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Casting Call: Ceramics Center Stage

May 27 - September 17, 2006


Qualities like beauty, utility, and historical or technological significance contribute to the importance of an artwork in a museum's collection. In Casting Call: Ceramics Center Stage, on view in the Treasure Room at Carnegie Museum of Art May 27 - September 17, 2006, theatrically themed vignettes highlight these characteristics and more in a selection of objects from the museum's diverse and substantive ceramics collection of more than 2,000 artifacts.

"We wanted to suggest different ways to interpret decorative arts," says exhibition organizer Rachel Delphia. "By staging the ceramics in a variety of roles, we show the viewer the range of stories that artifacts tell."

Although the exhibition is international in scope, it features more than a dozen premiere American creations. Among them is William Grueby's Arts and Crafts scarab paperweight from 1905, which has never been on view before at Carnegie Museum of Art, and Sara Elizabeth Coyne's Rookwood stoneware vase, 1909, which has not been displayed for decades. The exhibition features another striking Rookwood vase by Japanese-American artist, Kataro Shirayamadani, who worked and taught at the Rookwood pottery. His presence lent an authentic Japanese influence at a time when Japanese-inspired design was extremely fashionable. (right: Rookwood vase by Japanese-American artist, Kataro Shirayamadani)

A section called "History's Witnesses," includes a large porcelain pitcher (c. 1830) from the Tucker & Hemphill porcelain manufactory in Philadelphia. William Ellis Tucker and his partners made ceramic and entrepreneurial history in the late 1820s as the first commercially successful porcelain manufacturers in the United States. Another American story is presented by a mint-green sugar bowl, designed by Sharon Merrill Design and produced by Vernon Kilns in California in the early 1950s. Despite Tucker's early success, 19th-century Americans continued to rely on Europe for most of their ceramic tableware. In the 20th century, however, numerous successful potteries appeared in the United States. Sales of their affordable, mass-produced dishes boomed after World War II and forever changed the way Americans set their tables. 

In an aptly titled vignette, the ceramic collection's "Prima Donnas" take center stage. Two impressive, oversized pots by American artists Betty Woodman and Maija Grotell dominate the display with their dramatic presence. The splashed green and caramel colored glaze on Woodman's Pillow Pitcher, 1980 reveals the artist's proclivity for historically-inspired decoration (this surface treatment comes from the 7th to 10th-century Tang Dynasty san-ts'ai glaze). The thick-walled vase, c. 1950, by Maija Grotell exemplifies the strong, simple profiles; incised decoration; and rich glazes for which she was famous. Grotell's pots, as well as her influence on students at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan from 1938-1966 made a lasting impact on American studio ceramics.

"Humor and Wit" rounds out the revue with a selection of offbeat pieces including a wavy, thin-walled vase, c. 1900, by George Ohr, the self-proclaimed mad potter of Biloxi, Mississippi. Ohr's experimental pottery was not appreciated until long after his death. He loved to create collapsed and contorted forms, and his abstract use of clay anticipated art of the later 20th century.

Other American objects in the exhibition include a cup and saucer from Eva Zeisel's renowned Museum Service, designed for Castleton China Company around 1942-43 and a stunning, architectonic Teco vase, c. 1900-1904. Teco was an Arts & Crafts pottery outside Chicago that specialized in pots designed by members of the Chicago Architectural club, many of whom had worked under famed architects William Jenney or Louis Sullivan. Altogether the colorful cast of 67 ceramic objects demonstrates that-large or small, plain or fancy-every work in the collection has a unique story to tell.

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