Counter Culture Craft

Greenwich House Pottery looks at ceramics of the 1950s

I was seven years old the summer that “Back to the Future” hit movie theaters, and my entire second-grade class collectively lost its mind. Suddenly obsessed with glowing jukeboxes, the Andrews Sisters, and 3D glasses, we wore poodle skirts on Halloween and begged our parents to talk about the far-away fifties. We were too young to appreciate all the things that made our parents glad the era had come to an end - legal racism, sex discrimination and homophobia, and constant anxiety about the threat of nuclear war.
 
Twenty-five years later, in 2010, we’re just as mad about “Mad Men,” this time as part of a different kind of design revival: instead of jukeboxes, we’re crazy for Florence Knoll. The design mania for everything ‘50s and early ‘60s has opened the vault so wide that we’re beginning to truly appreciate the lesser known but equally dynamic studio craft renaissance of that era. Original, personal work was quietly unfolding in the shadows of Levittown and “Leave it to Beaver” - in fact, I suspect, it wouldn’t have happened without them.
 
This month in the Jane Hartsook Gallery at Greenwich House Pottery, a period room installation entitled “Mid-Century Style and Studio Pottery” showcases knotted, woven and wheel-thrown objects alongside both high-end mid-century furniture and middle-brow ephemera in an effort to conjure up an engaging domestic context for mid-century ceramics. Seeing objects, as we frequently do, on pedestals or in museum cases allows us to take in their form with no distractions, but such isolation can also deprive a work of art of the vital dialogue in which it was once engaged - the context it had at the moment of its creation. 
 
One of the goals of the Greenwich House exhibit is to identify the ways in which modern furniture and studio crafts, though seemingly so different aesthetically and philosophically, actually compliment one another. If craft is, broadly speaking, about a return to basics, and modern design in the 1950s was all about progress, it might seem odd that they could work so well together. But even if they were facing in different directions, they appear to meet at the point where centuries of established and recognized decorative traditions were happily tossed aside. 
 
It is no accident that the American studio craft movement took shape during the “atomic age” - it made manifest a longing for simplicity, a veneration of centuries-old hand-skill in an age when machines were both adored and feared, and it offered a fierce rebuke of the consumerist, post-war lifestyle that was rapidly dominating the American consciousness through magazines, television, movies and the marketplace.
 
Brown pottery and knotted raffia in the 1950s? Don’t you mean the 1970s?
 
We tend to associate things like macramé, a certain combination of orange and brown, and the back-to-the-land, earthy-crunchy aesthetic of stoneware pottery with the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And when we say “counter-culture” we usually mean Jimi Hendrix, free love, Vietnam War protests, swinging London, and all things psychedelic (from drugs to graphic design). But a decade before Biba was the rage and Andy Warhol ruled the art world, the studio craft movement helped pave the way (aesthetically, at least) for the hippie movement by glorifying the handmade, questioning the established understanding of beauty, and rejecting the mass-market. Weaving became towering sculpture in the hands of fiber artist Lenore Tawney, and Peter Voulkos began throwing pots that were rough, asymmetrical and broke all the rules. Call it counter-culture craft.
 
By the 1950s, studio pottery had already enjoyed some popularity in the United States. Although it was too expensive for most Americans to purchase, Arts and Crafts era masterpieces by potters like Adelaide Alsop Robineau hit an aesthetic nerve and made their way into important collections such as the Newark Museum as early as the 1910s. For most people though, American ceramics, at least as far as the dinner table was concerned, was china, not pottery. Most people ate their meals off of commercially produced ceramics as early as the 1820s when factories began proliferating in the United States. So while wheel-thrown pottery was being made and enthusiastically purchased for household use and decoration, it was not intimately connected with dining in America much after the turn of the 19th century. Pots were utilitarian - jugs, large storage containers, mixing bowls - they did the heavy lifting while the fine china (or the decent Staffordshire) enjoyed the spotlight at mealtime. This may help explain why the pottery that emerged in the 1950s seemed to break away from obvious functionality so effortlessly - Americans weren’t used to seeing stoneware at the breakfast table to begin with.
 
European influences always had a big impact in American decorative arts and design, but after World War II, the landscape changed profoundly as émigrés from war-ravaged Europe settled permanently in the United States in huge numbers. The wave of talent from abroad was truly mind-boggling - it’s impossible to imagine post-war design in this country without it. Bauhaus designers Josef and Anni Albers taught at the short-lived but influential Black Mountain College in North Carolina and later led the design department at Yale. Other institutions from Cranbrook Academy to the Harvard Graduate School of Design (and even small craft schools like Greenwich House and Penland) were the lucky beneficiaries this creative influx. The giants of American industrial design during this period were influenced in particular by Scandinavian and German designers - for the Eameses is was Eliel and Eero Saarinen; for Florence Knoll, it was Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. 
 
More or less the same thing happened in ceramics, but to a very different philosophical and aesthetic end. For centuries, China and Japan had been producing and exporting ceramics for the European and American markets as fast as they could make it, catering to Western tastes while popularizing Asian decorative motifs. After World War II, the West got a big dose of Asian pottery-making techniques for the first time, so instead of just adapting Asian designs for surface decoration, the methods and aesthetic concepts associated with ceramics (particularly in Japan and Korea) informed the working processes and ideas of potters like Warren Mackenzie, Don Reitz, Val Cushing and Peter Voulkos, to name just a few. Nearly every university ceramics department and pottery studio in North America (including Greenwich House) bears the mark of this influence - it’s no coincidence that all your favorite high fire glazes have names like Shino, Tenmoku and Oribe.
 
The philosophy that influenced the American understanding of Asian ceramics was called mingei, which translates roughly as “the hand-craft of ordinary people”. The mingei ideal was formulated by Soetsu Yanagi (best known as the author of “The Unknown Craftsman”), and the potters Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai in the late 1920s, inspired by a renewed interest in traditional Korean ceramics. In a briskly modernizing and urbanizing Japan, the perceived relative simplicity of Korean handicrafts - useful, affordable and authentic - was appealing, and seemed to these men to be more culturally genuine than the many types of Japanese pottery that had evolved to cater to Western tastes. Sound familiar? Think of it as the Japanese version of the Arts and Crafts movement - somewhat idealistic, a bit contrived, but ultimately well-meaning.[1] Mingei thus ignited an interest in traditional Japanese ceramics too (both in Japan and abroad), along with the traditional aesthetic ideals of shibui (simplicity and reserved beauty) and wabi-sabi (acceptance of asymmetry and imperfection).
 
The mingei ideal, Japanese aesthetics, and more broadly, Asian folk pottery, were introduced to the West primarily by the English potter Bernard Leach who had lived in Japan for many years, first through the publication of “A Potters’ Book” in 1940, and later through his American tour with Shoji Hamada in 1952. Leach and Hamada toured the country at the invitation of potters Alix and Warren Mackenzie who were part of the first generation of American artists to adopt Asian folk pottery-making techniques in their own work. Leach and Hamada visited Greenwich House Pottery on their tour where they found an eager and receptive audience. During this period, Greenwich House was a magnet for artists both from traditional ceramics backgrounds and others who wanted to learn how to work in clay.
 
In a series of popular workshops in the early ‘60s, Peter Voulkos (who was introduced to GHP Director Jane Hartsook by Craft Horizons editor Rose Slivka) demonstrated wheel-throwing followed by aggressively altering and slashing his pots. In his hands, studio pottery went from being attractive and useful to being expressive and sculptural. Spending time at the nearby Cedar Tavern, he crossed paths with the likes of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, and was so energized by his work at Greenwich House that tried to get the painters interested in clay (apparently to no avail).[2]
 
Voulkos wasn’t alone: New York was a hotbed of craft activity during these years: philanthropist Aileen Osborn Webb had founded the American Craft Museum (now MAD) in 1956, as well as the American Craft Council, which had a thriving craft retail outlet called America House. The Council’s magazine, Craft Horizons, showcased the work of emerging talent from around the globe. In a city that’s associated with nearly every form of visual expression except craft, pottery took hold for a small but devoted crowd of makers and admirers.
 
Studio pottery as we now understand it was, to a great extent, parachuted into the United States from another culture (Korea, by way of Japan, by way of Bernard Leach) and it didn’t dovetail perfectly with the existing American understanding of what ceramics was supposed to be - either in form or in function. Artists like Peter Voulkos and a few years later, Don Reitz, certainly weren’t a manifestation of Colonial Revival. Their work wasn’t about recalling a simpler American past as evoked by the duck decoys and whirligigs on view at the Shelburne Museum (founded in 1947 by Aileen Osborn Webb’s sister-in-law, Electra Webb) or the American Folk Art Museum (founded in 1961). It was about connecting with an even more distant, ahistorical, imagined past, somewhat akin to what painters like Gauguin and Picasso sought to reach through the lens of “primitivism” at the turn of the century. Or perhaps, it was a desire to shape what came next.
 
Back to the Future
 
In most of the obvious ways, the 1950s were all about progress - the eager deployment of the new materials and technologies that were the spoils of World War II, and a rejection of fussy ornament in favor of strong forms and restrained detailing. Ironically, because they were both visually disconnected from the most recent recognizable trends in decorative arts, the studio crafts that harkened back to an imagined era before time were the perfect compliment to the furniture that pointed the way forward. Potters stopped using realistic representation to decorate their work and instead gave their pots simple, powerful forms to make their presence felt. Quick, expressive and bold, what you saw is what you got. Scandinavian and Northern European ceramists made delicate vessels with luminous glazes and the subtlest of throwing rings left behind, making their pots seem perched like coiled springs, full of potential.
 
We talk about mid-century optimism a great deal today as we fret about the overwhelming problems we now face. Yet what we perceive as optimism in the culture might simply have been a confident assurance that what came before didn’t work, and it was time for new ideas across the board - from what we believe and how we live, to the objects we surround ourselves with. Let’s start over, these objects seem to say. The future is a blank slate.
 
Visit Mid-Century Style and Studio Pottery: A Period Room installation at Greenwich House Pottery at the Jane Hartsook Gallery.  16 Jones Street between Bleeker Street and West 4th Street in Manhattan.  Open until February 10th.  See www.greenwichhouse.org/programs/arts/pottery/exhibitions/mid-century
Writer Sarah Archer is curator at Greenwich House Pottery.
[1] Mingei philosophy has drawn its share of criticism for stereotyping Korean culture and ceramics - for more on this and a more detailed discussion of mingei, see Thinking Through Craft by Glenn Adamson, pp. 114-118.
[2] “Essay From the Jane Hartsook 25th Anniversary Exhibition Catalogue” by Victoria Thorson, 1995, available at: greenwichhouse.org
 

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