Manifestations of Greatness
David Rago on George Ohr's Bisque Pottery
The first time I saw bisque-fired pottery by George Ohr of any consequence was during my initial visit to Jim Carpenter’s antiques shop in north New Jersey in 1977. Jim, for those unfamiliar, is the person who bought about 10,000 pieces of Ohr from Ojo, George’s surviving son, and then brought them to New Jersey in 1969.
While looking through Jim’s shop, I saw several cardboard boxes filled with unglazed Ohr pots. There were bisque pieces of several stripes, including those of red, white, and scroddled (mixed) clays. No one wanted these pieces because we understood them to be “unfinished”, and they languished at Jim’s for years, nearly impossible to sell. They were almost entirely later works, the majority with his script mark, and we all assumed Ohr just never got around to glazing them.
“God put no color or quality in souls, so I’ll put no color on my pots.”
About a decade later, enough new information on Ohr was finding print and one of the things that became clearer is that he deliberately chose not to glaze his latest, and most mature, work. He said of them: “God put no color or quality in souls, so I’ll put no color on my pots.” In other words, not only were his bisque pieces truly “finished” but they also represented his highest, most complete expression. After decades of turning and glazing his vessels, Ohr settled for simplicity of color on pieces that were at times his most complicated and abstract.
It’s not as though these pieces lack color, of course. Just as Gustav Stickley chose quartersawn oak for his furniture, allowing the expressive grain of the wood to serve as intrinsic decoration, Ohr let the medium of clay speak for his art. In addition to the earthy hues described above, Ohr also understood that the heat of the kiln would draw out minerals of different colors during the firing process, dappling patches of grays and blacks over the surface. These pots exhibited a purity of idea and design, misunderstood for so long, that began to attract serious buyers beginning in about 1990.