The San Diego Museum of Art was once a pioneer in its support of the ceramic arts. You wouldn't know it from attending shows there during the past few decades. And you wouldn't guess it flipping through the two catalogs of the collection published in the last dozen years. Neither mentions the exhibiting or collecting of ceramics in its account of the museum's evolution.
Out of sight, it seems, out of mind.
Until the museum turned 80 this year and began marking the occasion with an array of exhibitions turned inward, toward its collection and the collectors who aided its growth. "American Ceramics 1884-1972" is among the more modestly billed and staged of the shows, but it calls attention to a significant, surprising chapter of the institution's history.
In the 1930s and '40s, the SDMA showed ceramic art regularly, with unusual rigor and commitment. Then called the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, the museum initiated an annual California Ceramics Exhibition in 1938 that attracted national attention and helped beef up the institution's nascent collection. A lovely dusty rose bowl by Laura Andreson was acquired from the 1938 show for $2.13. From the following year's show, the museum purchased a Beatrice Wood plate with a Cubist design. The exhibition series fizzled after only two years, but the effort was well noted. One critic wrote that the first of the shows demonstrated "that the Pacific coast ceramic child is able to walk alone."
Credit goes to the museum's founding director, Reginald Poland. During his tenure (1926-50), he dedicated substantial space on the museum's exhibition calendar to solo and group shows of ceramic artists. The museum was the first to stage an exhibition of Gertrud and Otto Natzler's work, just two years after they emigrated from Vienna to Los Angeles, and the first to bring it into a museum collection.
Slightly more than half of the 50 vases, bowls and tiles in "American Ceramics" were brought up from the museum's vaults. The rest were culled, by registrar John Digesare, from private and public collections in the region. The show pays tribute to Poland's passion, fleshing out his acquisitions with a range of other material.
The show spans 90 years, but not methodically, only circumstantially. The turn-of-the-century art pottery movement gets sustained attention, as do a few later studio potters. A trio of weird and whimsical pieces by George Ohr, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi," helps spice up the show, and a voluptuous Grueby vase, all effulgent tendrils and sinuous line, anchors the Arts and Crafts section. Other art potteries represented, in addition to Grueby, include Newcomb, Rookwood, Marblehead and Pewabic. The 1914 Newcomb vase, decorated by Cynthia Pugh Littlejohn, epitomizes the subdued grace of art pottery of the period. Oak trees in low relief wrap around the simple form glazed in gorgeous foggy blues and greens.
Other high points include a subtle, elegant 1903 vase by Artus Van Briggle. Single leaves twist up and around the matte sky blue vase, shaped like an elongated light bulb or butternut squash, with a small mouth and swollen base.
The seven Natzler pieces are also quiet beauties: thin-walled, with intense glazes of egg yolk yellow or radiant lime. One 1964 bowl is a crusty, mottled thing, as much volcanic artifact as sculptural object.
San Diego housed a few potteries of its own, briefly. The California China Products Company set up shop in National City from 1911 to 1917. The firm is represented here by a landscape of sea, sky and Torrey pines, spread over a four-tile sequence.
Albert Valentien and his wife, Anna, took up residence in San Diego as well, after meeting at Rookwood pottery in Cincinnati, where they both worked. Anna bequeathed to the museum three of her husband's Rookwood vases from the 1890s, glossy, statuesque forms with floral and bird designs hinting at the Japonesque. The two pieces from Valentien's later, San Diego-based pottery (1911-'13) show the artist turning toward more abbreviated shapes and patterns and more understated, solid-colored matte glazes.
"American Ceramics 1884-1972" contains some stellar works of art, a few nondescript pieces and much in the middle. It is, however, not just a show about visual exaltation but an act of institutional excavation. It uncovers a foundation buried by time, overriding interests and the legacies of subsequent museum directors. That groundwork will be further built upon or not, but at the least it has been exposed, acknowledged and, however humbly, celebrated.
`American Ceramics 1884-1972'
Where: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays
Ends: Sept. 3
Price: $4 to $10
Contact: (619) 232-7931; www.sdmart.org