Reseach: Nagle & Ohr

Ron Nagle / George Ohr: Look Closer, Look Again

During May and June the George Adams Gallery will exhibit works by Ron Nagle (SF 1938 -) and George Ohr (1857-1918). The exhibition will consist of approximately ten unique ceramic sculptures by each artist, the Nagles dating from 1970 to 2010 and the Ohrs from the turn of the last century.

The exhibition highlights the work of two ceramic artists working 100 years apart who, despite obvious differences, nonetheless share numerous qualities and outlooks. Ohr’s unglazed, folded “bowls” or blister-glazed “pots” are remarkably similar in their ability to invite close scrutiny and appreciation of their complex surfaces as do Nagle’s contemporary works in porcelain. While Ohr ‘s emphasis is on use while Nagle’s is on making a sculptural object, for both carefully controlled color relationships, sculptural forms, and surface modulations are central to their oeuvres.

Ohr, known as the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” was active from 1883 when he opened his studio in Biloxi, Mississippi, until 1910. He referred to himself as an “art potter” and specialized in both utilitarian and non-utilitarian ceramics notable for their complex glazes and eccentric forms and surfaces.

Ron Nagle, active beginning in the mid 1960s in Los Angeles and later in the Bay Area (he taught at Mills College until recently), was initially associated with the high luster and pristine surfaces of the LA car culture. His works are rarely utilitarian (he is known to make sake cups from time to time), almost always small scale, and in porcelain that require multiple firings to create subtly textured and glazed surfaces.

Research: Exhibition//Dirt On Delight

JANUARY 16–JUNE 21, 2009

Dirt On Delight: Impulses That Form Clay

Dirt On Delight: Impulses That Form Clay includes significant work in clay by 22 artists spanning four generations on view January 16-June 21, 2009.
Ranging from modestly scaled pots to figurines to large sculptures, these objects cross a spectrum of conventional delineations among fine art, craft, and outsider practices. Collectively, they suggest that clay appeals to basic impulses, starting with the delight of building form, coupled with the anxiety of completion. All of the works in the exhibition appear to be in some state of flux or growth.Clay is a base material. From potsherds to porcelain fixtures, clay is synonymous with the building of industries and cultures. At the same time, its very materiality—its tactile malleability, earthen sensuousness, and humidity—make it the medium of more elemental associations and expressions. The immediacy with which clay allows one to build form and create ornament underlies its appeal—especially in relation to current modes that seem to take fabrication increasingly out of artists’ hands. More specifically, this exhibition is an opportunity to examine not only clay’s appeal, but also craft in general….


About the Institute of Contemporary Art
Founded in 1963, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania is a leader in the presentation and documentation of contemporary art. Through exhibitions, commissions, educational programs, and publications, ICA invites the public to share in the experience, interpretation and understanding of the work of established and emerging artists.




Dirt on Delight

The subtitle of the show is borne out through objects that display a primal delight in the innate qualities of clay.

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Installation view of "Dirt on Delight" at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Installation view of “Dirt on Delight” at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Once you get past the title with its punning reference to clay, perhaps in its Freudian fecal sense, and to scandalous gossip, the most striking thing about “Dirt on Delight: Impulses that Form Clay” is the anti-hierarchical installation of the exhibition. The pattern of display, seemingly as arbitrary as a yard sale, transmits key ideas on an almost subliminal level. Aside from suggesting the characteristics of flux and growth through its branching, fragmented organization, it breezily refuses to tell visitors where or how to look or what to look for. “Dirt on Delight” ignores the wheezy old “sculpture-versus-function” debate that generally dominates the occasional penetration of materials-based art into venues like the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art. These overarching choices are not countered by the gallery handout and a brief wall text or by a few artists’ taped responses to the question “How did you come to clay?” (accessible by cell phone and on the Internet). This novel (non)organization is disconcerting to some and liberating for others…

The earliest works, all from around 1900, are mediocre pieces by George Ohr, perhaps the first ceramist to value and preserve through firing those graceful, organically goofy curves and loops that just happen when you work with clay. Ohr’s iconic vessels do not stand out among nearby pieces by artists of subsequent generations, but the grouping encourages consideration on a phenomenological level and suggests affinities that transcend time.

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Research: Hyperallergic//Kathy Butterly

Kathy Butterly and the Aesthetic Challenge of “No Two Alike”by John Yau on March 16, 2014

ButterlyGlacier, 2013, clay, glaze, 6 7_8 x 6 3_8 x 4 ¼ inches

Here is a partial list of of the shows devoted to ceramic sculpture that anyone living in Manhattan could have seen during the last year: Ken Price: Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 18–September 22, 2013), which I reviewed for Hyperallergic Weekend; Joanne Greenbaum: Sculpture at Kerry Schuss (May 2–June 2, 2013); Betty Woodman: Windows, Carpets and Other Paintings at Salon 94 Freemans (May 7–June 15);Alice Mackler: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing at Kerry Schuss (June 9–July 26, 2013); Arlene Schechet: Slip at Sikkema Jenkins (October 10–November 16, 2013); Mary Frank, Elemental Expressionism: Sculpture 1969–1985 & Recent Work at DC Moore (November 14–December 21, 2013), for which I wrote the catalogue essay; Lynda Benglis at Cheim and Read (January 16–February 15, 2014).

Current exhibitions include: Jiha Moon: Foreign Love Too at Ryan Lee (February 1–March 15); Norbert Prangenberg: The Last Works at Garth Greenan (February 27–April 5, 2014), for which I also wrote the catalogue essay; and Kathy Butterly: Enter at Tibor de Nagy (February 27–April 19, 2014).

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that ceramics are finally beginning to get some serious attention in New York. There is still a very long way to go, but the city does seem to be waking up to ceramics as an art form. Whether this change is momentary or part of a larger paradigm shift remains to be seen. As I see it, the stakes are high. For in the debate between art and craft, between de-skilled conceptualism and a skill set, ceramics has always been slighted. For some thinkers, a pair of dirty hands can be equated with a weak mind.

When Ken Price was asked if ceramics were art or craft, he said, “yes.” His take-no-prisoner’s response challenges the deeply entrenched attitude that the mind (conceptual art) is superior to the body (everything that isn’t conceptual art). In a domain of art making that appears to be dominated by women, is it any wonder that not a single New York museum (the Ken Price retrospective, organized by Stephanie Barron, originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) has attempted to address what is going on in ceramic sculpture? One reason for this glaring absence might simply be that there is no curator in New York who is interested in ceramic sculpture or who is qualified to assemble a historical survey of what has been going on in ceramics on the East Coast since the beginning of this century.

ButterlyLoud Silence, 2013, clay, glaze, 4 ¾ x 4 ¾ x 4 inches

Kathy Butterly’s current show, Enter, at Tibor de Nagy confirms what I first thought when I reviewed her previous solo show, Panty Hose and Morandi, at the same gallery for theBrooklyn Rail: “Kathy Butterly is an American original whose closest forbearer is George Ohr (1857–1918), ‘The Mad Potter of Biloxi.’ The formal traits she shares with Ohr include a penchant for crumpled shapes, twisted and pinched openings, and making (as Ohr was understandably proud to point out) ‘no two alike.’ Working within the confines of the fired clay vessel, Butterly has transformed this long established, historical convention into something altogether fresh and new, melding innovation to imagination so precisely that it is impossible to separate them.” To this earlier observation, I would now add: For this and many other reasons, Butterly is deserving of an in-depth museum survey.

Consider the intersection at which Butterly has chosen to work, and you get a sense of her ambition and genius. While maintaining a modest scale, she continually reinvents the fired clay vessel (cup or vase) in ways that exceed anything anyone else has done in the medium. From the unique base to the distinct body (creased, collapsing, convoluted and twisted), to the diverse surface, which can run from smooth to craqueled, often in the same piece, to the saturated color (sunshine yellow, fleshy pink, Veronese green and fire engine red), to minute details (yellow lozenges the size of an elf’s pat of butter), everything (including the spills and stains) in a Butterly sculpture attains its own particular identity…

Research: Book Review//The Greatest Art Potter on Earth, 2013


Eugene Hecht’s George Ohr: The Greatest Art Potter on Earth is simply a big book in every sense of the term. The color illustrations are sumptuous, many and mostly full page. The book design is exceptional (look for it as a contender in CFile’s design awards in September). The scholarship is exceptional.

There is a wealth of new research between these covers and Hecht has done heavy lifting in correcting Ohr’s mangled history, separating truth from both Ohr’s penchant for exaggeration and the many, tenacious, beguiling but fictional legends that have been attached the the Mad Potter. I have to admit, I’m sad to see some of these legends debunked.

Hecht is also an academic like Lippert, a noted physics professor, but there is no sense of this in the work except for the impeccable structure, fastidious footnoting and other scholar’s tools used to good effect. He writes with color and vibrancy and sets off on his journey explaining Ohr with such enthusiasm that the reader cannot help but plunge headlong into his narrative.

Fascinatingly, without being patronizing or obvious, Hecht is able to weave subtle and occasional folk cadences in his own writing. A word here and a phrase there emerge quite naturally. This light but sophisticated country twang gives Ohr a voice throughout…

Research: Garth Clark on Ohr// Jasper Johns

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George E. Ohr

In 1893, in the small town of Biloxi, Mississippi, George E. Ohr’s Biloxi Art Pottery burned down. In common with all calamities of this kind it must have caused considerable disruption and financial distress to the victim, but a propitious effect was to ignite a smoldering radicalism in Ohr, who thereafter began to produce some of the most inventive pottery of modern times.

Pot made by George E. Ohr (1857-1918), Biloxi, Mississippi. Glazed earthenware; height 4 ¾ inches. The examples of Ohr’s work illustrated here all were made c. 1883-before 1909. Collection of Charles Cowles; except as noted, photographs are by John White.

His work anticipated the direction that American ceramics have taken in our day, for the ideas he explored so freely in his pottery at the turn of the century resurfaced in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He also anticipated some of the concerns that emerged in early modern art, particularly in the objects made by the Dadaists and surrealists between 1918 and 1942.

Although his work went largely unrecognized for more than half a century, in the past ten years Ohr has become one of the most celebrated artists of the arts and crafts era and his works are avidly collected.

Ohr’s work has particularly appealed to the dealers Charles Cowles and Irving Blum as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Carl Lobell, collectors who specialize in early American modernist painting, and Jasper Johns, who last year paid sensitive homage to Ohr by using the Ohr pots from his own collection as central images in his exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City (see image below)…


Ventriloquist, by Jasper Johns (b. 1930), 1983. Signed and dated “J. JOHNS1983” at lower left. Encaustic on canvas, 75 by 50 inches. Some of the Ohr pots in Johns’s collection have been here rendered with what John Russell in The New York Times called “a touching fidelity.”

Earlier this year the art critic John Perreault confirmed Ohr’s status in this country:

…look at each vessel, carefully, sensing how it would feel to move the clay in these ways; look at each vessel as a sculpture occupying space and time; look at each vessel as a painting. Then see all these things simultaneously, along with the wit¬-handles stuck here and there, the elegant accidents, the crush and twist. Gorge Ohr is a great artist. 1

Ohr was an unlikely candidate for leadership of the ceramic avant-garde. Unlike most artists of his day, who came from reasonably genteel and middle-class backgrounds, Ohr was the son of a Biloxi blacksmith. He received little formal education and none in the liberal arts. At first he was apprenticed to his father, but their working relationship proved stormy as George, always the prankster, was constantly “running away from danger and getting caught with open arms every time,” 2 as he himself put it.

In 1879, after three years of working for a ship chandler in New Orleans, Joseph Fortune Meyer (c. 1848 -1931), a family friend, offered to take on the wild twenty-two-year-old as an apprentice in his New Orleans pottery. For Ohr this represented the opportunity to earn ten dollars a month and “the chance to swipe a trade.”

Ohr joined Meyer (later renowned as the main potter for the Newcomb College Pottery in New Orleans) but remained only long enough to learn “how to boss a little piece of clay into a gallon jug” and then left on a two-year trip through sixteen states during which he “sized up every potter and pottery … and never missed a shop window, illustration or literary dab on ceramics since that time, 1881.”

In 1883 Ohr returned to Biloxi and set about building his own pottery with a capital of $26.80. As a blacksmith he was able to make his own potter’s wheel and clay mill. He sawed pine trees, rafted them eighteen miles down the Tchoutacabouffa River to Biloxi, and singlehandedly built the pottery buildings. Then “like a mud wasp” he fashioned his kiln of “lime and grit and credit.”…

Read more here:

Research: No Two Alike

Review: In ‘No Two Alike,’ George Ohr’s Pottery Plays on Convention



‘No Two Alike’

Craig F. Starr Gallery

5 East 73rd Street, Manhattan

The great ceramist George Ohr (1857-1918) was boastful, combative, deliberately eccentric and hugely ambitious. He called himself the Mad Potter of Biloxi and once told an interviewer, “When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished.” He was right about that. But the roughly 50 bowls, cups, vases and pitchers in this stunning exhibition testify to a creative sensibility much different from his bumptious public persona. They are marked by an exquisite delicacy of touch, a subtle sense of humor, an extraordinary formal sophistication and a Picasso-like inventiveness.

As the poet and critic John Yau notes in an insightful catalog essay, Ohr went on a 16-state journey at the start of his career to study ceramics. Back home in Biloxi, Miss., he mixed and matched Victorian, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts and Asian styles with insouciant, seemingly effortless panache.

Beginning each piece on a potter’s wheel, Ohr produced thin-walled vessels that he then subjected to all kinds of manipulations. Crumpling, crimping, folding, dimpling, twisting, squashing and stretching, he fashioned objects that appear organically animated. Those glazed in a wondrous variety of colors, patterns and textures resemble exotic puffballs or tropical sea anemones. Others riff on traditional conventions to playfully absurdist effect, including goblets with mismatched fancy handles. A coconut-shape teapot with a pebbled red glaze, a serpentine spout and a nonfunctional lid fused to its body calls to mind 21st-century works by the ceramic sculptors Ken Price and Ron Nagle. Toward the end of his career, in the early 1900s, Ohr abandoned glazing to emphasize sculptural forms. The 18 sand-colored examples here are classically elegant.

Research: Paul Soldner Interview

MS. RIEDEL: It makes me think of something you’d said; I think it was something you’d said to the students about don’t be afraid to take something farther than you think it might go, just to push it beyond.

MR. SOLDNER: Yeah, I think-I’d say-yeah, I’m glad I said that. That is important.

We are so afraid to go farther. Of course, if you want to get off of ceramics into philosophy and so forth, I think fear and guilt are two of the biggest problems in our lives, and as artists or as craftsmen it does stop a lot of people from going far enough. Because somebody can laugh at it, it’s not going to be what everybody thinks it should be, and it takes a lot of courage really to deviate. Sometimes it’s easier to think of people deviating or not really thinking much about it but just doing it for the novelty or the shock value, and to a certain extent you can’t do that. You can use shock as well as the opposite from shock.

But nothing changes if it stays the same. So the only way to change it is to take something-obviously you can be working in a familiar direction, but if you stop at the end, always at the same place, it hasn’t gone anywhere. And what you’re going to do next to push it farther is-people have difficulty imagining that, I guess, because they’re so used to working from, emulating, by emulation, something that somebody else has already figured out, and they’re not comfortable with taking the risk of changing it.

I thought it was interesting that at Pete’s memorial there were maybe about six, eight, 10 friends that were invited to say something, and over and over the thing that came out more than anything else was their appreciation of he did it his way. He wasn’t always easy. Sometimes you’d get really upset because a simple thing, like when are we going to go to dinner, that should be a simple thing, but Pete could turn it into an event. He didn’t want to go an early sitting. He’d say, call and find out when it’s the last we can get in. He wouldn’t-you know, it was like five or six hours before we could eat, whereas everybody else was ready at 6:00, but you kind of respected him.

Those years that he was living upside down, sleeping all day and working at night, I think was part of that his creative need, not just to be different, but to do it his way. And he got a lot of criticism, a lot of flak for it and also, of course, for his alcohol problems and his drug problems, but in the end none of that mattered and it shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter that we now know that van Gogh was mental, had a mental problem. Look at what he left us, what he did.

I remember Pete demonstrating up at the Anderson Ranch a couple years ago, and there was a woman in the audience who fancied herself as a big collector from Iowa, and she’d never seen Voulkos. She only knew about him and had collected some of his work, which had been the more early, safe work. But in the workshop Pete was already pretty heavy into drugs, so he was just falling kind of over the place and couldn’t barely speak. She started to jump on him outside the demonstration area to me, and I finally just stopped her and I said, “Listen, you respect his work; that’s all you have to do. Forget about who he is or what he looks like or how he lives. He doesn’t have to please you that way, and that’s not what you’re interested in, not what you’re collecting.”

But that’s difficult for people, and it’s related to what we started talking about, the necessity to go farther. One of the biggest problems in all art-I don’t care if you’re a painter or a sculptor or a potter, a printmaker-when is it finished, and how do you know. Well, experience. Don’t pay attention to what the teacher says or anybody else, an art critic. As soon as you do that, you have ceased being the artist; now you’ve become a puppet, I guess.

So it’s very frightening and very difficult. I guess that’s one of the things I used to like about some people that we tend to think of as-what’s the word, when they’re outside of the boundaries?


MS. RIEDEL: Eccentrics.

MR. SOLDNER: Yeah, eccentric. Oh, like Beatrice Wood, quite eccentric. She was not a Hindu, but she rested or most of her life she wore only saris and jewelry, or George Ohr. I don’t like George Ohr’s pottery. I think it was sophomoric. But what we do respect about him was he didn’t pay any attention to anybody else. He might have been trying to shock them, but he didn’t-he did it his way and that’s probably the most important thing.