Frank Gehry might have a knack for self-promotion, but he does not make any great claims for the ceramics that he made in college.
Just the opposite: The celebrated architect says he basically stumbled onto a USC extension course with ceramics legend Glen Lukens while Gehry was still driving a truck to make money and before he started studying architecture.
The result, says Gehry, was assorted "amateurish" vessels. "I was 19. There are lots of pots that my family has -- in hiding I hope," he says, chuckling. "Some of them are really funny."
And one of them -- not at all laughable but not exactly museum-caliber either -- is now part of a group ceramics show at Bergamot Station's Frank Lloyd Gallery curated by the architect, on view through Aug. 21.
It's a simple bowl, with a light turquoise glaze, formed by coiling clay and pressing it into a mold.
Think of it as a point of entry into the show, for which the architect has selected some 15 works by Lukens and other artists of personal interest, most of whom live in California and have helped to advance the standing of ceramics as an art form.
For these works, Gehry does have serious praise. They range from a rough, crusty-looking deconstructed plate by Peter Voulkos to slicker, more colorful plates and platters by Billy Al Bengston, a longtime friend of Gehry whom he calls "the most underestimated artist of our time."
Two works by Lukens and one by George Ohr come from Gehry's own collection. Ohr, also known as the mad potter of Biloxi, is an outlier in this exhibition because he worked in Mississippi a full century ago. The gallery has a flared cup from the 1890s that looks like it has been thrown and then deliberately misshapen. (Gehry's ties to Ohr run deep: He designed a museum for the potter in Biloxi, which was under construction when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and has not yet been rebuilt.)
Lukens, who died in 1967, is represented by two plates with characteristically bright glazes. "He was a very elegant potter -- it was beautiful to watch him use the wheel," says Gehry. "But he was probably best known for these colorful glazes, analyzing soils and getting pigments and powders from all over the world. He was bonkers about it."
The show also has a recent, highly recognizable biomorphic sculpture by Ken Price, the subject of a 2012 retrospective at LACMA for which Gehry is doing the exhibition design. For that show, he says the challenge is to share what it's like to experience Price's work in a "casual, intimate setting" like Gehry's home, without, however, plunking down sofas and coffee tables into a museum setting.
The Bergamot show grew out of a conversation between Gehry and gallerist Frank Lloyd, who specializes in contemporary ceramics, last December at a 70th-birthday dinner for Larry Bell in Taos, N.M. Lloyd had just read about Gehry working with Lukens in Barbara Isenberg's 2009 book "Conversations With Frank Gehry" and asked about his student days.
"Maybe it was the wine," says Lloyd, "but I said to him: You should curate a show of ceramics at the gallery. He put out his hand and said: 'I'd love to.' "
Lloyd says he was not counting on anything ever happening. "It was very rewarding that someone who has 10 major international building projects going on at once made time for this," says Lloyd.
So is there any connection between Gehry's making bowls early on and making buildings later?
Lloyd says no student ceramic "predicts what Frank Gehry would be able to do with his work architecturally, but I do think you can see his interest in the plasticity of his materials."
As for Gehry, he sees the connection as more circumstantial. He credits Lukens with igniting his interest in architecture by taking him to the construction site in West Adams where Raphael Soriano was building Lukens' home.
"I think he saw some sort of gleam in my eye and was interested in figuring out what I would be good at," says Gehry. "He knew it wasn't going to be ceramics."
'Frank Gehry Selects'
Where: Frank Lloyd Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Ends Aug. 21
Contact: (310) 264-3866 or www.franklloyd.com