The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is presenting Beyond Craft: Decorative Arts from the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection (February 23 to May 26, 2014). The full collection comprises 170 extraordinary artworks —ceramics, fiber work, furniture, glass, jewelry and works on paper— acquired by the Museum in 2010. The exhibition showcases 85 objects by 50 artists —including Olga de Amaral, Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, Sam Maloof, Richard Marquis, Albert Paley, Ken Price, Peter Voulkos and Toshiko Takaezu— and highlights important studio objects made from the mid–1960s to the 2000s with a focus on the 1960s–80s, the collection’s great strength.
“Lee and Mel Eagle were adventurous collectors at a time when the boundaries between high art and studio craft were challenged by cognoscenti and prescient dealers; the result is a distinctive collection that reflects the technical innovations and shifting tastes of the last half century,” said Museum director, Gary Tinterow.
The Eagles began by collecting works of clay in 1960 and this medium remains the heart of their collection. Lee’s early training as a ceramist led to a lifetime devotion to clay, a passion Mel has shared with her over the years. As the couple’s sophistication grew they became informed observers of the field and their preferences took shape. They assembled a museum-quality collection of ceramics and other media. Their passion grew to encompass a deep respect for art and artists and a lifelong commitment to promoting and supporting their work through institutional and personal involvement. This is explored further in an interview with Garth Clark and the Eagles in this issue.
It all began in 1973 with the establishment of Eagle Ceramics —a business that provided the resources to make and teach ceramics. From 1979 to 1983, Montgomery College, Eagle Ceramics and the American Hand Gallery in Washington, D.C., collaborated to present of a series of workshops, lectures and exhibitions called “Making It in Clay.”
These events put the Eagles in touch prominent artists whose works the couple began collecting in depth. Ralph Bacerra, Don Reitz, Adrian Saxe and Michael Cardew are core figures in their collection and they became lifelong friends. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Eagles were inspired to acquire collection subsets in jewelry, fiber and furniture and expand their significant holdings in West Coast ceramics, particularly those made in the 1960s and 1970s during the heyday of the Funk movement.
Of particular importance is the Greek amphora shape by Michael Frimkess entitled Neck and Neck, which depicts competing athletes. It comes from the artist’s last great body of work. And in this case the labor in making the piece can rightly be described as “blood and sweat.” After a year of closely studying Greek pottery at the Metropolitan Museum, New York in the 1960’s, Frimkess decided that the potters of that time must have thrown dry in order to achieve their lightness and thin walls. After each throwing session he would leave with bloodied hands because of the friction from dry clay.
Beyond Craft is accompanied by a richly illustrated 263 page catalogue that includes a full list of the entire 160 piece collection. The distinguished scholar Janet Koplos provides an insightful essay on issues in the craft field during the 1960s–80s, their intersection with contemporary art of that time and their relevance and legacy today. A general discussion of the Eagle Collection and its formation is authored by Cindi Strauss, curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Over 40 objects have have in-depth entries written by Susie J. Silbert and Cindi Strauss. Except for the title, which has a grating, dated sound, raising an argument no longer pertinent, the book is handsome and a important addition to the craft bibliography.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Ken Price, Sag, 2007, painted clay, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © Estate of Ken Price.