The current exhibition of Viola Frey (1933-2004) at the Museum of Arts and Design, titled “Bigger, Better, More,” is crowded into two smallish galleries. The loud, unladylike show, however, refuses to be constricted into a room or two, shattering expectations and stereotypes. Frey’s colorful, controlled chaos of enormous ceramic figures creates its own world. It even spills over into the lobby of the museum, where there is an additional ceramic piece, the Western Civilization Fountain (1998). All this is very appropriate for March, which marks Women’s History Month.
Upon entering the first gallery, you see a number of works lined up against the wall. The first piece is a massive seated nude woman whose title, Weeping Woman, immediately conjures up Picasso for me—but this one is different. Picasso’s renowned animalistic Weeping Woman (1937, based on Dora Maar, his lover at the time) is pathetic, and contorted in grief. Frey’s “Woman” may be wiping a tear, but she sits in a stable position reminiscent of ancient Mayan figures such as Chac-Mool, which inspired Henry Moore. This powerful woman is more reminiscent of early-20th century Expressionist nudes, especially those by pioneer female artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. Placed next to her are two larger-than-life standing male figures. One is called Man Observing Series II (1984), the other Fire Suit (1983). Both are depicted wearing suits and ties; they are blocky and monumental, domineering and non-individualistic. The nude woman easily holds her own against the two men.
Frey’s small double self-portrait of 1978 stands in the center of the line-up. The two identical selves are recapitulated in the Double Grandmothers With Black and White Dresses (1982), on the left. Biographers have suggested that the women—Frey, herself, and her grandmother figures—were inspired by her Huguenot ancestry and the strong, independent women of her family. During World War II many of these women re-entered the work force, while also continuing to make handmade clothing and other objects. Hence they also reflect her pride in her crafts background.
Entering the second gallery, we notice a sculpted man strangely seated on the floor, his feet attached to an unstable urn—perhaps reflecting his own instability. Or is he trying to kick over a pot made by a woman? Indeed, Man Balancing Urn (2004) is a new take on Frey’s earlier conception of males as domineering, authority figures.
The Eater II (1980) is one of a number of bricolages, resembling a table with a tablecloth and junk on top of it. It reminds me of Picasso’s sculpted Glass of Absinthe (1914), sometimes referred to as “rococo cubism.” It is both funny and upsetting at the same time. On close inspection, one sees nude bodies painted on the surface, and the eater appears to be shoving not food, but little boys into his/her mouth/stomach. The fork is out of all proportion and the surface wildly painted with colorful splotches. Perhaps this cannibalism represents Frey’s critique of a gluttonous consumer society.
Viola Frey is not well known in today’s art world. Her own reticence may have contributed to this, but during her lifetime she ran into prejudice for three major reasons: First, her art comes out of Abstract Expressionism, a male-dominated movement of the 1950s and early-60s; second, she was little recognized since she came from California, rather than New York City; and last, her preferred medium, pottery, was historically relegated to “crafts” rather than “high art.”
Interestingly, however, there were a small number of men who achieved a reputation for making oversize ceramic sculpture. These artists—Peter Voulkos, John Mason, Kenneth Price, Robert Arneson, David Gilhooly, and Richard Shaw—were featured in a clay show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1981. Patterson Sims, one of the curators at the time, realized that Frey was excluded, and attempted to remedy the oversight by giving her a small solo exhibition there in 1984.
Frey was fortunate that her life partner, Charles Fiske, who had been her teacher, was supportive of her career, even placing it before his own. Her oeuvre, although not political, represents an integral part of feminism in the 20th century. You know immediately it is a woman’s work.
Why and how? It is the autobiographical nature of her art, which like that of many women, had a strong effect on male artists. Her art consistently refers to herself, her family, and childhood memories. Frey often frequented flea markets and local thrift shops, adding photography to her arsenal. One amusing item in the exhibit is a cabinet containing part of her collection of bric-a-brac. The dada/chance/art brut aspects of her work reveal her appreciation for the everyday and the accidental. They make it more down to earth. You don’t have the feeling of “reverence” that you have for some art.
On the other hand, Frey also possessed a great deal of sophistication and knowledge. Much of her art is informed by familiarity with antiquity and Japanese ceramics. She even spent a period in residency at Sevres, the French center of fine porcelain production. Like Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, David Smith, and many others, she loved to incorporate found objects into her work. A low-level job Frey briefly took at New York’s Museum of Modern Art enabled her to see both Picasso and Miró’s use of clay as a medium. In addition to her most eye-catching ceramic sculptures, she made plates, paintings, and drawings, many of which are seen in this show.
Women’s History Month is a good time to remember that not so long ago many women artists worked quietly in their bedrooms or a corner of the living room or kitchen. Genteel still lifes or perhaps portraits of family and friends were the only avenues open to them. Frey’s innovative art is neither quiet nor polite, and it was not produced in a small room. In addition, her huge, brash figures were primarily made of clay, a medium until relatively recently consigned to “crafts,” rather than “Fine Art.”
Viola Frey was one of those overlooked, strong, and exceptional artists of the 20th century who enriched the repertoire of both women and men artists, vigorously enhancing our understanding of feminist thought in the past century.
“Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey” runs through May 2 at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; it is closed on Monday. (212) 299-7777; www.madmuseum.org.