Research: Garth Clark on Ohr// Jasper Johns

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George E. Ohr

In 1893, in the small town of Biloxi, Mississippi, George E. Ohr’s Biloxi Art Pottery burned down. In common with all calamities of this kind it must have caused considerable disruption and financial distress to the victim, but a propitious effect was to ignite a smoldering radicalism in Ohr, who thereafter began to produce some of the most inventive pottery of modern times.

Pot made by George E. Ohr (1857-1918), Biloxi, Mississippi. Glazed earthenware; height 4 ¾ inches. The examples of Ohr’s work illustrated here all were made c. 1883-before 1909. Collection of Charles Cowles; except as noted, photographs are by John White.

His work anticipated the direction that American ceramics have taken in our day, for the ideas he explored so freely in his pottery at the turn of the century resurfaced in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He also anticipated some of the concerns that emerged in early modern art, particularly in the objects made by the Dadaists and surrealists between 1918 and 1942.

Although his work went largely unrecognized for more than half a century, in the past ten years Ohr has become one of the most celebrated artists of the arts and crafts era and his works are avidly collected.

Ohr’s work has particularly appealed to the dealers Charles Cowles and Irving Blum as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Carl Lobell, collectors who specialize in early American modernist painting, and Jasper Johns, who last year paid sensitive homage to Ohr by using the Ohr pots from his own collection as central images in his exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City (see image below)…


Ventriloquist, by Jasper Johns (b. 1930), 1983. Signed and dated “J. JOHNS1983” at lower left. Encaustic on canvas, 75 by 50 inches. Some of the Ohr pots in Johns’s collection have been here rendered with what John Russell in The New York Times called “a touching fidelity.”

Earlier this year the art critic John Perreault confirmed Ohr’s status in this country:

…look at each vessel, carefully, sensing how it would feel to move the clay in these ways; look at each vessel as a sculpture occupying space and time; look at each vessel as a painting. Then see all these things simultaneously, along with the wit¬-handles stuck here and there, the elegant accidents, the crush and twist. Gorge Ohr is a great artist. 1

Ohr was an unlikely candidate for leadership of the ceramic avant-garde. Unlike most artists of his day, who came from reasonably genteel and middle-class backgrounds, Ohr was the son of a Biloxi blacksmith. He received little formal education and none in the liberal arts. At first he was apprenticed to his father, but their working relationship proved stormy as George, always the prankster, was constantly “running away from danger and getting caught with open arms every time,” 2 as he himself put it.

In 1879, after three years of working for a ship chandler in New Orleans, Joseph Fortune Meyer (c. 1848 -1931), a family friend, offered to take on the wild twenty-two-year-old as an apprentice in his New Orleans pottery. For Ohr this represented the opportunity to earn ten dollars a month and “the chance to swipe a trade.”

Ohr joined Meyer (later renowned as the main potter for the Newcomb College Pottery in New Orleans) but remained only long enough to learn “how to boss a little piece of clay into a gallon jug” and then left on a two-year trip through sixteen states during which he “sized up every potter and pottery … and never missed a shop window, illustration or literary dab on ceramics since that time, 1881.”

In 1883 Ohr returned to Biloxi and set about building his own pottery with a capital of $26.80. As a blacksmith he was able to make his own potter’s wheel and clay mill. He sawed pine trees, rafted them eighteen miles down the Tchoutacabouffa River to Biloxi, and singlehandedly built the pottery buildings. Then “like a mud wasp” he fashioned his kiln of “lime and grit and credit.”…

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