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Modernism born in potter’s hands

Times Staff Writer

The first American artist to stand on the threshold of Modernism was not Stanton Macdonald-Wright, a Los Angeles expatriate in Paris, or New Yorker Arthur Dove. At least 15 years before them, the Mississippi artist George E. Ohr (1857-1918) was making radically inventive, highly individualistic work that turned aesthetic convention on its head.

Formally astute and joyously experimental, Ohr’s art was a critical expression of his alienation from the brutalities of the industrializing modern world. If his name is unfamiliar, or is familiar only in a context different from Modern art, that’s because Ohr was neither a painter nor a sculptor. Nor did he ever linger on the island of Manhattan, never mind the Ile de France.

Ohr was instead a potter, and his groundbreaking art took shape in a studio located in a small fishing and resort town on the Gulf Coast. A savvier art establishment might recognize him as America’s first innovative Modernist, but he has two big strikes against him.

“George Ohr Rising: The Emergence of an American Master” is a modest exhibition that doesn’t make so grand a claim, even though it could. Instead, the show offers an engaging introduction to the self-declared Mad Potter of Biloxi.

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At the American Museum of Ceramic Art, a storefront space in Pomona, five vitrines hold 42 Ohr vessels. Almost all of them were made between 1895 and 1900. By contrast, Dove’s and Macdonald-Wright’s first Modern forays date from 1910 to 1912.

Emblematic of Ohr’s achievement is “Fountain Vase,” a bulbous, speckled red-orange form cinched and twisted in the middle. A tall neck supports a broad lip that folds over, cascading like water spilling off a fountain’s edge.

Nearby, “Petticoat Vase” looks a bit like ruffled Victorian bloomers turned upside down, as five impossibly thin layers of crimped clay -- think exquisite pie crust -- swirl around the bottle’s form. (They’re so delicate you’re not surprised to spot a tiny chip.)

A mug has multiple handles, so that more than one user could drink from it at an imagined communal table, while a bottle is framed by looping handles that coil like writhing snakes.

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Several vessels are crumpled rather than smoothly cylindrical, as if the rapidly spinning potter’s wheel had stopped abruptly and the centripetal force generated by pressure from the artist’s hand had caused the form to collapse in on itself. Ohr’s glazes, whether matte or luminous, sometimes pool and puddle, filling dimples in the clay, while the colors speckle and bleed.

In a bowl no larger than a small cupped hand, a cobalt rim above a jet-black base melts into a canary yellow interior. Elsewhere a surface is pockmarked with craters, suggesting that the glaze boiled in the kiln’s intense heat and then the burst bubbles solidified as the vessel cooled.

This is not a model of exemplary commercial production work, in which a craftsman turns out a polished set of matching cups or bowls for the dinner table. Nor is it remotely like conventional late 19th century art pottery -- the refined painted china produced by energetic society women in Cincinnati, or the organic naturalism espoused at the Rookwood and Grueby potteries.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was progressive, putting the designer’s individual expression ahead of the industrialized anonymity of mass production. (The example of Japanese and Chinese ceramics also offered an idealized dose of exoticism.) But there were limits to just how personal or exotic Arts and Crafts pottery could be.

Ohr didn’t care about any of that. He toyed with those aesthetic boundaries. Marshaling remarkable technical expertise, he twisted and stretched the limits of art pottery.

One characteristic of Ohr’s radical work is its startling engagement of motion. Take the ruffled edging so prominent in his pots. A structural element of wheel-thrown pottery, the movement of hand against spinning clay is more often hidden, smoothed over or encased inside the effete refinement of the finished pot.

Not unprecedented in Victorian crafts, where ruffles usually served as surface decoration, ruffling is intrinsic to the gestural production of Ohr’s pottery. The forms contain narrative elements that reveal the process of a vessel’s manufacture.

All but two of the Pomona show’s 42 works were made in the five years after fire destroyed Biloxi Art and Novelty Pottery, the company Ohr had built. Usually regarded as the liberating event in the artist’s life, the devastating fire ruined more than 10,000 production works in Ohr’s inventory. Seven of these so-called “burned babies” are also on view in Pomona.

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Ohr was a certified eccentric, not least as indicated by the 20-inch mustache he reportedly draped over his ears to keep from getting it tangled in the spinning potter’s wheel. But he was nonetheless a gifted journeyman.

The son of an Eastern European immigrant blacksmith, he was taught the potter’s traditional craft by an Alsatian father-and-son team, first in Biloxi and later in New Orleans.

Ohr learned how to prepare clay, build kilns and manipulate standard glaze formulas. He also spent two years traveling the Midwest and the South examining rival production facilities, to better know the competition. He regularly visited (and sometimes showed his wares at) giant trade shows, such as Chicago’s famous 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

The souvenirs sold at these fairs, such as the Christopher Columbus coins designed by the preeminent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the Chicago extravaganza, might also have provided inspiration. The Pomona show includes five so-called “brothel coins” that Ohr made for the Gulf Coast tourist trade.

Each small, unglazed clay disk pairs words with a low-relief image to make a verbal-visual rebus: “I love U” written above a leaping deer; “let’s go 2" above a bed; and other, bawdier couplings.

A far cry from Saint-Gaudens’ lofty allusion to classical Roman coins, Ohr’s comic souvenirs reflected his own oddball character. In a nation uncomfortable with art, being wacky could function as a defensive mechanism -- as a wink and a nod that minimized the threat of being taken seriously.

With nothing left to lose after his pottery burned to the ground, Ohr unleashed his expert technical skill. Rather than return to producing utilitarian dishes and vases for the home, he began to play with conventional ceramic forms. He began to make art.

Pomona is the first stop on a tour prepared by Biloxi’s Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, whose large collection happily survived the brutal assault of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Twenty-eight of the pieces are from the museum’s collection, while the rest have been lent by private collections in Mississippi and California.

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When the hurricane hit, the Ohr-O’Keefe had begun to build a group of five small, pod-like stainless-steel display pavilions designed by L.A. architect Frank Gehry, who studied ceramics in the 1950s before turning to architecture. (In photographs, the tall pavilions’ shapes resemble Shang Dynasty bronze vessels.) The museum has now taken temporary shelter in a historic Colonial Revival house, and the first rebuilt pod was erected this month. The finished museum is tentatively set to open in December 2009.

When it does, maybe the legacy of the traumatic Katrina saga will also jump-start a larger reconsideration of Ohr’s career. He has been a cult figure in the art world since the early 1970s -- Jasper Johns, a fellow Southerner, is one avid admirer and collector, and he has represented Ohr pottery in his paintings. But Ohr’s reputation remains marginalized.

A frivolous, deeply ingrained cultural pecking order automatically consigns vases, pitchers, bowls and such into the category of craft, simply for the absurd reason that they are made from fired clay.

Such nonsensical thinking has too long obscured Ohr’s rightful place in the originating story of Modern American art. If Katrina also blew that away, the otherwise ruinous hurricane will have done some good.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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‘George Ohr Rising’

Where: American Museum of Ceramic Art, 340 S. Garey Ave., Pomona

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; open the second Saturday of each month until 9 p.m.; closed Jan. 1

Ends: Feb. 23

Price: $3

Contact: (909) 865-3146 or www.ceramicmuseum.org


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