31 July 2014

Everson Museum of Art Syracuse New York

Scarab Vase (Apotheosis of the Toiler), Adelaide A. Robineau, 1910.

Our travels took us - DH and I - to the Syracuse, New York, area recently. We visited the Everson Museum of Art on a bright Sunday afternoon and practically had the place to ourselves.  The permanent collection of the museum is comprised primarily  of American art, and the collection, though small, is strong, with some heart-quickening treasures, such as the covered vessel by master potter Adelaide Alsop Robineau  (1865 - 1929) pictured at the top of this blog. Robineau was one of the most important American artists you may have never heard of, creating ceramic masterpieces with a technical skill that is undervalued today. She both formed the shapes and the surfaces of her works, something rather rare in the world of art pottery at the time.

Syracuse Center for the Study of Ceramics.

More of Robineau's work is displayed in the most amazing part of the museum, located in the basement. The Syracuse China Center for the Study of Ceramics, opened in 1986,  has examples of every major global pottery type, beginning with  Pre-Columbian work, and continuing right up to the sculptural forms of Peter Voulkos  and Robert Arneson. It was the first  collection in the nation devoted to the chronological presentation of art work in clay and remains one of the most comprehensive.

Syracuse China, for whom the center is named, was for over a century a major manufacturer of fine china. The story of this venerable American manufacturer parallels that of many other industries in the Rust Belt - rising labor costs, less demand for products,  and other factors, squeezed them out of business. The company was  purchased by Libbey Glass, of Toledo, Ohio, in 1995.  About ten years later the Syracuse factory was closed,  and the brand seems to be extinct.

Art tiles and other treasures - we opened every drawer.
Eighteenth-century Staffordshire English teapots.

Dedham Pottery, Dedham, Massachusetts.

My great-aunt Ruth received a Master's degree in geography through summer study at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, while teaching full-time during the Michigan school year. She visited the Dedham Pottery works with fellow students on a field trip from Worcester, and purchased some pottery. I believe this was in the 1930's and Ruth had little money, so she could only afford seconds, items which were less than perfect. I love the pieces all the more for that.

My inherited Dedham pottery.

The note in front of the plate, in Ruth's hand, states:
 Bought when on Clark U weekend field trips. Bought - with flaws - to have souvenir when money was less plentiful.

American Arts and Crafts vessels.

The Dictator, Victor Schreckengost, ca. 1939.

Victor Schreckengost designed the famous Jazz bowl, so admired by Eleanor Roosevelt.  It is difficult to see in my photo, but the satirical sculpture above represents Nero, with figures of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Hirohito as his attendants. We were also pleased to encounter the work of the Korean potter, Shin Sang-Ho, shown below.

Jar, Shin Sang-Ho, 1987.

For any student or collector of ceramics,  the Everson Museum is a must-see.

Opened in 1968, the Everson was I. M. Pei's first museum.  The Brutalist style, to which this edifice belongs,  and which was so popular with 1960's urban renewal planners, has not aged well in general.  The hulking, cantilevered cubes of this building suggest a fortress or tomb, wherein art lies immured, rather than a welcoming place for study, enjoyment and even celebration.  Warning - the Wikipedia entry is also out of date as the Stickley furniture collection formerly housed here has decamped.

Entrance? your guess is as good as mine.

Successful buildings don't need directional arrows.

Le Corbusier has a lot to answer for.

While the spiral staircase is a triumph of concrete construction technique - and I am truly a fan of concrete, used well -  this building shares the same problem as the recently shuttered American Folk Art Museum in that so much space is given over to monumental stairs and other showy features that the net-to-gross-floor area seems very out of whack. The net floor area is the usable square footage left after one subtracts features like elevators, stairs, lobbies, and bathrooms, etc.  Small museums - which still have to have fire egress stairs of the same dimensions as big museums - can end up with grand sculptural gestures and not enough space for exhibits, collections management, shops and all the other activities housed in an arts center.   Moreover, although the museum rests on a large lot - almost an entire city block - it was designed as a stand-alone piece of sculpture in and of itself, and would be difficult to modify or enlarge.

Left: Old stone building. Right: colored, texture concrete, museum interior.

The exterior and interior are of pigmented concrete, with reddish-colored sandstone aggregate pebbles exposed by the bush-hammered surface of the concrete. The use of this material may have been intended to evoke the materials - sandstone and limestone - used in many old Syracuse buildings, as well as the Erie Canal, but the monolithic concrete lacks the human scale of the worked stone blocks. The various concrete modules are linked by fenestrated connecting passages, and while light pours in through these passages, the overall effect of so much looming concrete is menacing. It's a relief to enter the galleries, which are fairly mundane, top-lit spaces, and see the wonderful art.