A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes

A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes

A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes

A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes


Renowned ceramic artist Karen Karnes has created some of the most iconic pottery of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The body of work she has produced in her more than sixty years in the studio is remarkable for its depth, personal voice, and consistent innovation. Many of her pieces defy category, invoking body and landscape, pottery and sculpture, male and female, hand and eye.

Equally compelling are Karnes's experiences in some of the most significant cultural settings of her generation: from the worker-owned cooperative housing of her childhood, to Brooklyn College under modernist Serge Chermayeff, to North Carolina's avant-garde Black Mountain College, to the Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point, New York, which Karnes helped establish as an experiment in integrating art, life, family, and community.

This book, designed to accompany an exhibit of Karnes's works organized by Peter Held, curator of ceramics for the Arizona State University Art Museum's Ceramic Research Center, offers a comprehensive look at the life and work of Karnes. Edited by highly regarded studio potter Mark Shapiro, it combines essays by leading critics and scholars with color reproductions of more than sixty of her works, providing new perspectives for understanding the achievements of this extraordinary artist.


Karen Karnes is at once one of the best known and least understood artists in American ceramics. She is most often described and thought of as a traditionalist. in a limited sense this does apply. Karnes has a deep respect for the traditions of her medium. She uses traditional techniques like salt-glazing and wood-firing. Her work deals almost exclusively with the vessel, and the utilitarian pot has been her mainstay. But the “traditional” label implies a conservative approach to pottery and suggests that, like ceramists inspired by Bernard Leach for instance, she is aesthetically dependent on historical formats.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Karnes began her career as a modernist, experimenting with biomorphism or “free form” as it was known in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She has never been a captive of the ceramics community alone and from 1952 to 1979 lived in two legendary arts communities, Black Mountain College and the Gate Hill community, with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jack Tworkov, among others. If anything, in common with these groundbreaking artists, a restless, reinventing avant-garde spirit drives her ceramics.

This searching quality has won her many collectors, both of crafts and of fine arts, the latter drawn by the toughness and purity of her aesthetic and its modern inspiration. One finds as much of her work in the downtown lofts of Manhattan’s art community as in Middle America’s craft collections. When Isamu Noguchi organized his museum and sculpture garden in Queens, New York, the only artist other than himself whose work he included was Karnes (represented by a pair of large garden seats that he had acquired from her in the late 1960s).

Karnes’s earliest work in clay in the late 1940s was in the style of the moment and could be found concurrently in the work of Noguchi, Charles Eames, and Joan Miró and numerous other artists and designers. During her two-year stay in Italy at the end of that decade, her pots became even more modernist and minimal with cut rims and defining outer spines. And, despite being mold-born, each was altered by hand, so no two were alike; her textured surfaces and simple two-tone color had a stark graphic power.

When Karnes returned to the United States, she was on track to gain a graduate degree from Alfred University, the most prestigious ceramics program in the county, but she followed her own compass to Black Mountain College, where she and her then-husband, David Weinrib, became potters-in-residence. the lack of a degree never bothered her. “I did not want to teach, so it was of little use to me,” she remarked. Karnes was committed to being a working potter. She has raised a family, built a home, and lived solely by the income of her pottery ever since.

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