By Stacy Davies
Groundbreaking art movements aren’t always ignited by social politics—sometimes, the economic landscape can create the spark, especially when that economy is in crisis. Take, for example, Interpace Corporation, a progressive ceramic design firm that grew out of the merging of a concrete sewer pipe manufacturer and a dinnerware company that had shelved its own industrial materials division during the great crash of 1929. It was then that Gladding, McBean & Co. realized they couldn’t turn a profit producing pipe for a nonexistent building industry and so went arty—an incredibly visionary decision that these days would be unthinkable. (They didn’t decide to make cheaper pipe or ship their headquarters overseas?!)
This new, smaller dinnerware company merged with industrial builders Lock Joint Pip Company in 1962 to form Interpace (International Pipe and Ceramics), and shortly afterward hired influential artist Millard Sheets as a consultant for their new and improved earthenware division. Under his direction, the company acquired, on contract, some of the nation’s leading ceramicists and began producing innovative designs and new glazing methods, and also branched out into ceramic wall murals; this new direction lasted until 1975 when Sheets and others designers resigned when the new downturn of the economy sounded the death knell for art (now the product would be made cheaper and overseas—yay, capitalism!)
In their comprehensive exhibit, “Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California 1945-1975,” which falls under the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, the American Museum of Ceramic Art offers an extensive array artifacts from the creators at Interpace, as well as from a long line of influential ceramicists who changed the way ceramics were made and appreciated during the post-war years.
From Interpace, we find an array of wall tiles with Dora De Larios’ striking orange and brown creations that reflect her Mexican heritage and Harrison McIntosh’s somber abstracts as standouts. Sheets work also makes several appearances, most notably in the form of exquisite, almost regal teapots, cups and saucers. Outside of the Interpace collective—and what remains is the bulk of the exhibition—tableware, lamps and vases are the focus, but these are not your mother’s casserole dishes. Well, maybe they are your mother’s casserole dishes, if your mother was hip and didn’t buy her dishes at Woolworth’s.
Helen Watson’s black and white striped lidded vessel with its narrow pedestal base and Martian-esque top is incredibly posh, and Myrton Purkiss’ plates covered in geometric modernist 1950s designs are superb. Likewise, Beatrice Woods’ lustrous metallic finishes on vases and bottles—a technique for which she was known—make her pieces unique and unforgettable, and perhaps even a precursor to the forthcoming space craze of the 1960s. The black and white canisters and vases from Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman, who were inspired to take ceramics in a new direction after seeing an Eames exhibition, are a striking presence and a stark contrast to the warm earth tones of the bottles and jars from their friends and fellow married artist couple, Gertrud and Otto Natzler.
Less traditional in form, Mineo Mizuno throws some pop art into the mix with Brown Screw and Yellow Screw, which are depictions of precisely that, and a three-dimensional plate of a slice of blueberry pie sitting atop a patch of green grass. Betty Davenport Ford’s large, funky Monkey and Wayne Long’s mesh-impressed Feline are humorous and strange in an über groovy way. Long’s dimpled vessel is also a keen piece of textured artistry, and David Cressey’s crescent-laden lamp base is the epitome of kooky cool.
The entire exhibit includes over 50 artists and a staggering 300 pieces of unusual, inspiring and visionary craftsmanship, all of which remind us that while our modern world eschews transcendent functional art for affordable commercial mimicry, the past is indeed filled with ideologies and artifacts that evidence our ability to be neither mass-produced nor humdrum—here’s hoping our current economic downtime sparks similar ideas back into flight.
“Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California 1945-1975” at American Museum of Ceramic Art, 399 N. Garey Ave., Pomona, (909) 865-3146; www.amoca.org. Open Wed-Sat, noon-5PM; Every second Saturday until 9PM. Thru March 31, 2012. $5.