Pamela Branham

Fred Marer

Ceramics Collection


Fred Marer was born in 1908 in New York City and died in 2002 in Los Angeles. He grew
up very poor, “not even able to afford a nickel piece of candy,” but amassed an extraordinary collection of contemporary ceramics. Marer collected nearly 900 pieces and donated the core of his collection to Scripps College in Claremont, CA in 1994, and it is currently still on exhibit.

Marer began his college education on a scholarship at Fordham University and then
moved to Los Angeles for graduate study at USC, where he earned a master’s degree in
mathematics. Hoping to pursue a doctorate, he found employment as a social worker and
briefly worked as a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles public schools. He entered a PhD program at UCLA, but couldn’t afford to continue. Instead, he took a job teaching math at Los Angeles City College, where he served as head of the department, and made his living as a professor of mathematics for 30 years.

Marer started collecting early 1950s. His first piece was a striped bowl by Laura Andreson. This led to interest in a faculty exhibition at Los Angeles County Art Institute (later Otis Art Institute). At the exhibit, Marer spotted a tiny pot by Peter Voulkos and sent him a note asking if he could buy it. Voulkos scrawled his reply on the back of the note: “Sure. Come over any time.” When Marer returned, the pot had been stolen, but he bought two other pieces and continued going back to the ceramics studio and developed a friendship with Voulkos, prosperous on both sides.

Marer was a very generous man who purchased most of his art from the artists
themselves. Several artists remember Marer buying their pieces as soon as they came out of the kiln. Marer does not point to any compelling motivation to collect ceramics, but he does admit that, “When I was a child, I used to go to the library to get books before they were put on the shelves. I got works [from the Otis group] from their studio, often before they were exhibited.” He also acknowledges that he has been more interested in artists than in periods or styles. Marer observes, “I bought what I liked, practically always from people I liked.”

Andreson, Laura, “Bowl”, 1954

Reflecting on his acquisitive passion, he jokingly put it in financial terms. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t even buy a nickel piece of candy. When I was teaching at LACC, I had to do
something with all that money.”

Michael Cardew

Marer hosted regular dinners for artists and helped them find temporary housing and employment, as well as assistance with networking by putting new artists in touch with other artists and curators. “He was tremendously friendly and wonderfully warm, but he was also tough and demanding intellectually. He didn’t like small talk; if you made a loose remark, he would make you defend it. There was a real rigor to him.”

Marer served an important role for these artists because he purchased their works early in their careers when many of them needed the support most. He also provided both  oral and financial support to other struggling artists at the beginning of their careers—not just the Otis group. He began buying contemporary ceramics from emerging artists and had one rule, the work had to be affordable. As a result, some artists who should be in the collection priced themselves out of it.

Artists represented in his collection were expected to indulge Marer’s intellectual curiosity. Paul Soldner remarks, “When Fred came to visit, he would ask a lot of  questions. It wasn’t all admiration. He wanted to know philosophical reasons for what we were doing.” That makes this collection important—these works were acquired at the time they were made by a collector who knew the artists personally, not years after the fact and for monetary value only.

It offers unparalleled documentation and special insight into the creative development of that period. He rarely sold a piece from his collection–even when his modest apartment and garage were overflowing.

Henry Takemoto
Jun Kaneko
Lucie Rie
Hans Cooper

The Marer Collection is divided into three sections: First, “The Studio Pottery Tradition, 1940-1970:” This looks at the ways in which artists worked within the craft tradition; it asserts the unity of designer and maker and displays how they were influenced by other cultures. The work tends to be small in scale and, though not necessarily functional, still very similar to familiar forms.

A few of the artists are Lucie Rie, Margeurite Wildenhain, William Staite Murray, Kanjiro
Kawai, Bernard Leach, Hans Coper, Michael Cardew and more.

Second, “Innovation in Clay: The Otis Era, 1954-1960:” This examines the brief but important period during the mid-1950s, breaking down the barriers with a no-holds-barred approach in clay. They made ceramic objects that were often large in scale, bold, and sculptural rather than functional or utilitarian. Replacing the classical ideals of studio pottery with subjective ones derived from expressionist art, the Otis group led the shift in ceramics from an art based on preconception to one inspired by improvisation. Some of the more famous artists are Michael Frimkess, John Mason, Ken Price, Jerry Rothman, Paul Soldner, Henry Takemoto and Peter Voulkos.

Third, “Contemporary Ceramics in the Marer Collection, 1960-1990.” This explores the many stylistic avenues that this new freedom opened to artists from the 1960s to the 1990s. This period also marks the acceptance of clay as an art medium by the larger art
world. During this time, there was an art movement known as Funk Art which was the reaction against the nonobjectivity of abstract expressionism. It brought figuration back as subject matter rather than the non-figurative, abstract form of abstract expressionism. The “finish fetish” evolved from the “funk.” This movement valued fine craftsmanship, and the use of commercial glazes and paints on clay pieces. Many of the pieces were derived from pop art, everyday items (often enlarged), with sleek, commercial glazes. Artists included in this group—Jun Kaneko, Betty Woodman, Robert Arneson, Philip Cornelius, Rudy Autio, Viola Frey, Marilyn Levine, James Melchert, Ron Nagle, Patti Warashina, Peter Voulkos, as well as later works by many of the earlier artists.

Jerry Rothman
John Mason
Paul Soldner
Jun Kaneko
Peter Voulkos
Betty Woodman
Michael Frimkess
Ken Price

Marer’s associates say he was motivated by a pure love of art. Rarely did he sell anything from his collection—is was testament to his passion and commitment to art.

Ron Nagle
Patti Warashina
Kanjiro Kawai

Ai Wie Wei

Ai Weiwei (Weiwei), born in 1957, is the son of writer Gao Ying and poet Ai Qing. The family was exiled when Weiwei was only one year old and lived in small villages near  the North Korean border and in the province of Xinjiang for twenty years. Growing up in these harsh conditions Weiwei learned many of the practical skills that he would later apply to his art, such as making furniture and bricks. The family had been able to keep only one book, a large encyclopedia, Weiwei’s only source of information and education.

Ai Weiwei

As a young man, Weiwei spent a decade in New York, from 1983 to 1993, only returning to China when his father became ill. He started blogging in 2005. In May 2008, in response to the government’s lack of transparency in revealing names of students who perished in the 8.0 Shanghai earthquake due to substandard school construction, Weiwei recruited volunteers online and launched a “Citizens’ Investigation” to compile over
5,000 names and information about the student victims. In 2009 he suffered a cerebral
hemorrhage from a beating from police after trying to testify for a fellow investigator of the shoddy construction and student casualties in the earthquake.

In November 2010 Weiwei was placed under house arrest and his studio demolished by
the Chinese police. In 2011 he was arrested and placed in detention for tax evasion for 81 days. Weiwei currently resides and works in Beijing. Some of the influences on Ai Weiwei have been Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.

Weiwei, 886 Antique Stools

I do not like the “art” of Ai Weiwei. It is too commercialized and impersonal for me. Much of it is large-scaled installations and a repetition of an everyday object or mere self-promotion. Also, much Weiwei, Forever Bicycles of the of the art seems created mainly for shock value. I understand this and appreciate using art to represent political views and causes. Then interpretations change over time. Take Manet’s, Luncheon on the Grass. At the time, it was considered scandalous and immoral. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon was hated by many and considered gross and inappropriate. However, today these pieces are coveted works of art.

Manet, Luncheon on the Grass
Picasso, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon

I want to like Weiwei’s work because when researching him, I have come to admire and
sympathize with him as a political advocate. Growing up in harsh conditions, exiled, hounded, investigated, jailed, beaten, refused permission to leave the country—these make me sympathize with him. To move past these hardships and continue to advocate for the Chinese people against the current regime and pursue what he is most passionate about, makes me admire him. For example, in one work Weiwei recreates a list of the names, posted on a wall, of the children who died in Sichuan. In another he posts an ink-jet print of an MRI of his brain after his beating by police in 2009. However, does this make him a political advocate or an artist?

I do not appreciate the “art” of dropping the centuries old Han Dynasty urn and painting
over the Ming vases. When we have something of historical and cultural significance, is it only ours to view, show, use, or even destroy? Or do we have a social responsibility to preserve and share it with others?

I feel we DO have a social responsibility not to harm or destroy anything of significance. When I first saw the Sunflower Seed Project I thought it uninspiring. If I were to visit the
museum, I would probably look at his Sunflower Seed exhibit and say, “Wow, that’s a lot of seeds, and, wow, those are all ceramic seeds!” and then move on. However, when viewing the video of the making of the “seeds,” I had a new appreciation because of the impact this project had on the lives of all the people making the seeds.

Would Ai Weiwei have been in the Marer collection? Marer was intimately connected to what he collected. He did not just collect the “pretties” and go home. He talked with the artists and asked them questions about their work; not only about the processes but also the inspiration and reason for creating such work. Marer even admitted that he purchased work even though he personally did not like it to keep from hurting the artist’s feelings. I do not believe that Weiwei’s work would have ended up in Marer’s collection for multiple reasons.

One of Marer’s steadfast rules was that art must be affordable. This alone would place Weiwei out of Marer’s price range. In 2012, Weiwei showed “Tree #11” at Art Basel. It was one in an edition of 15 actual dead trees and sold for $468,000. “If this was Joe Blow,” one collector said, “it wouldn’t mean anything.”

Much of Marer’s collection was ceramics. I cannot picture some of the large Weiwei installations or a mixed media via video in the collection.

Dropping of a Han Dynasty Urn and Colored Vases
Sunflower Seeds, Tate Modern Turbine Hall
Tree #11 at Art Basel
Weiwei teamed up with Hong Kong-based toy designer Eric So to create a series of sculptures titled Aibuda meaning ‘”unlovable” in Chinese.

Marer seldom dealt with galleries because he felt no need to be introduced to artists already known to him. He also objected to what he characterized as the gallery hype that touted sometimes doubtful works as art. He bought the art because he liked it and he liked the artist. He did question the artists about their art and the inspiration behind it. When an artist previously collected by Marer veered too much toward acceptance by the larger art world, Marer would lose interest and stop collecting their work.  Similarly, he discounted art magazines as “too conventional.” He wanted to bring up political views, stimulate people’s minds to think outside the box, question authority. Weiwei, as a political advocate surely does question authority; however, I feel after viewing the plethora of selfies on the internet that much of Weiwei’s art is more about self-promotion than creation of art.

Ai Weiwei in selfie

Weiwei has gained the reputation of one of China’s most important artists.  His art and activism are interlinked. He has become a larger-than-life figure and social media has continued to enlarge this persona. However, I feel his influence is more in the arena of civil rights and political advocacy than art.


“Ai Weiwei Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. N.p., N.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Andersen, Lydia. “Shock Factor: Controversial Art throughout History.” The White Cube Diaries.    N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Callahan, Maureen. “The Overpriced World of Bad Art.” New York Post. N.p., 2014. Web. 19  Nov. 2016.

“Fred Marer, 93; Ceramics Collector, Math Professor.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times,

20 June 2002. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Koeninger, Kay, et al. “Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics.” Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, Claremont, CA., c1994.

Perl, Jed. “Noble and Ignoble.” New Republic. N.p., 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.

Review of Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics. Eds. Letitia Burns O’Connor and Brenda Johnson-Grau. Perpetua Press, 2012.

The Austin Chronicle Issue Archives. Vol. 15. Issue 13.

“The Top Living Artists of 2015.” Artsy. N.p., 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.

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