Viola Frey - Design New York Wednesday, December 7, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Ceramic artist Viola Frey was born on a grape farm in Lodi, California during the Great Depression. Though she moved across the United States during her early adult life—from Oakland to New Orleans to New York and back to Oakland—her childhood surroundings left an indelible mark on her work. Describing her initial artistic influences, she said, “I had to make my own culture.” Frey’s work often takes from the everyday; as a figurative artist, her character representations range from figurines found at flea markets to the archetypes of men and women that she encountered in day-to-day life.


    Left: Richard Diebenkorn, Girl and Striped Chair, 1958. Right: Elmer Bischoff, Interior with Two Figures, 1968. Credit to come. © Estate of Elmer Bischoff.
    Left: Richard Diebenkorn, Girl with Hand to Her Face, 1959, oil on canvas. © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. Right: Elmer Bischoff, Interior with Two Figures, 1968.

    Frey initially trained as a painter under Richard Diebenkorn at the California College of Arts and was influenced by the Bay Area Figurative Movement artists such as Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff. Throughout her career she created works in clay, paintings, and drawings. The visual iconography of her work is largely the same across her mediums, but it is her ceramic pieces which remain her most important artistic contributions. Similar to many of her contemporaries in California during the 1960s and 1970s, she resisted the dichotomy between art and craft and saw herself as an artist who worked with clay.

    “[I applied color] as a painter would. Never as decoration. And that had its own interesting story, when you talk about surface not as decoration but as painting.”
    —Viola Frey

    Explaining her early interest in ceramics, she said, “[Ceramics] had people of all ages in it. It seemed more like the real world. It was a community.” Her works in clay are hand-built and often monumental in scale and applied with bright, expressive glazes in a painterly fashion. She used the clay surface as a canvas, saying, “[I applied color] as a painter would. Never as decoration. And that had its own interesting story, when you talk about surface not as decoration but as painting.”


    Viola Frey in her Third Street studio, Oakland, California, circa 1985.
    Photography by Chris Felver, image courtesy of Artists’ Legacy Foundation.

    The present work, though more intimate in scale than many of her works, is an archetypal example of the types of tableaux that she created. A man and woman stand side-by-side—both in suits, which Frey considered to be a symbol of power—and appear in shock or fear. There is a vulnerability to the suited figures that contrasts the powerful and dominant expressions of men that characterized her earlier works. In front of the two primary figures sits what appears to be the three Graces from ancient Greek mythology as well as a monkey and dog. On the reverse of the sculpture sits a small faceless figure with its arms crossed and hand to its head. Glazed in an expressionist fashion, Untitled resists any explicit storyline and instead explores the Everyman and Everywoman as well as the material and aesthetic possibilities of the clay medium.  

    • Provenance

      Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1992

    • Literature

      Rena Bransten Gallery, Viola Frey, San Francisco, 1994, p. 12 for a similar example

Property from a Private Collection



Glazed earthenware.
44 x 23 x 15 1/2 in. (111.8 x 58.4 x 39.4 cm)

Full Cataloguing

$20,000 - 30,000 

Sold for $25,200

Contact Specialist

Benjamin Green
Associate Specialist

Associate Head of Sale
+1 917 207 9090



New York Auction 7 December 2022