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.

George E. Ohr 1857–1918

Born to Alsatian and German immigrants in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1857, George Ohr learned the art of blacksmithing from his father, was apprenticed first to a file cutter, and then to a tinker, worked in chandlery and became a sailor, and otherwise knocked about until 1879, when his childhood friend Joseph Meyer invited him to New Orleans to learn the art of pottery. Meyer was a traditional potter, of the type common throughout the country prior to the industrial revolution and well into the 20th century in much of the rural south.

Ohr absorbed Meyer’s folk aesthetic and ultimately transformed it into something totally original. His vessels are technical tours de force, unexcelled in the thinness of their bodies and the control with which they are shaped—and misshaped; he threw perfect vessels and then folded and twisted them into unique and original forms.

Bombastic self-promotion was a habit with Ohr, one which alienated him from his more restrained contemporaries in the art pottery and Arts and Crafts movements. It took the form of signs, broadsides, and public demonstrations, such as the Mardi Gras float in which he appeared as an old man bearing a huge cross. He loved word games, and variously referred to himself as the Biloxi M.D. and P.M. (mud dauber and pot maker), The Unequalled Variety Potter, Crank, Etc. and most memorably, The Mad Potter of Biloxi. He used his own name in numerous variations, calling himself the Pot-Ohr, Biloxies Ohrmer Khayam and Greatest Ohr-nament and his shop, the Pot-Ohr-E. Many of his creations were inscribed with his memorable quotations, such as Potter sed-2-clay/B ware/and it was/a thing of the future.

Apart from novelties and functional wares, he sold very little of his work, in part because he doubted that potential buyers could value it as much as he. Over the years he accumulated nearly ten thousand "mud babies", which he boxed up around 1909 and put in the attic of his studio before turning it over to his sons, who converted the space into an automobile repair shop.

Alone in his aesthetic, understood and appreciated by too few of his contemporaries, he was quickly forgotten after he gave up making pottery around 1908. It was his consistent hope that his collection be purchased in its entirety by the Smithsonian as a gift to the nation. Prior to the rediscovery of this trove by an antique dealer in 1969, Ohr was known only from a few turn-of-the-century articles and a handful of works in various collections. The rediscovery of his work coincided with a renewed interest in the art pottery movement and necessitated a re-evaluation of turn-of-the century American art history. Most recently, The Museum of Modern Art furthered this reconsideration of his genius, and the importance of his work in the history of art and craft, by displaying six of his works in a room displaying modern masterpieces by Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.

Auction Results George E. Ohr