Fred Marer and The Marer Collection
by Laura Ramirez
Sculpture with thin colemanite glaze
35 x 21 x 21
(MacNaughton et al. p. 95)
Carefully organized within the walls of Scripps College in California lies a vast conglomeration of nearly 900 works by American, British, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese artists (MacNaughton 9). As one studies this collection, one begins to notice that the core of this diverse collection is focused locally on west coast ceramics— especially the work of a handful of artists nicknamed “the Otis group.” In the mid 1950’s, these artists challenged ceramists’ tradition-bound attitudes (MacNaughton 9). Through their creation of non-utilitarian, larger-than-life sculptural clay art, they would soon catch the attention of a man who would in time collect many of their works. This man would collect enough works to not only fill an entire house, but also detail the historical outline of an important period in ceramic history. These works, also known as the Marer Collection, were all obtained by one man with a humble passion for ceramics: Fred Marer.
Fred Marer (pictured left in Fig. 2) was a humble mathematics professor at Los Angeles City College from 1937 to 1976 (MacNaughton 9,48). While he was interested in the ceramics works created at the Otis Art Institute as a child, it wasn’t until the early 1950’s after Marer bought his first ceramic piece, hat he became truly invested in modern ceramics of the time, as well as the artists that were making it (MacNaughton 10). The piece bought by Marer was the striped piece entitled Bowl, 1954 (pictured right in Fig. 3) by leading Southern California artist Laura Andreson (MacNaughton 10; Koeninger 17, 19). Marer soon after ended up attending a faculty exhibition at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (later Otis Art Institute) and instantly became interested in the work of a young artist named Peter Voulkos (MacNaughton 10).
Peter Voulkos (pictured left in Fig. 4) was the head of the ceramics department at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles from 1954 to 1957. According to MacNaughton, this is the place where Voulkos led a “revolution in Clay” (MacNaughton 47). The artists that were involved in this group were Billy Al Bengston, Michael Frimkess, John Mason, Mac McClain, Ken Price, Janice Roosevelt, Jerry Rothman, Paul Soldner and Henry Takemoto. These young artists wanted to break free of the tradition surrounding ceramic forms, creating “nonfunctional, sculptural works that gave the medium a new freedom of expression” (MacNaughton 47). And as illustrated in the image on the right (Fig. 5), these artists absolutely would create a new, less traditional platform for ceramic art with help from the financial and moral support given by Fred Marer.
After discovering this “dynamic group of young artists” that were producing “new and unfamiliar works that challenged traditional notions of ceramics” in 1955, Marer would soon befriend them and become a major support for the group as their patron (MacNaughton 10,48). Marer loved so many of these ceramic works that his own home was soon overrun by pieces of all shapes and sizes. Marer was not a particularly wealthy man; however, he was able to collect so many works despite not having a lot of money because he knew the artists personally, and bought directly from them — sometimes even buying works immediately after they came out of the kiln (MacNaughton 10). Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection states it simply: “What he lacked in funds he made up for in engagement with artists” (MacNaughton 9). It was this unrestrained love and support that Marer had for these works that truly helped many of these artists continue to survive and experiment as young creators. Marer collected simply because he liked pieces, not due to any fame or importance of an artist. This was tantamount in Marer’s contribution towards supporting a vast range of artists, both new and unknown.
The Marer Collection features an incredibly vast series of artists and works, however the major “core” of this collection was created by the original “Otis group” that triggered Marer’s collecting career. Such artists include Peter Voulkos (51 pieces in collection), Michael Frimkess (47 pieces– some collaborative with wife Magdalena), John Mason (23 pieces), Jerry Rothman (22 pieces), Henry Takemoto (29 pieces), and Paul Soldner (16 pieces) (MacNaughton 9).
In fact, it was through a friendship with Paul Soldner, a ceramist who came to Scripps College after graduating from Otis Art Institute (pictured left in Fig. 6), that Marer eventually donated parts of his expansive Marer collection to Scripps (MacNaughton 11). Marer now insists that the collection be widely used for teaching. Specifically, teaching that “artistic change must always be valued for its continuity as well as for its uniqueness” (Koeninger 24). This additional focus on continuity reveals that Marer was very aware that it was much more than the Otis group itself that led and built up to new creative frontiers in ceramic art. Not only this, it speaks to Marer’s awareness of the continued effect on modern ceramic art that came after this period of time. To Marer, ceramic innovation was tied together by a historical timeline of works new, old, and spanning across the globe.
In fact, Fred Marer was not only a major supporter of local works, but works from all over the world. Marer held interests in European, English, and Japanese works. This is further exemplified by the vast series of international works found within the Marer Collection (Koeninger 22). As small examples, Marer traveled to Japan in 1977 and visited England every year from 1978-85 (Koeninger 22). Marer made many acquaintances on these trips to ceramic artists such as Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, and Jun Kaneko ( Koeninger 22).
For a collection of works so varied in source and artistic direction, it is no surprise that the Marer Collection features an incredibly wide range of cultural ideologies. This massive diversity of works from different cultures allows art historians clear snapshots into different ceramic movements during the specific period of the 1950’s. As stated in Revolution in Clay: “These pieces offer unparalleled documentation and special insight into the creative development of that period (1950s)” (MacNaughton 9). Especially in the case of the California Otis group, these works depicted a “turning point in the history of contemporary ceramics when these artists and their colleagues broke the boundaries of functional ceramics to claim a freedom of expression long enjoyed by painters and sculptors” (MacNaughton 9).
In my own personal opinion, Marer’s genuine love for ceramic art is something to be admired. I appreciate so much his non-discriminatory attitude towards a multitude of unique works by artists of all backgrounds. It is that simple “I bought things because I liked them” attitude that makes Marer so genuine and special as a collector (qtd. in MacNaughton 10). Here is a humble man that took on multiple teaching jobs in order to continue supporting artists of all levels. The idea of collecting not for renown, but for pure enjoyment is, in my opinion, something to be protected and held in high esteem.
It’s incredible that one man’s passion for art could become so large that it offers such a clear image of the 1950’s ceramic climate. Many of the works featured in the collection are from artists that would later become famous; however, Marer was a man who bought them when they were made simply because he liked and saw something special in them. As Marer observed, “When I acquire, I don’t look for types of work, but the work I like. I respond to each work individually” (qtd. in MacNaughton 10). Marer’s active and continuous support for ceramic artists is what truly makes The Marer Collection such an important part of art history.
Andreson, Laura. Bowl. 1954. Scripps College. Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, edited by Mary Davis MacNaughton et al. Scripps College, 1994, p. 28.
Fred Marer. 1956. Photograph. Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, edited by Mary Davis MacNaughton et al. Scripps College, 1994, p. 10.
Koeninger, Kay. “The Studio Pottery Tradition, 1940-1970.” Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, Scripps College, 1994, pp. 17–24.
McNaughton, Mary Davis. “Innovation in Clay: The Otis Era 1954-1960.” Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, Scripps College, 1994, pp. 47–68.
— . “Preface.” Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, Scripps College, 1994, pp. 9–11.
Paul Soldner’s M.F.A. exhibition at Otis. 1956. Photograph. Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, edited by Mary Davis MacNaughton et al. Scripps College, 1994, p. 56.
Peter Voulkos’ trimming plate. 1970. Photograph. Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, edited by Mary Davis MacNaughton et al. Scripps College, 1994, p. 101.
Voulkos, Peter. Covered Jar. 1956. Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, edited by Mary Davis MacNaughton et al. Scripps College, 1994, p. 90.
—. Sculpture with thin colemanite glaze. 1957. Revolution in Clay: The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics, edited by Mary Davis MacNaughton et al.
Scripps College, 1994, p. 95.