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Reawakenings: Modern and Contemporary Ceramics from the Shatzman Collection

In nearly every culture, the creation of ceramic ware has been an integral part of its artistic heritage, from the pedestrian, everyday pieces for household use to the beautiful works of art intended for ornamentation and aesthetic pleasure. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the philosophy behind the Arts and Crafts movement initiated an interest in creating everyday objects that were both useful and beautiful, encouraging consumers to choose the attractive over the ugly, even if only buying a cup, and to live in an aesthetically coordinated environment on a daily basis, entwining the arts with everyday existence. Toward this end, numerous books were written describing how to decorate your home in order to establish such harmony.

As a result of this initiative, over the next thirty years, many training schools sympathetic to the crafts, from Camberwell in London to the Bauhaus in Weimar, offered classes in furniture-making, pottery, stained glass, metalwork, letterpress and poster design, and textiles. The message of these programs was simple: “form followed function” and “truth to materials.” The work produced was largely created of simple forms, modestly decorated. In the first Bauhaus manifesto, its founder, Walter Gropius, went so far as to write aggressively about destroying the “arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist,” though this attitude was soon replaced by a yen for industrial-looking objects that could be created efficiently and well by machine and thus available to the masses.

Simultaneous to the training of a new generation of craftsmen in the schools was the new prominence of the studio craftsman, the artist/craftsman who oversaw a small workshop, producing unique decorative wares such as those in this exhibition. The beauty of the stoneware itself, the exquisite texture of the clay complemented by imaginatively developed glazes, characterizes much of this work. The forms themselves are organic responses to the natural world, not a copy of it but of the experience, transposed to clay. As Esbjørn Hiort has noted, “There is discernible a clear tendency to establish a pure earthenware style in which stuff, form, color, and decoration are integrated into a general artistic conception of pottery.”

In the second half of the twentieth century, form embraced function, and emerged in a new ideal: ceramics as sculpture. Experimental, often whimsical, never predictable, they were no longer required to have a utilitarian function, freeing the artist’s imagination. Without restrictions, contemporary pottery has become almost a new medium, separate from its roots in usefulness. Playing with the shapes and contours, colors and finishes, artists have created works divorced from their pedantic forebears, while retaining kinship with modern ceramic art with their roots in shared elemental formation of glaze and clay.

Looking at the works in the Shatzman collection, it is clear that the concern of the artists is, through their work, to create a coherent dialogue about process and materials, with neither taking precedence over the other, a perfect marriage of the two. We are extremely grateful to Eunice and Herb Shatzman for sharing their extraordinary collection with us and making this experience available to us all; this is the fifth exhibition at the Johnson Museum to be drawn from their holdings.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs