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Object of the Week: Double Vase by Karen Karnes

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Karen Karnes (1925-2016), a ceramist famous for both her functional and sculptural pottery, was born in New York City to immigrant parents. She graduated from the prestigious High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and studied at Brooklyn College with Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996), a Chechen architect who had fled Europe during World War II. While at Brooklyn College, Karnes met and married David Weinrib (1924-2016), a ceramist who introduced her to clay. In 1949, the couple moved to a small town in Italy, where Karnes set up a home studio. While living in Italy, Karnes submitted two works to the Everson Museum’s 16th Ceramic National: Double Vase and Vase. Both won the top prize for the exhibition and were purchased for the Museum’s collection. In 1952, Karnes enrolled at Alfred University’s New York State College of Ceramics as a graduate fellow. When she received the opportunity to work with her husband as a potter-in-residence at Black Mountain College, Karnes abandoned her graduate studies and moved to North Carolina, where she remained for two and a half years. While at Black Mountain, a school known for its avant-garde and experimental pedagogy, Karnes and Weinrib hosted a pottery workshop, to which they invited ceramists Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and Marguerite Wildenhain. Hamada in particular left a lasting impression on Karnes’ own approach to clay. During this time, Karnes also formed close relationships with a multitude of artists and writers, including architect Paul Williams, artist and writer M. C. Richards, and composer John Cage. Ultimately, the group formed the Gate Hill Cooperative, an intentional community in Stony Point, New York. In 1959, two years after the birth of her son, Karnes divorced Weinrib. In the 1960s, she started experimenting with salt glazing, a technique that originated in Germany around the fifteenth century. Salt glazing eventually became emblematic of Karnes’ pots. In the 1970s, she moved to Vermont with the woman who would become her life-long partner, Ann Stannard. A fire in 1998 destroyed Karnes’ studio and home, dealing her a devastating blow. Yet the subsequent support she received from the artistic community bolstered Karnes and helped her reestablish her studio. Mere days later, Karnes was awarded the American Craft Council Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship. Karnes died in Vermont at the age of ninety. Karnes’ Double Vase, made in 1951, is indicative of her early style and techniques. Shaped using a mold rather than a wheel, Double Vase appears anthropomorphic: the two deep holes, designed for flowers, appear as gaping mouths, and the two smaller indents, meant to hold candles, evoke eyes. The vase represents Karnes’ interest in biomorphism, a style popular in the 1940s, in which artists drew inspiration from nature and organic forms. Karnes pressed linear marks onto the surface of Double Vase, which give the appearance of strands of woven cloth or cuneiform script. The smooth surface of the vase is disrupted by a textured, fluctuating design that merges, splits, and flows in rows around the vessel’s curves. Double Vase is currently on view in A Legacy of Firsts: The Everson Collects, an exhibition that examines over one hundred years of the Museum’s collecting priorities, from the Museum’s earliest acquisitions in 1911 to work acquired in 2019. A Legacy of Firsts is on view through March 22, 2020.

-Mónica Quiñones-Rivera, Curatorial Intern

Karen Karnes, Double Vase, 1951, earthenware, 9½ x 14 inches, Everson Museum of Art; Purchase Prize given by Lord and Taylor, 16th Ceramic National, 1951, 52.624.2