As a style, Mid-Century Modernism is known for clean lines, gentle organic curves, and a regard for natural materials. These basic design elements, characteristic of the mid 1930s through the late 1960s, were accentuated in architecture and interior design. The artists, architects, and designers of that time focused on the use of materials such as wood and clay. In many ways, it was a heyday for a variety of different crafts—furniture making, weaving, and ceramics. Numerous potters made contributions to this movement, which brought recognition to artists such as Vivika Heino, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Beatrice Wood, Russell Wright, and Eva Zeisel.
“Weed Pots,” an exhibition of works by Los Angeles–based, mid-century ceramic artist Doyle Lane (1925–2002), at David Kordansky Gallery (www.davidkordanskygallery.com) in Los Angeles, California, celebrates this style. Lane, who maintained a studio in the El Sereno district of East Los Angeles, California, is an under-recognized African-American artist whose work was exhibited in the 2015 Venice Biennale and is represented in major collections. His extensive body of work includes ceramic paintings, vessels of various sorts and sizes, and large-scale architectural ceramic commissions. The exhibition focuses on one of the more modest aspects of Lane’s extraordinary production.
The show was curated by a collector of Lane’s work, the artist Ricky Swallow. In this extensive display, Swallow has included objects lent from his own collection and those of others; none are for sale. There are 60 small vessels made between the 1950s and the 1970s, most no larger than 4 inches in height. Lane called them weed pots because he intended them to be used for a single stem of a dried flower or decorative weed; there is no room in the elegantly tapered necks for more than that. Although all rise from a tiny foot about an inch in diameter, some are wider than they are tall, some have only an indentation where the stem would go. Each is perfectly balanced and proportioned; with multiple variations on a theme, not one of the objects on display replicates another, each has some distinctive aspect.
A Celebration of Technical Mastery
Quite aside from the classical forms that reproduce in miniature the history of small vessels, these pots represent a true tour de force of glaze expertise. There is an immense range of colors from whites to turquoise blues, hot oranges and reds to lime greens, and browns to yellows. The names of these glazes alone are a catalog of colors and effects—orange peel, crackle, oil drop, gunmetal, poppy seed, uranium red, alligator. As Swallow notes in his curator’s statement, Lane’s glaze work places him in the company of Glen Lukens, Otto Natzler, and Otto Heino—all dedicated glaze technicians working in the greater Los Angeles area at the time. The surface textures are equally varied—some smooth and shiny, some totally matte, some blistered, some with bits of crackling. On some of the pots, Lane used thick, crawling glazes that dripped off of the edges and pooled around the feet. With the exception of one or two pots, the majority can be held in the palm of one hand—they are incredibly inviting to the touch. There is a tremendous economy in the miniaturization of the wheel-thrown forms and lack of extraneous detail—the glazes fit the forms perfectly. Lane was working at a time when there was a high demand for decorative ceramics that could complement the new advances in interior design. He intended these little vases to be seen in groupings; according to Swallow, this is how these diminutive examples of California Modernism can be best understood and appreciated.
Lane studied at the University of Southern California, where he worked with Vivika Heino and Carlton Ball. He was an ambitious artist, pushing his work past the boundaries imposed by a vessel-based practice. Unlike his teachers, Lane was interested in placing his work outside the traditional arena of pottery, closer to abstract painting. He started his career making functional vessels and then began to experiment, fabricating large, flat pieces that hung on the wall like paintings. These objects were often round with areas defined by color fields or were composed of pieces that had been cut from the whole, glazed, reassembled, and mounted on wooden supports. He described these objects as “clay painting.” In a 1981 interview with Studio Potter magazine, he asked, “Why not take paintings out of doors, where one may sit and watch the changing play of sunshine on the glazes and thus have changes of mood during the day?”
Recognition and Achievement
It’s difficult to counteract the prevailing narrative regarding Black artists, such as Doyle Lane, as oppressed figures, working in isolation without recognition. While it’s true Lane never gained the kind of stardom some of his White contemporaries achieved, he was a successful artist—unlike many other artists of his day, he was self-supporting from sales of his art. He was a notably modest man. In the Studio Potter interview, he said, “When you’re seeking fame, you force yourself to try and become clever and to be better than somebody else, which can be a very unhealthy situation there. I think the best way to seek fame is not to seek it, and to do just what you have to do—or can do—and let it go at that. To be spiritual is to be balanced.”
Lane was embedded in a community of Black artists and collectors who were friends and supporters and whose interest in him predated his recognition by White, mainstream institutions. This appreciation represents a considerable achievement in the face of the racism, violence, and economic inequity that surrounded him. Lane exhibited for many years at the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park in Los Angeles, a gallery founded for promoting the art of Black artists. At the same time, he was included in the Pasadena Museum of Art’s annual design shows of 1956, 1957, and 1960 as well as the landmark exhibition “Objects: USA” organized by Mills College in 1970.
Lane knew a number of major architects who both collected his work and enlisted him for large-scale commissions. His ability to create larger-scale pieces and his skill with glazes made his work desirable to architects. Lane could manipulate his unpredictable glazes to create luminous tiles, which he then assembled into sweeping, glowing walls that were in considerable demand for architectural interiors of the time. One of his largest commissions, Orange Wall, came from Welton Becket & Associates in 1964; it was an 18-foot-long mural commissioned for the Mutual Savings and Loan Bank in Pasadena, California. It is now in the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, located in San Marino, California.
Edward Fickett, a prolific architect of residential and commercial spaces across Southern California, was perhaps Lane’s most supportive patron. In addition to personally purchasing weed pots, clay paintings, and sculptures, Fickett also regularly used Lane’s tiles as adornments and as murals in the interiors and exteriors of many projects.
7, 8 Doyle Lane working in his studio in El Sereno, California, ca. 1976. 7, 8 Photos: Ben Serar.
Interest in Lane’s work has been steadily increasing. Nearly a decade after his death, his work is in demand by collectors like actress Jodie Foster, Louis Vuitton artistic director Nicolas Ghesquière, and artist Takashi Murakami. His archives are in the collection of the California African American Museum, and his work is in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Oakland Museum in Oakland, California; The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
There is a short film of the exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery on YouTube, entitled Doyle Lane, Weed Pots, made by the videographer Eric Minh Swenson.
the author Kay Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.