Here's Mud in Your Eye

Some friendly suggestions for the Denver Art Museum.

The names of world-class Colorado ceramics artists come quickly to my mind, as they surely will to the conferees: Betty Woodman, Paul Soldner, Richard DeVore, Maynard Tishler and Rodger Lang. Luckily, some of these artists, who should be shown in Close Range or elsewhere at the DAM, have been snagged by other institutions. Nan and Jim McKinnell will be the subject of a show at the Arvada Center, and Scott Chamberlin will be featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver. Martha Daniels, Brad Miller, Mark Zamantakis and many others will be included in ceramic group shows at private galleries in the area.

Vanderlip has skipped the locals, as usual, but this time, her seeming contempt for Colorado art will be exposed as it never has been before -- in the presence of an international audience of experts.

"Pilgrim Bottle" and "Rice-bale" vase, by Takashi Nakazato.
"Pilgrim Bottle" and "Rice-bale" vase, by Takashi Nakazato.
Rookwood vase by Sturgis Lawrence.
Rookwood vase by Sturgis Lawrence.

On the DAM's second floor is another ceramics show that will be open during NCECA, The Clay Vessel: Modern Ceramics From the Norwest Collection. It's the third installment of a series showcasing graphics and decorative arts dating from the early twentieth century. The pieces were collected by the Norwest Corporation in the 1980s.

Norwest, which has since merged with Wells Fargo, a bank with its own Western-themed art collection, gave its modernist pieces to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts earlier this year, where it is still known as the Norwest Collection.

Like the Close Range show, the Norwest exhibit doesn't include examples by Colorado artists, and that's egregious, especially in the case of Artus Van Briggle, an important art potter who worked in Colorado Springs at the turn of the last century. But architecture, design and graphics curator Craig Miller was limited by what was available from Norwest. He could have added a showcase adjacent to the Norwest show to highlight Van Briggle's accomplishments, however. And it's not too late! There's still time to do so before the ceramic circus rolls into town in March. Because it will be outrageous if during NCECA, there are no Van Briggles on display somewhere in Denver as they are in New York or Paris.

Aside from the irksome fact that Van Briggle's been left out, The Clay Vessel is gorgeous, demonstrating the connoisseurship of both Norwest curator David Ryan, who put the collection together, and Miller, who presents it in an economic and thoroughly cogent way.

Miller has laid out a grid of six showcases, each of which briefly but intelligently surveys a different current in early-twentieth-century ceramics from the United States and Europe. The first case, devoted to arts-and-crafts-movement ceramics, is a knockout, with three monumental American pots. They're as good as ceramics gets.

A strikingly beautiful vase, circa 1900, by George Prentiss Kendrick, for the Grueby Pottery of Boston, has a low relief of leaves following the contour of the elegant vertical baluster form. Next to it is another baluster vase, this one from 1901 and made by Ohio's Rookwood Pottery. The vase has been decorated with an almost photographically accurate scene of a clutch of tulips painted by Sturgis Lawrence. Also in the first case is a Prairie-style masterpiece, a large Teco vase circa 1910, with heavy buttresses serving as handles. The vase was made by Gates Pottery of Illinois and designed by owner William Gates.

The other showcases explore other styles, including art nouveau, art deco and modernist. This show may be small in size, but it's large in scope. Credit for that goes to Miller -- but I do wish he'd get more interested in local stuff.

There's yet another ceramic show at the DAM that will be open during the NCECA conference. On the fifth floor, which is devoted to Asian art -- a strong area for the museum -- there's a large and handsome presentation installed in the temporary-exhibits gallery just off the elevator lobby. Titled Takashi Nakazato: Contemporary Pottery From an Ancient Japanese Tradition, it is downright fabulous.

Now, not even I would expect Ron Otsuka, the DAM's curator of Asian art, to have included Colorado pottery in this show. But guess what? All of the ceramics in Takashi Nakazato were made by the legendary Japanese potter at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass. So even though the DAM's modern and contemporary department and its architecture, design and graphics department couldn't find Colorado material to feature during NCECA, somehow the Asian art department could. And that's what makes Otsuka such a treasure.

Otsuka first took over the department in 1973, when the building was just two years old; he succeeded Robert Moes. Though Otsuka is modest, pointing out that the Asian collection was already there when he came on board, it's not an exaggeration to say that the department as it exists today is mostly the product of his efforts.

The Nakazato show also owes a lot to Otsuka, since he not only put it together, but personally introduced the Japanese potter to the Gilpin County facility where all the pots were made. Beginning in 1994, Nakazato has come to Anderson Ranch twice a year to produce pots.

Nakazato represents the thirteenth generation in his family to have made pottery in the Japanese town of Karatsu. His father, Muan Nakazato, who died in 1985, was declared a "Living National Treasure" of Japan in 1955.

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