Beyond Craft: Decorative Arts from the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection / Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
February 23 - May 26, 2014
In February, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will present the first major exhibition of the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection, a remarkable group of 170 artworks—ceramics, fiber work, furniture, glass, jewelry and works on paper—acquired by the Museum in 2010. Beyond Craft: Decorative Arts from the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection will showcase 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 highlight 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.
“Since the Museum acquired the collection in 2010, many of the works have been featured in permanent collection presentations, providing glimpses into its riches,” said Cindi Strauss, curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design. “Now, for the first time, the Museum will present the collection and visitors can experience the power of these individual objects while appreciating the Eagles’ vision as collectors.”
Leatrice and Melvin Eagle began by collecting works of clay in 1960 and the medium remains at the heart of their collection to this day. Lee’s early training as a ceramist led to a lifetime devotion to clay, a passion that Mel has shared with her over the years. As the couple became sophisticated observers of the field and their preferences took shape, they successfully assembled a museum-quality collection of ceramics, fiber art, furniture, jewelry and prints, paintings and drawings. Their passion grew beyond living with objects to encompass a deep respect for art and artists, as well as a lifelong commitment to promoting and supporting their work through institutional and personal involvement.
Beginning with the 1973 establishment of Eagle Ceramics—a business that provided the resources to make and teach ceramics—the Eagles immersed themselves in the art community and began forming relationships with many prominent artists. 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 enabled the Eagles to meet prominent artists and the couple started collecting their works in depth. Ralph Bacerra, Don Reitz, Adrian Saxe and Michael Cardew have remained touchstones for the Eagles and lasting friendships with the artists resulted from these initial meetings. 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.
The Museum’s embrace of craft as an art form led to the Eagles’ choice of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as the new home for their collection in 2010. Since that time, the Eagle Collection has been a great asset to the permanent collection, enhancing its strengths in ceramics, glass and jewelry, and filling major gaps in fiber and furniture.
The heart of the Eagle Collection is ceramics, particularly works made by California-based artists, such as Peter Voulkos and his students John Mason, Ken Price, Paul Soldner and Stephen de Staebler, who revolutionized the field by advocating a sculptural and abstract aesthetic rather than the functional forms that had previously predominated contemporary clay. The Funk Movement of the mid 1960s and 1970s is amply represented by important clay works by Robert Arneson, Clayton Bailey, Viola Frey, Michael Frimkess, David Gilhooly, Howard Kottler and Marilyn Levine. Second-generation ceramic artists that further cemented California’s reputation as an incubator for innovation in the field, including Ralph Bacerra, Michael Lucero, Ron Nagle and Adrian Saxe, are also featured. In addition, clay art by ceramists such as Rudy Autio, Jack Earl, Edward Eberle, Ken Ferguson, Wayne Higby, Don Reitz, Toshiko Takaezu, Robert Turner and Betty Woodman provide an introduction to functional, narrative and sculptural trends that were developed in other regions of America in the post-World War II period.
The Eagles collected selectively in other decorative arts media, honing in on artists whose innovations, aesthetics and techniques established studio craft as a relevant and dynamic art form. Highlights include furniture by Wendell Castle and Sam Maloof, two of the most renowned American studio furniture-makers who are represented in the exhibition by early works from the 1960s and 1970s. Major abstract wall-hangings by the Colombian artist Olga de Amaral and American artists John Garrett, John McQueen and Cynthia Schira comprise the fiber art in the collection. Jewelry and metalwork by Glenda Arentzen, William Harper, Eleanor Moty, Albert Paley, Earl Pardon and Joyce J. Scott offer a view into the diverse work of pioneering American jewelry artists.
An aspect that sets the Eagle Collection and this exhibition apart from others is the presence of paintings on paper and drawings by many of the artists, including Robert Arneson, Rudy Autio, Viola Frey, Richard Shaw and Peter Voulkos. Adding this facet of these artist’s careers to the exhibition broadens the understanding of their aesthetic and creativity.
Beyond Craft is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue that includes a full list of the entire 160-piece collection. It features an essay by the distinguished scholar Janet Koplos on prevalent issues in the craft field during the 1960s–80s and their intersection with contemporary art of that time as well as 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. Approximately 45 featured works from the collection have in-depth entries written by Susie J. Silbert and Cindi Strauss.
Beyond Craft: Decorative Arts from the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Generous funding is provided by Jeffrey Spahn Gallery.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Beck Building, Lower Level
5601 Main Street
Houston, Texas 77005
Above: 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.
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