Viola Frey, 70; Her Ceramic Figures Explored Themes on Grand Scale

Times Staff Writer

Viola Frey, an artist whose colorful glazed clay sculptures of middle-class urbanites in larger than life proportions helped expand ceramics beyond figurines and decorative plates, has died. She was 70.

The former chairwoman of the ceramics department at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, Frey suffered from colon cancer for several months but continued working. She died at home in Oakland on July 26 after spending the day in her studio, according to Nancy Hoffman, her New York City art dealer.

Frey’s bright figures stood eight feet tall or more and suggested the immense scale of the Pop sculpture of the 1960s. She was also influenced by the emotionally charged Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s. Her sculptural figures bear human expressions, most often the confusion or impatience of passersby on a crowded street.


Like ceramicists Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson, who pioneered the California Funk movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, Frey used her material in imaginative ways. Artists’ clay should not be limited to Grecian-style vases, cups and bowls, she believed.

She was an avid collector of garage sale figurines that she admired for their cross-cultural references.

“It fascinated her that a figurine of a sleepy Mexican could be made in Japan and sold somewhere in Ohio,” Frey’s West Coast art dealer, Trish Bransten of the Rena Bransten gallery in San Francisco, said Friday.

Frey often used the image of the globe in her work as a way of exploring cultural diversity. “Man Kicking World” (2002), with a seated man pushing away the globe, suggests one world view. “Two Women and a World” (1991), of monumental nudes contemplating the globe, suggests quite another.

An avid feminist, Frey explored power symbols in her work. She crafted images of women and men in “dress for success” business suits in the 1980s. She also looked back to an era of subtler power symbols in a series of grandmother figures dressed in floral print dresses and summer hats, based on the elderly women who ran her hometown of Lodi, Calif., during World War II while the men were overseas.

Born Viola Ruth Frey and raised on a farm near Lodi, she graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in 1956 and received a master’s degree in fine arts from Tulane University in Louisiana, where she studied with Mark Rothko.


She moved to New York City in 1958 and worked in the business office of the Museum of Modern Art. Two years later she returned to San Francisco.

Frey has had a number of museum and gallery exhibitions, including a one-woman show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1984. Her works are in the permanent collections of several major museums, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Frey has no immediate survivors.

A public memorial is planned for Sept. 19 at 3 p.m. on the campus of the California College of the Arts, 5202 Broadway, Oakland. For further information, contact Jen McKay at the college at 510-594-3776.