Press Office Exhibition

SFMOMA Exhibition Celebrates The Colorful History Of California Pottery

Released: April 12, 2001 ·

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) brings modern art to the table when it presents California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism, the first significant museum survey of California Pottery—commercially produced earthenware tableware, tiles and home accessories made in California during the first half of the 20th century. Drawn from 50 California-based collections, the exhibition has been organized in collaboration with the newly formed Museum of California Design (MOCAD) in Los Angeles. Opening July 20 and running through October 14, 2001, California Pottery will contain approximately 180 pieces by over 40 potteries once located throughout the state, from Stockton to San Diego, from Laguna Beach to Berkeley.

These colorful everyday objects—plates and pitchers, flower planters, house tiles—feature both abstract designs and narrative representations of the state’s culture, with inspiration taken from the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Deco, modernist design and the pottery of other cultures, notably Mexico, China and Japan. This unprecedented survey of commercial California Pottery presents a sampling of some of the most original and aesthetically satisfying contributions to American design of the century.

In the exhibition, guest curator and MOCAD Executive Director Bill Stern traces the history of mass-produced pottery made in California, revealing the impact of “the California lifestyle” on the day-to-day lives of Americans in other parts of the country. “Wherever California Pottery was distributed,” according to Stern, “it helped to disseminate the idea of a more casual and creative lifestyle by breaking down the barrier between interior and exterior living and bringing about a color-splashed revolution in the American home.”

Out of Diverse Influences, World-Class Innovation

The exhibition touches on the beginnings of mass-produced pottery in California with the terra cotta squares manufactured for the early missions. In the early decades of the 20th century, the dominance of European taste on 19th-century ceramics gave way as California potters found new sources of inspiration in the local landscape and other cultures. By the 1920s, commercial production of pottery housewares, gardenwares and architectural elements in California rivaled that of Ohio, then the nation’s pottery center. By the late 1940s, at least 600 potteries in the state—including such influential, large-scale manufacturers as J.A. Bauer Pottery Co. in Los Angeles, Gladding, McBean & Co. in Lincoln and Los Angeles and Vernon Kilns in Vernon—were making both practical and decorative earthenwares. The glory years of California Pottery ended in the late 1950s, due to international competition and the rising use of plastics to produce household objects. “However,” notes Stern, “the impact of commercially made, practical pottery from California on American design and lifestyle continues unabated. From Fiesta dinnerware made in West Virginia to cylindrical white planters in office building lobbies, it and its legacy are part of our everyday lives.”

The six sections of California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism focus on major themes that characterize the products of the commercial potteries once active in California. “Paving the Way” charts turn-of-the-century developments in pottery—from early efforts to adapt designs and glazes from Ohio and perfect nostalgic Arts and Crafts glazes and imagery to California’s first revolution in design and color with the introduction of Hispano-Moresque geometrics and saturated colors. “Color Crazed” charts the great color revolution that swept America from west to east in the early 1930s and transformed tables and gardens nationwide. Both “Streamline, Deco and Zigzag” and “Wit and Whimsy” honor the imaginative and sometimes impractical shapes that made California pottery so distinctive in the mid- and late 1930s. “Clay Canvases” is a gallery of painted and decorated pottery from the same period. Finally, in “Meeting Modernism,” two seemingly incompatible inspirations from the 1940s and 1950s join to put California pottery back on the cutting edge of design for contemporary living: the incorporation of the aesthetics of studio pottery into commercial pottery production and the introduction of fresh, clean-lined, modernist shapes.

California Pottery continues the SFMOMA Architecture and DesignDepartment’s tradition of showing how modern art becomes real in the objects, images and spaces of everyday life,” notes Aaron Betsky, SFMOMA curator of architecture, design and digital projects. “These plates and platters, saucers and urns, ashtrays and tiles all bring some of the innovations and experimental urges of modern art into the home. From the Mission-style evocation of Mexican craft traditions to the abstract play of glazes, California Pottery will show ceramics as a site for narratives and designs that might have originated in places far away in geography and time but have become part of the family of forms with which we surround ourselves here. It will also show how California has delighted in reforming and rethinking simple objects and spaces. Eye-catching new creations—such as trays based on tortilla platters and poised, off-center cups—show the domestic side of the California adventure in form.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a 108-page book of the same title published by Chronicle Books and featuring over 155 full-color and black-and-white illustrations. With text by exhibition curator Bill Stern and photographs by Peter Brenner, California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism will be available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore and other bookstores for $22.95.

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California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with the Museum of California Design.

This exhibition is sponsored by Accenture.

Public Programs
California Pottery: Designed for Living
Saturday, July 21, 1-4 p.m., Phyllis Wattis Theater
Suzanne Baizerman of the Oakland Museum of California, Wendy Kaplan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, John Perreault of UrbanGlass in Brooklyn and Jeff Weinstein of the Philadelphia Inquirer join exhibition curator Bill Stern in probing the domestic and architectural contexts of California pottery during the first half of the 20th century. Form, function and color will direct the discussion, which will address such lively topics as the social implications of dinnerware and the cultural significance of everyday things.
$12 general, $6 SFMOMA members, students with ID and seniors. For more information about the symposium, visit www.sfmoma.org or call 415/538-2691.

Meet the Author
California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism
Saturday, July 21, 4-5 p.m., Haas Atrium
Guest curator Bill Stern signs copies of Chronicle Books’ California Pottery at this free MuseumStore event.

Art and Conversation
California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism
Friday, July 27, 11 a.m., Phyllis Wattis Theater
Guest curator Bill Stern discusses the inspiration behind the California Pottery exhibition and book in this free lecture.

Jill Lynch 415.357.4172 jilynch@sfmoma.org
Clara Hatcher Baruth 415.357.4177 chatcher@sfmoma.org
Press Office