Personality and Porcelain: The Unique Vision of the Late Ceramist Viola Frey
The late Viola Frey, one of the 20th century’s greatest ceramists, is best-known for her dynamic, life-sized figurative sculptures, depicting men and women in a variety of poses and a vibrant color palette. This spring, a rich selection of Frey’s works go on view at New York’s Nancy Hoffman Gallery, including a collection that has never before been publicly shown in its entirety.
“A Personal Iconography ” the fourth exhibition dedicated to Frey since her death in 2004, includes work in a variety of mediums, all of which capture her unique figurative vision and document her vernacular life in her home of California. Her works often feature men and women at work—including the artist in the studio—and demonstrate a keen sense for color, and a loose, painterly aesthetic. Her synthesis of art and craft was deemed peculiar during much of her early career, but has become more and more desirable in the wake of Pop Art and as women and traditionally feminized art forms enter the art world in greater and greater numbers. Describing an early experience showing her work, Frey once said, “I did a series of pieces that were about the worker…[T]his was in an exhibit down in Los Angeles and then some women came in and they looked at the work, and they said, ‘Boy, this is us.’”
Much of the work at Nancy Hoffman Gallery is comprised of a suite of works she made at the Nationale Manufacture de Porcelaine at Sèvres, outside of Paris; the complete group of works is on public view for first time. The manufactory, operated by the French Ministry of Culture, has hosted a number of notable artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Jean Arp, and Betty Woodman, among others. Untitled (Cup and Saucer) A la Manufacture de Sevres Series (1986), Untitled (Teapot) A la Manufacture de Sevres Series (1988), and another Untitled (Cup and Saucer) A la Manufacture de Sevres Series (1986) were all made at the plant. The two sets of cups and saucers use the same form: a bell krater-like shape, accented with a biomorphic handle, similar to a curling branch. On all three vessels, men and women move across the surface in colorful, gestural scenes.
Such images recur in two oil paintings on canvas: Studio View: Seated Woman, Vase on Lap (1986) and Studio View: Three Blue Suits and Nude (1986). Both can be read as allegories about the working artist, as represented by mannequin forms and men in blue suits toiling in a landscape filled with architectural fragments and pottery. Like Red Grooms, who also worked in both sculpture and two-dimensional imagery, Frey depicts the lives and work of ordinary people in kaleidoscopic and painterly imagery.
Some of the most exciting pieces on view are Frey’s plate-like tondos. Untitled (1991) and Untitled Plate #16 (1992) are collages of iconic imagery and figures, or even just body parts. In the latter, a hand, a musician, a snake, and roiling, glazed fragments of color dance across the surface. Without corners, the all-over composition keeps the viewer’s eyes endlessly moving. This kind of restless energy is common in Frey’s work, which is celebratory and enthusiastic, full of life and its labors.