What better way to mark 100 years in the museum business than to trot out your very best. That’s what’s happening in Newark, where the eponymous museum has installed a lavish array of vases, bowls, and other fine ceramic vessels to celebrate the occasion. In the process, the remarkably beautiful display, drawn almost exclusively from the museum’s internationally renowned holdings, also makes material note of this state’s long history as an international pottery center.

“100 Masterpieces of Art Pottery, 1880-1930” tracks the notion of ceramics as art from the Gilded Age of the 1880s to its evolution into studio pottery by the outset of the Great Depression. The assembled works, which are the product of one of pottery’s most creative eras, are on view through Sunday, January 10.

“One hundred years ago, pots were art,” says exhibition curator Ulysses Deitz, senior curator and curator of decorative arts. “The vase was the ideal art object because, while still ‘functional,’ it could be admired purely for its beauty. Artistic pots were also more accessible to the public than paintings and sculpture — the perfect kind of art for the newly-founded museum in 1909.”

Newark was one of the earliest museums to consider ceramics as a serious art form, according to museum director Mary Sue Sweeney. The exhibition functions nicely as a celebration of that institution’s pioneering role. “Each of these objects was purchased as a work of art,” says Deitz. As such “100 Masterpieces,” a generous sampling of works made by the people whose creative enterprise translated pottery into a fine art, reveals the aesthetic potential of this workaday medium. Deitz points out that the exhibition essentially “exemplifies the Arts and Crafts Movement in America.” And, with almost 20 percent of the featured works produced in New Jersey, the collection serves an easy-to-take reminder of this state’s role as a center for the production of fine ceramics.

People have been making pots in New Jersey for some 4,000 years. By 1000 B.C., local Woodland people were using pots to cook their food. Pottery was made in Burlington when we were still a British colony. And in the years following the Revolution the area surrounding Perth Amboy became a major center for the production of stoneware jugs. In Princeton, the neighborhood surrounding Nassau and Harrison streets — now known as Jugtown — was home to several potteries. Recent archaeological digs and records indicate potters were at work in villages all over the state.

By the late 19th century, Trenton had become a leading ceramics center. Charles Fergus Binns, the English-born potter who became known as the “Father of the studio pottery movement,” whose work is included in the Newark exhibition, and who helped stage the first museum exhibitions, had his American beginnings as director of the Trenton School of Technical Science and Art. Moreover, when it came to the establishment of pottery as art to be taken seriously, much of the earliest energy in this country came from the Newark Museum.

The range and quality of the permanent collection, and of this exhibition, is the fruit of the pioneering work of John Cotton Dana, Newark’s founding director. The collection began with an exhibition in 1910, one year after the museum was founded. Dana began to acquire pots, made exhibition pottery available for sale to support the artists, and staged a series of exhibitions that drew wide attention to the medium.

The featured vessels in the display connect the viewer with those early days. “Out of the 110 works in this exhibition, 75 were purchased when they were new,” says Deitz,” noting that many of the others were also purchased new by donor families.

Over time the museum’s holdings became the best documented and one of the most comprehensive pottery collections in this country. Exhibited as a collection only twice in the past 25 years, in 1984 and 1994, the current exhibition remains in the landmark category. “We’re the only museum in the United States who can do a show like this says Deitz, warning viewers, “if you don’t see it now, it may be a long time before there is another chance.”

The exhibition functions as a chronology of the potters’ art. Beginning with Victorian roots, it travels through time, making note of china painters, the minimalist art pot, and painterly and sculptural art pots. In the process, the viewer is introduced to the notable potters and potteries that shaped the genre, and the rich and varied surfaces that they produced. A generous sampling of Fulper, some Lenox, and works from Clifton, and Ott and Brewer, along with smaller potteries such as Metuchen’s Volkmar, contribute to a strong New Jersey presence.

On Friday, November 27, at 12:30 p.m., at the museum’s Thanksgiving Family Festival, visitors will be able to watch a potter making a ceramic vessel on a wheel. There will also be a search for buried treasure, ancient storytelling, and a 2 p.m. performance by Thunderbird American Indian Dancers.

Newark Museum also turns the spotlight on an important area pottery with “The Lenox Legacy: America’s Greatest Porcelain, 1889-2005,” on view through through July, 2010. From its founding in Trenton in 1889 as the Ceramic Art Company, to the closing of its last New Jersey factory in 2005, Lenox made some of the finest porcelain produced in the United States. Since 1918, it has also been the source of official White House china. Examples of three presidential services (Wilson, Truman, and Reagan) are on display. Also included are unique hand-enameled porcelain vases and dinner plates, minutely detailed porcelain figurines, and modern designs.

In a more contemporary voice, the museum is also featuring a display of minimalist, painterly work in stoneware and porcelain by Toshiko Takaezu, the internationally noted potter who lives and works in Hunterdon County.

In addition to the Newark Museum exhibit, you can go to Parsippany to view a modest but representative sampling of some of the best of Arts and Crafts pottery in period setting at Craftsman Farms, the house museum which was home to Gustav Stickley (stickleymuseum.org). Installed as they would have been when Stickley lived there are some three dozen vessels from some of the best known potteries of the period: among them Byrdclyffe, Greuby, and Saturday Night Girls, as well as Clifton (Newark) and Fulper (Flemington/Trenton).

Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, has a permanent gallery installation of Trenton-made pottery. In additon, Fulper and Stangl ware, made in Flemington and Trenton, will be the featured attraction in the museum’s upcoming exhibit, “Utility and Artistry: Works of the Stangl and Fulper Potteries,” from December 3 through May 2, 2010.

Exhibition curator Peter Miessner says the exhibition will function as a trip through ceramic time, taking viewers through the history of the pottery, from its inception as Hill’s Pottery Manufactory in 1815, through its evolution into Fulper in the 1860s, and of course, the full run of Stangl.” He says that one of his goals is to encourage enthusiasm for the genre, “ for viewers to go home with a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of Stangl and Fulper.”

Starting with Fulper’s stoneware, the exhibition will progress to the Vase-Kraft line with inclusions from the pottery’s early and later periods and a sampling of extremely rare carnival ware. Some of Stangl’s little-seen work, including its very first line, called Fulper Fayence, will also be on view as well as another introduced in 1926 called Fulper-Stangl, and some handmade art ware. Miessner will give a lecture and tour of the exhibit on Sunday, January 10, at 2 p.m.

The Pottery Society of Trenton offers a close look at pottery made in that city. Their website (potteriesoftrentonsociety.org) offers a vast amount of historical information and a self-guided tour of Trenton sites with notable art tile installations.

On Saturday, April 17th, 2010, PSOT will sponsor a public symposium, “Staying Alive: The Hill-Fulper-Stangl Pottery in a Changing Marketplace,” at the New Jersey State Museum Auditorium, to be followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibit at Ellarslie.

100 Masterpieces of Art Pottery, 1880-1930, Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, Newark. On view through Sunday, January 10. 973-596-6550 or www.NewarkMuseum.org.

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