Ralph Bacerra’s Exquisite Beauty

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This summer the art news in LA has been about a giant, private collection housed in a sparkly new downtown gallery: The Broad. In the same time frame hundreds, no probably more like thousands, of smaller shows opened across the city and region, befitting the powerhouse that is the LA environs art scene.

I found myself drawn to 2 new exhibits celebrating ceramic history in Los Angeles. A history told through the prism and influence of Master Ceramicist and Teacher, Ralph Bacerra.

Primary is Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty at the Ben Maltz Gallery, on the West LA Otis campus, a retrospective of 90 pieces showcasing the career of the Garden Grove born artist and teacher.

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A faculty member at the Chouinard Art Institute from 1963-71, he headed the ceramics department at Otis College of Art and Design from 1983-96, in a career that spanned 5 decades.

Enrolling at Chouinard in 1957, he studied graphic design, with a view to pursuing a career in Commercial Art. However, one elective seminar with pioneering studio potter, Vivika Heino changed everything and a new pathway emerged.

“I started to get more serious working with the wheel and the clay and the glazes. I said ‘this is for me’.This is where I want to be and I dropped everything and switched my major to Ceramics.”

With his mentors move to the Rhode Island School of Design, Bacerra became head of the Ceramics program.

A lifelong exploration of historic asian ceramics, textile and print designs and finely honed technical expertise became the beautiful vessels and sculptures that comprise the exhibit.

His work represents pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake. Expressed in all forms, organic, geometric, traditional or sculptural and always a surface replete with pattern, color, composition and design.

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Not for Bacerra the prevailing exploration of the “humble pot”, the creamy earth toned stoneware with brushstroke calligraphy in a nod to Japanese folk art:much approved of in the 50’s and 60’s! Moving forward with glaze technology and drawing upon his earlier background in commercial art, he experimented with raised clay designs on his stoneware and then shifted to porcelain and white ware, where his increasingly complex and overglazed decoration could shine.

“China Painting” as it was referred to, had become the province of Women’s Art Clubs and hobbyists, ironic given the historic gravitas and tradition of similar techniques. A growing movement celebrating color and embellishment and drawing upon these derided techniques influenced and encouraged Bacerra.

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This retrospective shows the move from simple green & white or blue & white graphics to dizzyingly complicated patterns:patterns and techniques drawn from Asian ceramics, persian painting, middle eastern textiles and MC Escher’ designs. Kandinsky, Klee and Klimt all on display at the Pasadena Art Museum were particular favorites.


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He perfected increasingly difficult firing schedules to accommodate  the complex and multilayered combinations of glazes.Curator and Author of Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty, Jo Lauria notes:

“As many as 14 firings were required for a single object and the labor intensive process was fraught with potential for breakages and flaws in the kiln.”  ..a 50% loss rate apparently.

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His tenure at Chouinard and Otis mentored an impressive number of students who follow in his footsteps.

The second exhibit celebrating Los Angeles’s storied clay history is Crossroads in Clay at Chouinard and Otis: The Ralph Bacerra Years, a group exhibition featuring more than thirty former students of the artist.

This exhibit, concurrent with the Ben Maltz show is at the Vincent Price Art Gallery, on the East LA  College campus.

It is an historic review, connecting the skills of the teacher (Bacerra) to the ceramic art of the students he mentored and a rare opportunity to see works created by these heirs of Bacerra’s tutelage. Many are now prominent artists in the field.

He challenged students to critically evaluate and recreate historic glazes and forms as part of their education and believed strongly in technical mastery and craftsmanship.

The show includes more than fifty artworks that demonstrate differing approaches, aesthetics and practice.Some retain a direct relationship to Bacerra and others are headed in alternate and innovative directions.

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A beautiful full-color catalogue, written by Jo Lauria and produced by the Ben Maltz Gallery accompanies Exquisite Beauty. And Crossroads in Clay curator, Christy Johnson has contributed an original essay discussing the lasting impact Bacerra had on his students.

Otis has also produced 2 “rolling clay” tours ( October and November) which travel to many of the ceramic artist’s studios featured in the Crossroads exhibit. 

A joy to explore Bacerra’s beauty for beauty’s sake .

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The Prairie Skyscraper

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In the soft and green rolling hills of Osage County, described by TV’s Pioneer Woman as the ‘middle of nowhere’ is Bartlesville, Oklahoma: the oil capitol, headquarters of Phillips 66 and the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper.

Price Tower, named for pipeline company owner Harold Price, is one of only 2 vertically oriented structures Wright built in a lifetime of low slung, horizontal buildings

A road trip detour, after I’d read about the Prairie project sent me to explore Osage County and check out Price Tower.

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It’s situated a little out of the original downtown. Not too close to other tall buildings and in a funky office neighborhood with company headquarters, old shopfronts and a noisy restaurant or two.

To see these lovely older buildings in Bartlesville, is to understand the power of the oil and gas industry in Northern Oklahoma. In 1904, just 7 years after the first well was dug, there were 150 oil companies with an office in Bartlesville!

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Price originally envisioned a one to four story structure, possibly designed by Cliff May who had already built a home for the family. His sons, however, were influenced by local architect Bruce Goff to get the absolute ‘best architect….Get Frank Lloyd Wright’.

After a phone consultation, and in the thrall of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” the family traveled to Taliesin West in Phoenix where Harold was impressed to note that the house Wright had built was 35 years older but similarly modern to the family’s May home! FLW convinced them that a tower would cost no more per square foot than a small boxy office building, and pitched a multi use concept with rental office suites and apartments along with the corporate headquarters. Brilliant salesmanship.

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By late August 1952 with the site secured, Wright began work on the plans. It grew to a 19 story tower rising from green parklands and tree lined streets.The metaphor of “a tree that escaped the forest” was consistent with his use of green copper vertical shutters, and a tall slender structure. 

At the International Petroleum exposition in Tulsa, Wright unveiled a model and announced the project. The May 1953 event drew 250,000 visitors, many oil executives, fellow oil producers and Price’s clients. Lots of buzz.

Construction, with the inevitable cost overruns, was completed and the building opened to the public in February 1956.

It was the most famous new building in America, with visitors coming from around the world to see Wright’s Prairie skyscraper. Although tall buildings were nothing new, multi-use high rise offices and apartments, particularly outside  the major cities, were unusual.

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Visiting now, the coolest thing about Price Tower is that it contains a hotel, operated by the non profit that runs the building and adjoining art center (designed by Zaha Hadid). Not luxurious but a singular Oklahomey Frank Lloyd Wright experience with a ‘behind the scenes’ docent tour as part of the deal.

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So you stay in one of the corner suites, travel in one of the 4 minuscule triangular elevators ( 2 people and a small suitcase max!) and then hang out in the Copper Bar and cocktail as the sun sets over the prairie. The crowd is eclectic…lots of young IT professionals who work for Phillips 66, design aficionados who drive to Bartlesville specifically to stay in and photograph the building and itinerant academics and workers who are tired of the hotel chains. 

Over Manhattans we met a Navajo linguist who gave us a list of out of the way sites to explore, visitors from Tulsa celebrating an anniversary and sharing lots of Osage legend: like where George Clooney liked to eat during the filming of “Osage County” ( Frank and Lola’s), what the Pioneer Woman is REALLY like, how the Tom Mix museum is the most fun museum in the county and be sure not to miss the Bison Preserves.

So much good stuff!

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http://www.pricetower.org

Georgia territory

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Abiquiu in Northern New Mexico is the place where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted.

“When I got to New Mexico, that was mine.As soon as I saw it , that was my country”

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The stunning, stark beauty of the high desert landscape had been her inspiration since her first visit in 1929.For 20 years she travelled from New York to Abiquiu each summer, often staying for six months in solitude, to paint the skies and desert, colored rock formations, distant mountains and Chama  river valley.

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Smaller found objects like bleached bones and rocks, exotic cactus flowers and the wood and adobe structures also found their way onto her canvases. Three years after her husband’s death she moved permanently to New Mexico and eventually owned two homes .

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The first in Ghost Ranch, was high and secluded. Nestled beneath 700-foot cliffs it looked over to the flat-topped Pedernal. “Pedernal is my private mountain” she said frequently.”God told me if I painted it enough I could have it.”

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The second, initially used as her winter residence, was in the small town of Abiquiu at an elevation  of 6400′ and overlooked the Chama River with its  green trees and fields.

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Both locations surrounded her with a wealth of imagery for her paintings.

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Visiting Abiquiu over Christmas I was struck at each turn of the road  how recognizable the landscape is because of our familiarity with O’Keeffe’s work.

Driving north towards Ghost Ranch we knew we were getting close when Chimney Rocks came into sight.

Photographs taken quickly (with the phone!) out the window of the car amazed us with their color and clarity. Georgia O’Keeffe was quoted as saying that most of her art was done in New Mexico before she put her brushes to the canvas.

There is almost no tourist infrastructure in Abiquiu. An Inn with a small but good restaurant. A road house /gas station famous for breakfast burritos. Georgia’s home in town is only open for tours in the warmer months and her home at Ghost Ranch can only be toured via enquiries at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Ghost Ranch, now owned by the Presbyterian Church is a retreat, conference center,geology museum and place of learning.Each year there are hundreds of classes to take, many residential.

What is there and intensely accessible, are breathtaking vistas that shock. Skies that amaze with crystalline blue beauty, the whitest clouds and nearly every night billions of sparkly stars.Every road takes you somewhere you want to explore:cliff dwellings, pueblos, monasteries and churches, rocks and petroglyphs and tiny adobe hamlets.

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We rented a little stone house and pinched ourselves every morning when we looked out the windows, across Georgia’s valley.

State of Enchantment , as marked on the car number plates…not really a cliche!

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http://www.okeeffemuseum.org

http://www.GhostRanch.org

http://www.abiquiuinn.com

Hayden Tract : Exploring LA

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Years ago I worked in Culver City.

The area was dodgy and rundown.
Driving home, often at midnight, I’d head out through the warehouses to La Cienaga, making sure the windows were locked, hyper mindful of the drug dealing, violence and potential bad stuff that could happen. During daylight the area was dull and forlorn: beige warehouses, dusty trees and trash.

So what fun to return and park on one of the same back streets and find myself in an LA architectural happening.

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Unknown to most Los Angelenos, this 8 block area (wedged between Ballona Creek, National Boulevard and the rail line) is one cool place to walk around. And I dare you not to go crazy photojournalist!

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This visually arresting experiment/real estate development is the result of 2 developers (husband & wife, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith) who bought up a lot of those old warehouses and architect Eric Owen Moss, director of Southern California Institute of Architecture, generally regarded as the most avant garde of US schools.

To quote the developers, “The ambition was to go into a very destitute neighborhood—which it was—to improve the economics (via job creation) and to introduce art and culture. We wanted to make no place, someplace.”

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To that end they handed the warehouses to Moss who created contemporary, reworked and repurposed buildings.

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The architecture is jarring, industrial and angular.
And a walk down Hayden St is an adventure…..

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Concrete, glass, metal… twisty facades and towers, hanging cactus gardens, famous tenants (HQ for Beats by Dre just up the road) and art installations.

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Moss, whose office is on the street, is still creating unique and singular buildings for the Samitaur Smiths, like the amazing art piece, Samitaur Tower and the Waffle, a bendy, egg crate-structured conference center. The buildings name’s sum up the atypical looks: the Stealth, the Beehive, and The Box.

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The area is now morphing into a neighborhood with the Expo Line station close by, wiggly treelined bike paths in between the buildings, fellow starchitect Thom Mayne’s Morphosis office across the way and SF hipster bakers, Craftsman and Wolves about to open their LA outpost.

Another quirky pocket of LA to explore 🙂

Manitoga

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My first encounter with the industrial designer , Russell Wright came in the form of American Modern dinner ware …covered in dust and grime at an estate sale.

Stylish and organic in shape, the design was inspired by the colors and forms of nature.
Mass produced and affordable , they outsold every other dinnerware and when new colors or shipments arrived the Macy’s stores were mobbed!
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With best selling dinnerware, home goods and textiles, Russell Wright became the first american, celebrity industrial designer.

His 1950’s book ” Guide to Easier Living”, co written with his wife Mary, espoused a simpler, more casual approach to living well: Design as a humanizing and democratic element.

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Decades later Terrence Conran quipped that “everyone can have a great salad bowl”, echoing Wright’s belief that anyone can create an aesthetically pleasing home and life.

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In 1942, Mary and Russell purchased 75 acres of damaged and logged land high above the Hudson River to use as a summer retreat.
For the next decade, they lived in the existing bungalow, studied the seasons and vegetation, and embarked on a 30 year transformation of the site.

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Wright thinned old trees to create views, planted meadows and new forests, created miles of paths, dammed a small creek to create a large pool and waterfall and built a modernist home and studio.

Mary and Russell named it Manitoga, Algonquin for “place of great spirit.”

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The house is modern and geometric, a 2 story of glass and rock. It sits snug into the slope, above the pond with roofs covered in greenery, a tree trunk in the living room and boulders as steps and walls.
It’s harmonious relationship with the ecology and landscape ahead of it’s time.

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Russell Wright died in 1976, and sadly the buildings and landscapes have deteriorated.
It’s now owned by The Russell Wright Design Center, but restoration is slow with most effort focused on the home and studio.
Thankfully now on the World Monument Fund Watchlist, the landscape needs detailed restoration and the visitor experience can be unsettling.
Given the rock star status of Wright, the re-issue of his famous dinnerware and the esteem in which he is held one can only hope that the Design Center can mobilize funding and energy to restore this magical place.

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Just an hour north from New York City in the sublime Hudson River Valley , add it to your must see list.