Friday, January 13, 2017

1933-2004: Viola Frey

Viola Frey was a star of the California art scene for five decades. She used ceramic pottery techniques to create monumental human figures with a funky, unpretentious look. She became successful in the 1970s, and enlivened the art scene in the Bay Area for 3 decades. She was also a popular educator and community figure in Oakland.

When Viola started her career in the 1960s, the art community in the Bay Area, was charged with creative energy. The big new idea in sculpture was that ceramics could be used to create works of art, instead of merely utilitarian tableware. In prior decades, terra cotta had been used for busts and other small pieces, but California sculptors were using ceramic techniques—including firing and glazing—to create representational figures.

The second big idea of the time was Funk: it was okay for art to be comical, antic, ironic and junky. This is a pretty radical thought—artists had traditionally striven toward excellence and refinement—and it hasn't spread much beyond California. Funky ceramic sculpture is very friendly and unassuming, comfortable with its own crudeness. Here's an example by the most famous sculptor to use ceramic.

Robert Arneson
California Artist, 1982
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

The third trend energizing the art scene in the Bay Area was figuration. In the elite world of New York art, realism and the figure were considered passé. Everyone was into some sort of abstraction or minimalism that referred only to itself, where design drove out content. Californians wanted their art to treat the actual world they lived in, the things and people of daily life.

With extensive training in traditional ceramics, and having studied ceramics as an art-form in a pioneering art school on the east cast, Viola was an important leader in the development of funky, figurative ceramics. Her most famous works were over-size figures of people from her childhood—not particular people so much as types. Their postures and expressions seem stiff and puzzling, but their surface is a riot of expressionist brushwork. Using clay figures as a background for expressionistic painting was one of Viola's unique innovations.

Background: A native Californian, Viola grew up on her family's vineyard in Lodi, California. It would be interesting to know something about her family and how she got interested in art.

Training: After high school, Viola attended college in nearby Stockton, but she soon got a scholarship to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts, from which she received a BFA in 1956.

After that Viola enrolled in graduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans, but she soon dropped out in order to attend a new school for clay arts in Port Chester, New York, one of the earliest venues on the East Coast geared toward exploring ceramics as a fine art medium without the functional constraints of craft.

Personal life: One of Viola's instructors in ceramics at CCAC, Charles Fiske, strongly supported her work and became her life partner. Viola lived and worked in Oakland, moving a few times to get more studio and storage space. Viola died at the age of 71 in Oakland, California, in 2004.

Career: For the first decade and more of her career, Viola had a day job to support herself. While she was at school in New York, she worked in the business office of the Museum of Modern Art. After she settled in the Bay Area, Viola worked in the accounting department of Macy's from 1960 to 1970.

Viola got her start as an artist in 1965 when she was hired as Artist Potter in Residence by California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, her alma mater.  By 1971 she was a full-time assistant professor in the Ceramics Department, and she was able to quit her day job. Soon she was able to buy her own home in Oakland, which had a large studio space.

Viola's sculptures started growing taller, sometimes reaching nearly 12 feet. It was unprecedented to use clay for monumental works, and it required her to develop whole new techniques. Sculptures were built and fired in segments of a size she or her assistant could lift, and the segments were pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. Since they couldn't bear their own weight, each work had a poured concrete interior. Their gigantic size reduces the viewer to the size of a pre-teen, lost in a wilderness of huge, inscrutable adults.

Throughout her career—from the 1970s through the 1990s—Viola exhibited regularly, traveled the world to expand her art practice, and received numerous awards.


Pink Lady,  1965
Oakland / Jan's photo 2014

Double Self, 1978
Ceramic and glaze, life-size

Man Observing II, 1984
de Young / Jan's photo, 2017

Homage, 1985-1987
ceramic and glazes / about 8 feet long
di Rosa /

Ethnic Man, 1991
Utah / Jan's photo, 2013

Falling Man in Suit, 1991

The World and The Woman, 1992
ceramic and glazes
almost 12 feet long

American Nude Series (Woman with Elbow on Raise Knee), 1994
Glazed ceramic
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2010

Family Portrait, 1995
ceramic and glazes
About 7' x 7'

World Civilization, 1999
SFO Museum, Boarding Area A / from their website

Internet grab

Thursday, January 12, 2017

1930-2017: Magdalena Abakanowicz

Sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz is virtually the first, and only, Polish artist to become a major star in the international art scene. Coming from a once-Communist country, Magdalena's work generally deals with the devastating effects of socialist society on individual identity. Most of her sculptures are outdoor works consisting of one or more over-size, standing figures that are headless and hollow; she also did smaller works for galleries, such as seated figures, also headless and hollow. By the time socialism got through with people, they were mere ghosts of individuals.

“It happened to me to live in times which were extraordinary by their various forms of collective hate and collective adulation. Marches and parades worshipped leaders, great and good, who soon turned out to be mass murderers. I was obsessed by the image of the crowd, manipulated like a brainless organism and acting like a brainless organism. I suspected that under the human skull, instincts and emotions overpower the intellect without us being aware of it.” –Magdalena Abakanowicz

(pronounced aba-ka-KNOW-vitch)

Background: Magdalena was born in Poland, the second of two girls. Her mother was a Polish aristocrat, and her father was a Russian who emigrated to Poland to escape the Bolshevik revolution. They lived in a 32-room mansion on an estate about 200 miles east of Warsaw. Magdalena has described her father as stern and her mother as aloof.

When the Germans invaded in 1939, her father joined the Polish Resistance, and her family began a series of hardships. At the age of 14, Magdalena served as a nurse's aide, and memories of her experience affected the rest of her life, as well as her art. At the end of the war, her parents sold what was left and opened a newspaper stand in Warsaw. By 1947, Communists were in full control. Magdalena continued to make her home in Poland through every hardship and change of government.

Training: Magdalena graduated the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1955. Post-war Poland was part of the Soviet bloc and had a Communist government. Social Realism was the style taught in art schools during this era. Magdalena was forced to make art in this style in order to obtain a degree and enter the Polish Artists Union—a step required of all professional sculptors. She was also required to take several textile design classes. She lived with families who would take her in and supported herself with odd jobs at night.

Private life: In 1956 Magdalena married Jan Kosmowski, a civil engineer and scientist. For the next 11 years, Magdalena and Jan lived in one room. As a couple without children they didn't have a right to more space.

After she had some success, they were allowed to move to an apartment with 2 rooms and a small studio.

Jan retired in 1981, and now serves as Magdalena's business manager, engineering consultant, and photographer.

In 1988, Magdalena and Jan moved into a house of their own in Warsaw, the first time they had a spacious place to live.

Career: By the time Magdalena graduated from the academy, Poland had begun liberalization of the forms and content of art, and to grant artists permission to travel to Western capitols to experience artistic developments outside the soviet bloc.

In 1956 some tapestry works by Magdalena were included in a tapestry exhibit in Switzerland. The works from Poland started a movement in textiles-as-art, and this was the beginning of her international reputation.

In the 1960s Magdalena created gigantic three-dimensional fiber works that hung from the ceiling. Some of these were abstract designs, but others represent fragments of human figures.

From 1965-1974 Magdalena was an instructor at a state college of arts in Poland. In the 1960s and 1970s she won several international awards. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, Magdalena did a series of sculptures from coarse sackcloth that she sewed and pieced together and bonded with synthetic resins. These works were generally figurative but the forms were crudely abstracted and ambiguous. Some seated, some standing, most were headless and backless. Some sculptures were a single forlorn figure, but many of her outdoor installations feature great crowds of headless, anonymous, dehumanized figures. Magdalena has made it clear that these sculptures refer to the dehumanizing effects of being a nobody in a crowd of nobodies.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Magdalena began to translate her fabric figures into bronze, but her figures remained hollow and headless.


Androgyne III, 1985

Sagacious Head 6 and Sagacious Head Head 7, 1989-1990
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2013

Reverse side of Sagacious Head 6

Sage E, 1990
Cantor / Jan's photo

Standing Figures (Thirty Figures), 1998
Nelson-Atkins / Jan's photo, 2010
Figure on a Trunk, 1998
Meijer / Jan's photo, 2013

Figure on Beam with Wheels, 2000
Toledo / Jan's photo, 2006

Seven Dancing Figures, 2001

Agora, 2006
Grant Park, Chicago / Jan's photo, 2010
Agora, 2003-2006
Cast iron
South Michigan Avenue, Chicago
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2010

Agora, 2006
South end of Grant Park, Chicago
Agora consists of 106 figures spread over a length of 300 feet.

1926-2013: Ruth Asawa

Ruth Asawa with her work in 1954
Ruth Asawa was one of the great sculptors of the 20th century because of the innovative and engaging forms she created she created in wire. Her work is so unprecedented in sculpture that it took a long time for the art world to realize that she was in the advance guard of form-making, but nowadays the market for her work is steadily rising.

Ruth was also a great woman who kept a racially mixed marriage together, raised a large family, engaged in civic life, and promoted art education.

She is of special interest to residents of the Bay Area because she made her home in Noe Valley in San Francisco, and was a prominent figure there for five decades. She died only a few years ago.

Background: Ruth was born in 1926 in Norwalk, California, one of seven children. Her father operated a truck farm until World War II when he was detained by the FBI. Her family then lived in a Relocation Center in Arkansas, where Ruth graduated from high school.

Training: Ruth attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, intending to become an art teacher. She completed three years but was unable to earn her degree after being barred from a required student-teacher program because of her ethnicity.

She enrolled instead at North Carolina’s experimental art school, Black Mountain College, a magnet for budding artists and renowned teachers, and studied there from 1946-1949.

Albert Lanier
Private life: While Ruth was at Black Mountain, she met an architecture student named Albert Lanier; she was 23 and he was 22. The pair decided to marry, against the wishes of their parents. They made their home in San Francisco because it had a vibrant arts community, and they hoped the liberal city would be hospitable to an interracial couple.

In the 1950s, while they were getting their careers started,  Ruth and Albert had six children. Albert became a noted architect and designed many homes in Noe Valley and other neighborhoods in the city.  He also created the architectural designs for Ruth's public art projects and shared her community activism.

When Albert died in 2008, he and Ruth had been married 59 years.

Ruth with her children, 1958
Photo by Imogen Cunningham

Ruth and Albert

Career: Ruth started her career and her family in the 1950s. Her first great innovation was to employ wire in abstract sculpture. Wire was sometimes employed by Mexican basket-makers for produce baskets, and Ruth had been impressed by this. Wire was humble and cheap, and like the traditional basket-makers, she could work on baskets while her children played around her. Ruth elevated the humble basket by making it a closed globular form, and hanging the globes in vertical strings. They engage the eye because there are forms within forms; the viewer can't resist tracing the lines and shapes. And the shadows created by the baskets are magical. By the end of the 1950s, Ruth's baskets were beginning to attract attention.

In 1962, Ruth innovated with wire again. Instead of making closed, inward-looking forms, she tied the wire to create radiating forms that reach out like petals or leaves. Instead of hanging, these forms are placed flat against the wall, where they also make magical shadows.

In 1968, Ruth began creating a number of fountains for public commissions in San Francisco. Much to everyone's surprise, her first sculpture was representational, depicting two mermaids afloat, one of them nursing a baby. The Mermaid fountain is located in Ghirardelli Square on the water front.

In 1973, she created a fountain for the Hyatt Hotel on Union Square that became a San Francisco landmark. The fountain is basically a cylinder covered with low relief figures representing typical San Francisco scenes. Her method of construction was unique because it was a community activity. Ruth gave a group of children and other budding artists a type of dough that could be molded like clay and then "fired" in an ordinary oven. They used the dough to depict scenes. The finished work was translated into bronze. Albert provided the architectural design.

This sculpture entered the news in 2013 because Apple proposed a new store next to the hotel that eliminated the fountain. The public outcry was such that Apple redesigned its store, and renovated the fountain and the surrounding plaza.

Ruth was also interested in origami, the Japanese art of creating figures by folding paper, and from 1976-1986, she created fountains that are bronze renderings of origami structures.

In the 1990s, Ruth created relief murals for public places. The Federal Building in San Jose has a bas-relief bronze mural depicting the Japanese internment camps.

In addition to being an artist, Ruth was an advocate for art education. She taught art to elementary school kids herself, supported various programs in art education, and she and Albert founded a public arts high school. She also served in state and national organizations for art education, and she was a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In anticipation of the new de Young Museum, Ruth was invited to create a permanent installation for the base of the tower. She selected and gave 15 of her most significant hanging-basket sculptures, which have been prominently displayed since the building opened in 2005.

Our photos of Ruth's Sculptures

Untitled (S. 270),  c. 1954
brass and iron wire
Whitney / Jan's photo, 2015

Untitled (S.114, Hanging, Six-Lobed Continuous Form within a Form
with One Suspended and Two Tied Spheres),
ca. 1958
SFMOMA / Jan's photo, 2016

Untitled (S.046abcd), c. 1960
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

Display at de Young Museum, undated and untitled
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2008

Untitled, c. 1970
Crystal Bridges / Jan's photo, 2012

Façade of Oakland Museum of Art
Untitled (tied wire), 1974
Jan's photo

Façade of Oakland Museum of Art
Untitled (tied wire), 1974
Jan's photo / 2010

Internet grabs

Untitled (S.039), 1959
monel wire

Untitled (S.049), c. 1962
naturally oxidized copper wire

Eight-Branched Bronze Wire Form, 1966

Andrea, 1968
Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco
Cast bronze

Hyatt on Union Square Fountain, 1973
San Francisco
Origami Fountains, 1976
 #1 of 5, Buchanan Street in Japantown

Aurora, 1986 
Bayside Plaza, San Francisco
stainless steel / 13 ft diameter

Japanese American Internment Memorial Sculpture, 1994
Federal Building, San Jose, CA
Cast bronze

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Born 1922: Beverly Pepper

No sculptor of the 20th century outpaced Beverly Pepper for versatility and scope of ambition. She first became famous for monumental sculptures made of iron and steel for public gardens and parks, but she progressed to design special outdoor environments that made her a pioneer of land art.

Background: Beverly Stoll was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in a middle-class Jewish household. Her father imported Oriental rugs, and after the war he became a furrier; her mother was a housewife and a volunteer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Training: A precocious child, Beverly earned a degree in industrial and advertising design from Pratt Institute at the age of 17.

She then launched a successful career in advertising. She handled big accounts, made lots of money, and was the flamboyant star of her social circle. Meanwhile she took night classes at Brooklyn College and the Art Students League.

Having succeeded in the sort of career recommended for a woman artist, Beverly needed a new challenge. In 1948, at the age of 26, she left her job to study painting in Europe. She studied with famous artists in Paris.

Private life: In 1941, when she was 19, Beverly married Lawrence Gussin, a fellow student. Their marriage lasted until she decided to pursue further art training in Paris, when she left both her job and her husband behind.

In 1949, Beverly married author-journalist Bill Pepper in Paris. In 1950, Beverly gave birth to a daughter named Jorie in New York City.

Beverly and Bill traveled extensively before settling in Rome in 1952, where their son John was born in 1958.

Bill was the Mediterranean bureau chief for Newsweek from 1957 to 1969. Bill and Beverly were celebrated for their hospitality and socialized with politicians and celebrities from all around Europe.

In 1972, Beverly and Bill moved to Todi, a town about 70 miles north of Rome, where they renovated in a fourteenth-century castle looking over the Italian countryside. Their home became a ritual destination for a wide circle of artists and writers.

In the late 1990s, Beverly and Bill sold their castle and moved into a one-story house of her own design that encircles her studio.

Bill died in 2014. They had been married for 68 years. Their daughter Jorie Graham, is a celebrated poet, and their son John is a successful photographer and theater director.

Career: Beverly started her career in the 1950s as a social realist painter, and received a certain amount of recognition.

The creative realization that caused her to move from painting to sculpture was a trip to the Far East, accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter, in 1960. She has said that her daughter's curiosity made her more focused. The statues at Angkor Wat in Cambodia particularly inspired her. After that, all she wanted to do was to sculpt.

She began by carving sculptures out of the trees that had fallen in her garden in Rome—olive, elm, and mimosa—using carpenter's power tools instead of the traditional chisel. She exhibited these at a gallery in Rome in 1962.

She moved from wood to metal after a curator asked if she could weld pieces for an exhibition featuring the era's most famous sculptors. She was already in the big-time art scene, at the age of 40, the only woman among 10 sculptors in the show.

Later in the 60s, Beverly turned to highly polished stainless steel with painted interiors. These works appear and disappear, mirroring the surrounding landscape, and they incorporate the viewer's reflection into the whole.

In the 1970s Beverly did several works in painted steel and painted Cor-ten steel.

In the 1980s she was working in bronze, making obelisks and plaques.

Also in the 1980s and 1990s, cast iron columns.

She then began working with Cor-Ten steel, an especially weather-resistant industrial alloy. She was one of the first artists to use Cor-ten steel.

In the 1980s, Beverly departed from cor-ten steel to a long period of cast iron sculptures. She spent a half year at a John Deere factory, working in cast iron to produce monolithic sculptures inspired by screwdrivers and files. It was unprecedented for a woman to fabricate sculptures using factory techniques.

Since 2000, Beverly has been working with Cor-ten steel, making simple curves on a monumental scale. She has also done some pieces in marble.

Our photos of Beverly's Work:

In the example below, a ventaglio is a portable fan that produces a cooling breeze.

Perre's Ventaglio III, 1967
Olympic Sculpture Park / Jan's photo, 2010

In the sculpture below, Plus Cathedra means "from the chair" which designates official pronouncements of the Pope.

Plus Cathedra, 1968
Flint / Jan's photo, 2013

Normanno Wedge, 1980
Cast iron
WWU / Jan's photo, 2011

Normanno is the Italian word for Normans, people who lived in Northwestern France, and invaded England in 1066.

Normanno Column, 1980
Cast iron
WWU / Jan's photo, 2011
In the sculpture below, Tarquinia is a city in Italy which is the home of a pre-Roman culture, called the Etruscans. 

Tarquinia Cone Column, 1981
SFMOMA / Jan's photo, 2016

In the sculpture below, Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. She was abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld. Demeter was so devastated by losing her that she negotiated a deal where Persephone would be returned, but she must spend part of each year in the underworld. This symbolizes the dormant period of nature in the winter.

Persephone Unbound, 1999
Cast bronze
Olympic Sculpture Park / Jan's photo, 2007

Hamilton Building of Denver Art Museum with
Denver Monoliths, 2005-2006
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2012

Denver Monoliths, 2005-2006
Composite cementitious material
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2012

Denver Monoliths, 2006
Denver / Jan's photo, 2010

Examples of Land Art from the Internet:

Amphisculpture, 1974-1975
Cement and grass / 270 ft in diameter
AT&T, Bedminster, New Jersey /

Walls of Memory, for my Grandmother, 1999-2005
Concrete, branches, tar
Vilnius, Lithuania /

Waccabuc Amphitheatre, 2008
Mixed Media Land Art Theater, New York State /

Cromlech Glen, 2003
Stone, sod
Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis /

Site-specific Sculpture

Sacramento Stele, 1998-2000
Pietra Serena Stone / 4 columns, 18 ft tall
Incised with poem Ako Blooming by Jorie Graham
California EPA Building, Sacramento, CA /

New Smyrna, Florida, 1985
Sand Dunes, 1985
Mylar and wood, 100 ft. long