An Individual First

The present work comes from a pivotal time in Viola Frey’s career—her first major acquisition, Double Grandmother by the Minneapolis Institute of Art occurred in 1981 and in 1984 she received a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Grandmother in Red Hat demonstrates her dynamic and expressive approach to engaging themes of social presence and individualism.  

The use of Grandmothers in Frey’s work was inspired by the strong women in her community, as well as a figure she called “Mrs. National Geographic”. As a young girl, Frey copied pictures from the magazine and one woman always caught her eye— the editor or publisher she supposed, “the one that funded the whole thing, photographed riding an ostrich…she was out in the public, she wasn’t private.” This figure impressed upon the young Frey, and though not explicitly feminist, the sheer scale of Frey’s women gives them power. “She was the big-wig, the person who controlled it all, you could tell,” Frey said of Mrs. National Geographic, which is the same feeling one gets standing beneath the towering Grandmother.

Double Grandmother , Viola Frey 1978-79, Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Art © Artists' Legacy Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

While many of Frey’s figures are often scowling or blank, her Grandmothers radiate an enveloping benevolence. This warmth is heightened by Frey’s process; figures are built “from the ground up…like a seed.” Clothing is modeled after pieces found in thrift stores. Most works are made over the course of a year, both in and outdoors, in the changing light of seasons and moods. Though cartoonish and archetypal on the surface, each work contains a complex emotional resonance. Frey suggested that “a person is an individual first and couple[d], [they] have a tendency to destroy each other”. Much of Frey’s work, including Grandmother with Red Hat, deals with the question of how one chooses to participate in a community.

Anthropologists have come up with some good body language—the difference between intimate, private, personal space and space in which people and things join: public space. I like the space just between—a space into which private and public merge, each anticipating the other, a shift from the self to society. It’s that area at which singular and plural blur—a sort of welcome is offered.

Viola Frey

Viola Frey 1933–2004

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.