KAREN KARNES: Vessel and Sculpture

— A Retrospective —

August 19 – September 9, 2023

Press Release

Karen Karnes (1925-2016)

It is a true honor to represent Karen Karnes, one of the icons of contemporary ceramics. Born in 1925 in Brooklyn, she came of age with the post-war generation of artists, the seminal growth that set the stage for art in the second half of the 20th century.

Karnes was part of two legendary art communities that focused this energy:  Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the Gate Hill community in New York. Black Mountain, led by Josef Albers (previously from the Bauhaus), included students such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Ruth Asawa and Robert Rauschenberg before they became famous. Karnes then became part of Gate Hill, a cooperative community, for 25 years where she built her studio and kiln, deepened friendships with M.C. Richards, Mikhail Zakin, and met Ann Stannard, who became her lifetime companion.

Her spiritual inspiration as an artist was Shoji Hamada. In terms of her style, it is modernist going straight back to the Bauhaus. The work she made Italy in 1949-51 when she was teaching herself to throw on the wheel is notably contemporary, holding up well today and completely museum level. This show is a retrospective with specific dates going back to 1980 and assumed dates going back much earlier.

No one made pots like Karen Karnes.

Yes, she made a lot of pots, she had to—to support herself and her son Abel, whose father, David Weinrib, was Karen’s husband in her early years. I always like to say that all of Karen’s work is sculptural, even when its functional.

While her flameware casseroles were ubiquitous and often copied by others, the majority of her work was distinct to her—a combination of simplicity and 3-D genius that led to turning a vessel into a slit sculpture, a casserole into a winged form, a jar with a floating lid into a poem.

Toward the end of her career, when handling large amounts of clay was difficult, Karen began making the smaller sculptures of 2 or 3 part joined forms which can be viewed as still-life, landscape or figurative compositions. 

Karnes started out firing her work with color and salt, then became an early advocate of wood-firing after moving to Vermont. In 1988 a fire sprang from her kiln in Morgan during an exceedingly dry spell, destroying her home and studio. It was rebuilt with the assistance of her many friends in the clay community. This tragedy turned out to be life-affirming due to their support. In her later years, she was able to continue wood-firing by firing with Joy Brown in her wood kiln and Mark Shapiro in his wood/salt kiln.

Never wanting to be a fulltime teacher, Karnes was a renowned mentor to younger potters and was a co-founder with Mikhail Zakin of the Old Church Cultural Center (occc) annual pottery sale in Demarest, New Jersey which goes on to this day. As Zakin said of her friend, “I have never known any artist who has lived her life and made her art with such integrity and with such clear unswerving sense of purpose.” And paraphrasing what Karnes once said to me: “I am like a whale underwater quietly pulsing along, doing what I do, no matter what obstacles appear in my path.”

Over the span of her career, Karen Karnes exhibited in the leading galleries of the day including Hadler/Rodriguez, NYC; Joan Rapp in Arizona; Garth Clark Gallery, NYC; Habitat/Shaw Gallery, Michigan; and Ferrin Gallery, Massachusetts. A major retrospective exhibition of her work, A Chosen Path, originated at the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center in Tempe, AZ and traveled around the country from 2010 - 2012 to the Asheville Art Museum, Asheville, NC, the Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, Racine Art Museum, Racine, WI and the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA. An accompanying book The Chosen Path was published at this time and is an excellent source for more about this important modernist artist.

It is a pleasure and honor, a responsibility that I do not take lightly, to be the gallerist with whom her remaining outstanding work resides, keeper of the Karen Karnes flame that encompasses both the modernist aesthetic and the humble pot.

Lucy Lacoste

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