Once at MIA: A master works

You can bifurcate American ceramics, like time itself, into two very different halves: before and after Warren Mackenzie. Because a half century ago he turned the medium into art, despite his protests ever since that he’s done nothing of the sort.

From his Stillwater studio he would turn out 50 to 200 pots a day. (The first 10,000 pots are difficult, he’s famous for saying, and then it gets a bit easier.) When his work was shown at the Walker Art Center in 1961, Design Quarterly offered that it is “completely dedicated to art, yet…pursued for the expressed purpose of sales.”

“A potter has to love clay—disinterestedly—just love the physical nature of clay,” he’s said. “He can do anything with it, but freedom of expression, even the honest use of materials, doesn’t necessarily make art.” The closest he’s come to suggesting that he’s made art is this caveat about his pots in his otherwise unassuming artist statement: “…but I do hope that they communicate something of what I feel regarding personal expression in pottery.”

Fresh from art school, he and his wife, Alix, moved to Minnesota in 1947 to teach at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art, the forerunner of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, then housed in a Summit Avenue mansion. They lived in its carriage house. Warren was just about to leave for an apprenticeship in England when this photo was taken in 1949 on an MIA senior group tour. Over the next three years, he would absorb a Japanese style of ceramics and return with his signature ideas about simplicity that would make him—and American pottery—famous.

Watch for more Once at MIA flashbacks every Monday at MIA Stories.