There are two sides—at the very least—to Mid-Century Modern pottery. Over here is the kitsch, from head vases of long-lashed girls to cute, cute, cute salt-and-pepper shakers of puppy dogs and bunny rabbits. Over there, though, one finds more serious stuff, typified by the muscular, sculptural ceramics of Peter Voulkos and his studio mate, John Mason, in the 1950s and '60s.

In-between is everything else, from studio art pottery by Otto and Gertrud Natzler, Otto and Vivika Heino, and Beatrice Wood, to the more broadly commercial pieces of Sascha Brastoff and Marc Bellaire. These Southern California artists were no doubt inspired by the California pottery aesthetic of the 20th century, but their artistic sensibilities were too quirky or sophisticated for mainstream acceptance.

Of course, Mid-Century Modern pottery was hardly an American phenomenon. It also had roots in Europe, particularly in Scandinavian countries and postwar Germany. Lisa Larson began her career designing for the Gustavsberg Porcelain Factory in Sweden—today her stoneware lions and other animals remain very much in demand. In Germany, factories such as Carstens, Spara, Ruscha, and Ubelacker made what is known as fat lava pottery, so called for the thick glazes on these vases that resemble lava flows, often in unnaturally vivid hues.

And then there was Pablo Picasso, who designed, formed, and glazed ceramic plates, pitchers, vases, and tiles from the late 1940s until his death in 1973. For Picasso, ceramics were like three-dimensional prints, which may be why Picasso's ceramics were not held in especially high regard during the years he made them. Today, not surprisingly, Picasso ceramics are a market all their own.


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