Viola Frey worked in a variety of mediums but is most celebrated for her towering, colorful ceramic sculptures—men and women in nostalgic, all-American garb, garish and stern. These figures often act as droll social critiques, presenting adults and their concerns in all their absurdity, as a child would see them, peering up with a sympathetic naiveté.
Born in Lodi, California in 1933, Frey cited Matisse as the first artist she connected with as a young child. She studied painting under Richard Diebenkorn and alongside kindred artists such as Manuel Neri and Robert Arneson at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, receiving her BFA in 1955. She pursued an MFA at Tulane University, but left before she graduated to work at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester. There, she began exploring the possibilities of ceramics beyond the confines of craft and functionalism.
In 1960, Frey returned to San Francisco and became a leader in elevating the reputation of ceramics to a fine art and was often associated with the California Funk movement. In 1964, she began teaching at her alma mater; simultaneously, she was creating a prodigious body of ambitious art and working at Macy’s (for over a decade) to support her practice. In 1971, she was finally able to focus solely on teaching and ceramics and in 1984 a solo exhibition of her work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. As her works grew in size—some over ten feet tall—she eventually moved her studio out of her basement and into a 14,000 square foot space in Oakland, where she continued to make work and show internationally until her death in 2014.
Frey’s monumental works were built in sections, often taking a year to finish each one and working on several concurrently. The length of time Frey spent with each piece is evident in the attention, expressiveness and specificity of each of the figures, despite their forms being cartoonish and generic. The commanding presence of Frey’s works speak of an artist greatly concerned with social interactions, gesture and how one shows up in a fraught and complicated world; through this lens, Frey presents a colorful, if troubled humanity.