University Art Museum Collection is in the midst of a 10-city national tour over a three-year period.

This exhibition was curated by Peter Held, Curator of Ceramics, and was developed and managed by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, an exhibition tour development company in Kansas City, Mo. …

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