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Harrison McIntosh, ceramics virtuoso

The diminutive, soft-spoken artist celebrates his 95th birthday with 60-year retrospective exhibition at Pomona's American Museum of Ceramic Arts.

September 24, 2009|Suzanne Muchnic

As Harrison McIntosh tells his story, he had to be an artist.

The diminutive, soft-spoken ceramist who's celebrating his 95th birthday with a retrospective exhibition at Pomona's American Museum of Ceramic Art is a virtuoso of pure, gracefully handmade form whose work represents the classical vein of Southern California's postwar crafts movement in museum collections around the world.

He was born in Vallejo and raised in Stockton, not exactly the center of the art universe, but he watched with fascination as the Haggin Museum took shape and opened its doors in 1931 in a park near his school. Seventy-eight years later, he also has fond memories of "Nymphaeum" by William Adolphe Bouguereau, the sexy star of the museum's collection of 19th century French paintings. The spectacle of female nudes cavorting in a wooded glen seems antithetical to McIntosh's classically modern pottery and sculpture, but the painting sparked his love of sensuous form.

He and his brother, Robert, found a champion in the museum's director, Harry Noyes Pratt, who got to know the boys as frequent prize-winners in Haggin-sponsored children's exhibitions. Pratt introduced them to Arthur Haddock, an accomplished local painter who took their art education seriously.

"Arthur Haddock had great curiosity about painting, including its technical aspects," says McIntosh, seated on a couch in the living room of the rustic modern house that architect Fred McDowell built 41 years ago for him and his wife, Marguerite, in the Padua Hills area of Claremont.

"He ground his own pigments. He took us to his workshop, and we each built a paint box and folding easel so we could go with him around the countryside."

When the brothers finished high school, Pratt told them to get out of Stockton and suggested that Robert, who was especially good at drawing and painting, apply for a scholarship to Art Center in downtown Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Designin Pasadena). The money came through, Robert moved to L.A. and the rest of the family followed.

Harrison, who preferred sculpture, took classes at Art Center and landed a job at the Foundation of Western Art, a nearby exhibition space where he became acquainted with the art community. In a stroke of luck guided by uncommon artistic vision, his parents bought a lot in Silver Lake for $1,000 and hired Richard Neutra -- a struggling architect who became a Modernist giant -- to build a 900-square-foot house for them for $4,500. In 1939, the family moved in and Harrison set up a studio in the garage. Today the little house, a testament to Neutra's enduring ideas, is the residence of another architect, John Bertram.

All this sounds a little too easy, an early career path almost as smooth and inevitable as a McIntosh pot. With a father who was a pianist by choice and an office manager by necessity, Harrison had the advantage of parental support and encouragement.

But the McIntoshes had more taste than means, and Harrison worked his share of odd jobs as he learned to make ceramics.

Understated

The exhibition -- which also celebrates the fifth anniversary of the museum -- offers about 100 works that include a terra cotta sculpture of a female torso, circa 1938, and a hand-built ashtray from his early student days as well as signature vases, bowls and jars. In addition to his best-known symmetrical, functional pieces, enhanced by satiny glazes and complementary patterns, there are abstract sculptures that all but float above blocks of wood or angles of chrome-plated steel, and examples of commercial dinnerware produced in Japan.

A few pieces decorated with figurative images inspired by Japanese prints and European modern art may come as a surprise, but the 60-year survey is remarkably consistent. McIntosh's artistic production came to a halt in 2002, when his slowly declining eyesight finally prevented him from working up to his standards.

The understated elegance of his work is distinctive, says Jo Lauria, an independent curator of decorative arts and design, "but it doesn't force your attention. You come to it naturally. He has an ability to connect to everyday ordinariness but make it extraordinary."

Describing McIntosh's art as "almost a conflation of Bauhaus principles of functionality and Japanese aesthetics," Lauria says that "his lifelong interest has been in how you make a vessel not only functional but also beautiful and pared down to its essence. There are no frivolous handles or ruffles around the shoulders or little anthropomorphic feet."

Flawless as his work may appear, perfection isn't the point, Lauria says. "He's really about clean, linear structure, but with the sense that it is handmade. When you touch his pots, they don't feel cold and manufactured, even though he has designed for industry. They are very tactile. You can see the clay, and it's very inviting when he leaves it exposed."

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