Robert Sperry: The Artist as Observer

Robert Sperry: The Artist as Observer

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Sperry No. 1001A, c. 1991, stoneware tile with slips, mixed media, 19 × 23 × 23 inches.
Photo/Rob Vinnedge, ©Estate of Robert Sperry.

American Museum of Ceramic Art
Robert Sperry: Bright Abyss
Pomona, California
August 30 -November 8, 2008

The career of a major figure in American studio ceramics in the Pacific Northwest is revisited in this retrospective of the work of Robert Sperry (1927-1998). The American Museum of Ceramic Art is presenting over 90 works by this extraordinarily prolific Seattle artist, including chargers, platters, wall plaques, murals and sculptures, such as #1001A, 1991, that highlight his role as an innovator, the diversity of his output and the evolution of his signature work.

Although Sperry experimented with many forms and techniques, he was best known for his large stoneware platters, tile murals and sculptures, mainly painterly abstract gestural compositions rendered in a black-and-white palette on richly textured surfaces notable for their crackling patterns, which could resemble a parched, cracking riverbed or just as easily planetary constellations. To achieve these patterns, Sperry, through persistent experimentation, became a master of the "crawl glaze," in which he applied liquid clay-slip-over glaze. "When I work with slips over fired glazes, there is much that is accidental, especially in the way the cracks form," Sperry wrote in 1990 in Ceramics Monthly. "Yet I have considerable control by choosing the method of application. I can brush slip, pour it, trowel it, throw it, drop it, make it thin or thick. Each method will create different forms of cracking." Sperry used similar effects in the public and corporate commissions he created during his career, such as the 1985 mural for the King County Administration Building, and the 1991 monolithic sculpture for the SAFECO headquarters, both in Seattle.

As an esteemed professor of ceramics at the University of Washington, where he taught full time from 1955 to 1982 and then as an emeritus professor for many years, Sperry influenced several generations of students. Intellectually voracious and accomplished in media beyond ceramics, Sperry was a filmmaker, creator of The Village Potters of Onda (1963), a prizewinning documentary about traditional pottery-making in Japan (to be shown October 11 at the museum); photographer; and, in the final years of his life, a maker of digital prints.

At an art educators conference in 1961 Sperry defined the role of the artist as "being a human spectator whose powers of observation are more acute than normal: He therefore functions by giving meaningful, concrete form in one medium or another to the speculations which arise from visual and tactile sense impressions he receives from outside, thereby supplying the viewer with new concepts upon which he can organize and speculate within his own immediate and stored sense impressions." Among the many examples of Sperry's writings quoted by essayist Matthew Kangas in the catalog to the exhibition, this statement conveys Sperry's lifelong process of visual exploration and communication with a responsive viewer through realized form.

Accompanying the exhibition is Robert Sperry: Bright Abyss, published by AMOCA, $49.50 paperback, $69.50 hardcover, University of Washington Press.