Arts Listings

Oakland Museum Receives Major Gift

By Peter Selz, Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 18, 2007

While General Betray-us tells us to “stay the course” and while the glaciers are melting, the museums in the Bay Area are doing great. The celebrated artist Fernando Botero has made a munificent offer to donate his powerful drawings and paintings of Abu Ghraib to the Berkeley Museum upon their return from their international tour. The Fishers are about to build a museum at the Presidio to house their significant collection of contemporary art.  

And The Oakland Museum of California has received the donation of the extraordinary collection of California art assembled by Ted and Ruth Nash. Twenty-two works from a total of 275 pieces are currently on view there. 

Many of the pieces are ceramics, a medium which in spite of its great history—Pre-Columbian sculpture, Tang horses, Greek vases, Baroque terra-cottas—has been marginalized as “craft” for too long. Peter Voulkos, who was instrumental in re-introducing clay as medium for sculpture, is represented by Solano (1958), one of his early signature pieces of assembled bulbous forms coated with black slip. I am proud to say that I was able to exhibit works like this piece at the Museum of Modern Art in 1958. The current show has a sign in which Voulkos is quoted: “I became more and more intrigued with the tactile and emotional potentials of working in clay which took me beyond pottery into ceramic sculpture ... I was terribly impressed with ... breaking through old traditions.” 

The exhibition includes Stephen De Staebler’s stoneware “Black Figure Stele” (1975), a human torso, embedded in its clay matrix, with a detached arm by its side. Like the Action Painters and like Voulkos, with whom De Staebler once studied, he encouraged the subject to emerge from the material. This torso is chthonic, earth-bound. It is terra-cotta, Latin for “cooked earth.”  

This material, so suffused with history and myth, has been reclaimed for our time by this fragmentary form. It suggest effigies of the Sumerians and the Egyptians and it also assumes a symbolic function of human incompleteness and yearning, reminding us of our own vulnerability. 

Robert Arneson, a major pioneer in ceramic sculpture, turned to working in bronze later in his career. In the 1990s, following his ill-fated “Bust of Mayor Moscone,” he produced ceramic and bronze portraits of himself, of Voulkos, Picasso and of Jackson Pollock, as in “Wolf Head” (1989) in the current show in which Pollock is shown with a wolf on his head. This image probably refers to the wolf under the mysterious table in Pollock’s great painting, “Guardians of the Secret,” which Arneson had studied in SFMOMA, before making his own glazed ceramic re-interpretation of the famous painting. 

Richard Shaw’s “Walking Man with Sketchbook” (1976) and Marilyn Levine’s “Purse with Rope Handle” (1970) are fine examples of the ability by sculptors to use clay for the creation of trompe-l’oeil effects. It is hard to believe that Levine’s purse is ceramic and not leather, and Shaw manages to put an old tin can in place of the artist’s head on top of a skeletal whimsical figure. These elements and even the drawings in the sketchbook are actually porcelain. The viewer can only be astounded by the technical virtuosity, skill and imagination of these artists. And Viola Frey, known for her over life-size ceramic figures is seen here with “Oakland Myths” (1985), a delightful piece in which cars, motorcycles, bikini girls and pet animals seem to burst from a colorful cookie jar. 




Through Dec. 30 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. 238-2200. 


Image: Wolf Head (detail), 1989, by Robert Arneson. Bronze on wood base.  

Photo by M. Lee Fatherree