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British Potter Explores New Realms

Elizabeth Fritsch's bold shapes and abstract surface designs push her firmly into fine-art territory

By Christopher AndreaeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 1994


ELIZABETH FRITSCH encourages the notion that her pots, while thoroughly modern, have the air of a remote time and an unspecific culture.

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It is possible to imagine that some of her pottery might have been discovered in a recent archaeological dig - at Pompeii, perhaps, or near the site of 4th-century A.D. baths in Antioch. But the imagery with which she decorates these oddly formed vessels is abstract. If it echoes any archaic tradition, it would be some of the geometric patterns found in the borders of Roman and Byzantine mosaics: repetitive cubes or shifting shapes of compelling ingenuity.

A traveling exhibition of Fritsch's work, now in Aberdeen, Scotland, displays more than 100 pots from the 1970s to the '90s. The artist, who was born in Wales and originally trained as a musician, has been described as ``Britain's most important living studio potter'' and as ``perhaps the most influential potter of recent decades.'' Though one substantial book was published about her eight years ago, and she has had several solo shows and retrospectives, her work has not been publicly exhibited as often as her preeminence would seem to demand.

Although Fritsch has said that she makes pots for ``ordinary people,'' and that is why she insists on museums rather than collectors having the first choice of her work, the current show is likely to be the first opportunity many people have had to see her work.

The pots in the exhibition belong to the 70s and '80s. Certainly serious, there is nevertheless a persistent game-playing quality to them, a kind of elated playfulness and a toying with paradoxes that makes them unfortunately vulnerable to the accusation of ``Post Modernism.'' They also have an air of eclecticism.

At the same time, the freedom with which this potter uses geometric shapes to expressive rather than decorative ends acknowledges the significance of abstract shapes to 20th-century painters. Kazimir Malevich is cited as an artist she likes. But her work owes more to '60s kinetic and optical art (like that of Agam, Soto, Bridget Riley, or Derek Boshier) and to British sculpture of the sweetly painted fiberglass variety (like that of Phillip King and others).

Fritsch made an important break with previous British studio pottery. Although an admirer of Hans Coper and a recipient of his advice, her work has none of the solemn primitivism or pretension to high-art sculpture of his work. She takes for granted the idea of pottery as art rather than domestic craft in the wake of Coper's and Lucie Rie's redirection of British pottery away from the Anglo-Oriental sensibilities of the previously dominant Bernard Leach.

Fritsch has been able to make pots about music, painting, and pottery itself - and to open up avenues of imaginative and intellectual potential in pottery that mere teapotmakers and pseudo-Korean pot decorators would never have dreamed of. Her decoration is certainly not prettification. Although she emphasizes that it results, for all its precision, from improvisation rather than planning, it is a long way from the kind of spontaneous decoration of a pot that involves a quick, inspired movement of a brush, Leach fashion. Her decoration displays a degree of calculation, meticulous thought, and studied adventure that has been new and stimulating to other potters as well as pottery lovers.

In common with a number of other outstanding potters making unique art pottery today, Fritsch cannot sell her works to the ``ordinary people'' she says she makes them for: the prices they command are out of reach. And many museums are not able to put such works on permanent display because of lack of space and lack of money to increase their space. Although the exhibition in Aberdeen (which originated in Sunderland, England) will be seen over the next year in several cities, Fritsch's work is still likely to be encountered by most people in photographs rather than firsthand.