Viola Frey (1933-2004) Surprised Woman, 1986

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Lot 45W
Viola Frey
Surprised Woman, 1986

Sold for US$ 75,075 inc. premium
Viola Frey (1933-2004)
Surprised Woman, 1986

glazed polychromed ceramic on a steel armature

120 x 30 x 25 in.
304.8 x 76.2 x 63.5 cm.


  • Provenance
    Asher/Faure, Los Angeles
    Harvey and Barney Morse, New York, 1987 (acquired for California Market Center, Los Angeles)
    Acquired by the present owner in 2017

    Newport Harbor Art Museum, Second Newport Biennial: The Bay Area, 2 October-23 November 1986

    John Ikeda, "Salute to the Arts", The Orange County Register, Santa Ana, 14 October 1986, pp. 1 and 12

    Viola Frey's magnificent, larger-than life sculptures Surprised Woman and Arrogant Man have resided in the Fashion District of Downtown Los Angeles for over two decades. The works have been on view as a public installation in the California Market Center (formerly the California Mart) since they were purchased by Harvey and Barney Morse in 1987. The California Mart was built for the two brothers from New York City who started a clothing factory in Downtown Los Angeles in the early 1960s.

    The Morse Brothers' interest in the work of Viola Frey was a natural fit, as Frey was a visual anthropologist of American culture in the 1980s. Learning from Womens Wear Daily and National Geographic, she claimed to have spent as much money on popular books and periodicals as on her art supplies. For nearly twenty years between 1962 and 1980, Frey chose not to drive, exercising a willed commitment to public transportation. Frey relished the opportunity to observe the everyday commuter on their way to their routine jobs, but most importantly to study their clothing. In much of the artist's work, clothing carries her message: that superficial, quotidian appearances reveal the social and cultural structure of American society. "Frey's discourse was directed to the exposition of the American middle-class values; her mode is the revelatory celebration of kitsch, of the trite, of the average" (P. Sims, "Viola Frey at the Whitney", Ceramics Monthly, November 1984, pp. 51-53). Unusually sensitive to human relationships, she is a brilliant decoder of the ceremonies of self-presentation and deportment the ironies of dress and body language.

    Born in Lodi, California in 1933, Frey received her B.F.A. from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland where Frey first pursued clay as an artistic medium. It's three-dimensionality interested her, but she also perceived that clay could unify "all the resources of drawing, of painting, of color, light, gloss, matte, of solids, of space." A workshop in the late winter of 1957 with Mark Rothko at Tulane University, where she pursued her M.F.A., impressed upon her the power of color and its interactive sensations. A little over a decade later, Frey began poly-chroming her clay sculpture. The effect was to diminish the inherent three-dimensionality of her medium, bringing the medium of sculpture closer to her concurrent painting and drawing.

    By 1960 Frey had returned to San Francisco, where figurative art and working with clay were in the vanguard. An explosion of artistic energy was taking place in Northern California. During this period, she focused on the expressive potential of clay and, along with her ceramicist colleagues Robert Arneson and Peter Voulkos, was instrumental in cracking the barrier between craft and fine art. Painters such as Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Joan Brown, were also forging a new art history at the time. Frey was an integral part of this movement and spoke quite candidly about her struggle to stand out as a woman artist within it. In many ways, Frey has remained unsung for the ways in which she revolutionized the medium for artists working in clay.

    Frey spent much of her early career sculpting and painting small figurines and tableaus, but from 1980 on, Frey's work achieved a new ambition and scale, brought on by her move to a large house in Oakland, California. Her preparations for a 1981 retrospective at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento offered her an opportunity to experiment with scale, seeking greater verticality, she began a series of single, over-life-size ceramic figures, as well as large and complex paintings. After facing structural issues, the artist began to cut the works into multiple pieces and fire them separately. The works are true constructions, built as three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. Said Frey, "I start from the ground on up, which is very logical when you think about it. The other people went through a lot of different ways. My work is very direct" (Paul Karlstrom in conversation with the artist, Archives of American Art, Women in the Arts in Southern California Oral History Project, February-June 1995).

    Between 1981 and 1984, Frey produced around twenty, over-life-size figures, ten of which were in included at an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1984. It is in these monumental figures such as Surprised Woman and Arrogant Man that Frey could express her decades of interest and research in the banal everyday fashion of American life, and where she subtly addressed issues of gender inequality. For authenticity's sake, the figures clothing was carefully copied from secondhand store attire. These figures seem to belong to some unplaceable decade between 1920 and 1960 when women routinely dressed in strongly patterned prints and men wore ties with tightly buttoned suits. Frey sculpted women holding the world or gazing at it, placing them in a position of power. She created men standing, walking, but most often seated or fallen, wearing their nature and vulnerabilities in their suits and faces.

    Frey's blue-suited men are aging executives firmly poised halfway up the corporate ladder. The artist first encountered these men during her time Manhattan, where she said they were " rivers, rivers of these suits." In Frey's vision, blue invests the male figures with the respectability and power that society also places on this costume. Frey's women are in control, standing in the same scale as the men, they are more physically alert than their rigid counterparts. Despite their gender distinctions, Frey's men and woman share a statuesque vividness that elevates them into sovereigns of averageness.

    Though best-recognized for her innovations in the field of ceramics, over the course of her career Frey produced a wide and impressive body of work. She didn't shy away from working outside her iconic and critically successful large-scale figurative sculpture, even making paintings and drawings toward the end of her career. Frey's work can be found in numerous important public and private collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Viola Frey (1933-2004) Surprised Woman, 1986
Viola Frey (1933-2004) Surprised Woman, 1986
Viola Frey (1933-2004) Surprised Woman, 1986
Viola Frey (1933-2004) Surprised Woman, 1986
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