What a Crock

A recent gift of pottery leaves ASU's art museum wondering where to stack its wares

Davis confined her collecting to British and American ceramics. She also stuck to pottery forms, which these days include just about any configuration with a hole in its top. She avoided ceramic sculpture altogether.

"I suppose my mother may have been my influence on that," she says. "She would go for drives in the country, and have lunch or tea with friends, and come home with pots by Bernard Leach."

Leach's 1940 A Potter's Book--often referred to as the bible of studio potters--made him the great modern evangelist for handmade pottery.

"In those days you would probably buy pots by Leach in a cafe, or a restaurant, or a tea room, or little craft galleries in the country," says Davis.

In the 1970s, Davis began adding to the small collection of pottery her mother had given to her. She initially shopped the Indian reservations, buying works--in the show at ASU--from the renowned mother/daughter potters Lucy and Emma Lewis, and Maria Martinez. She shifted her attention to other areas of American and British ceramics in the early 1980s.

"I really tried to approach the work strictly on the visual level," she says. "I looked a lot and tried to stay away from listening to speculation about who was going to be the next up-and-coming or hot ceramist. Sometimes you can get into that thing where collectors or dealers would say, 'Oh, you've simply got to have one of these.' I think it's important that you sort of step back and see things for yourself."

Garth Clark, a leading scholar and dealer of modern ceramics, whose New York and Los Angeles galleries sold many works to Davis over the years, says he grew accustomed to having her ignore his advice.

Clark says Davis was always independent, never a bandwagon collector, and never one to lean on him for aesthetic advice.

"In some ways, she's always been a bit of an enigma to me," he says. "She didn't try to keep up with every show. She'd show up at the gallery maybe every year or 18 months or so, buy in a burst, and then disappear back to Texas again."

Wayne Kuwada--who served as director of the Garth Clark Gallery in Los Angeles before it closed in 1995, and who is now a consultant to the Frank Lloyd Gallery there--says that many collectors frequently reach a point where they begin collecting with museums in mind, so the nature of their collections change. "But Anne really never collected for anyone other than herself. It's always been a very personal view."

Some of that comes through in the way she displays the works around her house. She usually clusters them in small groups. And unlike the display at ASU, which presents a sea of objects bobbing at about the same pedestal height, the household displays sit high and low. Rising up a wall of shelves in one room. Extending along cabinet countertops in another. One bathroom has a single pot on a chest-high stone shelf beside a window. Another exhibits a figurative vase in the shape of a mermaid on a low tiled surface beside a bathtub.

Collectors like to joke that their belongings become collections when museums begin asking to borrow them. But to Davis, it was obvious that she was building a collection long before museums entered her head. In the late 1980s, the Davises remodeled their house to suit the art, designing one room for storage, another as a formal gallery where works could be brought out of closed cabinets and viewed.

"She was very conscious of scale," says Jo Lauria, associate curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who once visited Davis. "As a collector she seemed to feel free to go beyond the tabletop scale. And her clusters of works were usually by the same artist, instead of mixing artists together like some potpourri."

Lauria and others recall that before the bulk of the collection went to ASU, the gallery room in her house was a place where you might find a dozen small forms by the Austrian-born British master Lucy Rie. "And if you wanted to see more," says Lauria, "all you had to do was open the cupboards below."

Collectors of ceramics have never been terribly high-profile. Until fairly recently, they haven't been courted by museums to the extent that collectors of paintings and sculptures have been. Even so, Davis's independence and location in the middle of nowhere has given her an added layer of anonymity.

She's never been averse to letting people come see the collection. In fact, she's often hosted classes of students from local colleges. But she avoids openings of shows featuring her works (she was on her way back from Bali the night of the ASU opening). And she refuses to have her picture taken for publication.

The relative handful of ceramic specialists familiar with her collection describe it as a highly personalized snapshot of the main British and American clay movements and artists in the past half century.

Lauria, who had hoped Davis would deposit some of her works with the L.A. County Museum, says the collection's primary strength "is that it contains a great amount of depth in a limited number of artists. It isn't what you'd call a postage stamp collection, where there's one work by everybody and all within a five-year span. She went about it with great seriousness and for quite some time."

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