Annabeth Rosen's art on display at the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum in 2017 (Photo/Gary Zvonkovic)
Annabeth Rosen's art on display at the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum in 2017 (Photo/Gary Zvonkovic)

The whimsical, profound ceramic art of Annabeth Rosen comes to CJM

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Who doesn’t admire a beautifully handcrafted coffee mug — a perfectly sculpted work with sensuous curves that has been high-fired in rich, luscious glazes? Or an exquisite porcelain bowl, delicate yet enduring, designed with an intricate pattern?

Annabeth Rosen certainly does. She loves the craftsmanship, the vision and the labor behind every fine specimen that comes off the wheel and out of the kiln.

But as one of America’s preeminent ceramic sculptors in the 21st century, she also will tell you that these mugs, bowls, plates, vases and other fine items, utilitarian as well as pleasing to the eye, are simply not her thing … to create, anyway.

Anyone who visits her show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum will readily get what Rosen, a professor of art at UC Davis since 1997, means.

Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped” — which will open a six-month run at the CJM the day after a 7 p.m. opening reception on Wednesday, July 24 — showcases what Rosen has been about, and what she has been doing, during a nearly four-decade career.

Occasionally life-size, sometimes resembling a Gorgon head or hollowed-out tubes of glued-together pasta (think baked ziti or mac ’n’ cheese) or a jungle of overgrown flowers and weeds and leaves, Rosen’s ceramics pieces are mélanges of glazed and unglazed fragments that seem to defy gravity. Often top-heavy and brimming with knobs, nodules and bulbous baubles, they are held together with steel baling wire or rubber inner tubes.

And in Rosen’s world, there are no “mistakes.” “Failed” pieces are simply opportunities to make discoveries and run off in new directions. What happens, though, if something blows up and shatters to smithereens in the kiln? Not a problem, according to Rosen.

Annabeth Rosen’s “Hive,” 2016 (Photo/Courtesy Annabeth Rosen)
Annabeth Rosen’s “Hive,” 2016 (Photo/Courtesy Annabeth Rosen)

“I’ve always loved the shard and the bit,” she said. “Everything has potential if you learn from it” (which explains the use of “broken,” “gathered” and “heaped” in the exhibit’s title).

Art critic Nancy Princenthal once wrote that Rosen’s “sculptures seem to have neither fixed contours nor stable shape; even their scale appears to shift as you look … they are variously volcanic, beastly, catastrophic and unnervingly funny, suggesting things going terribly wrong, but not yet irreversibly.”

Sometimes Rosen creates “six-foot-high towers [that] are imposing, yet hilarious in their pendulous anthropomorphism,” curator and art critic Glenn Adamson wrote in 2017.

All forms of hilarity, whimsy and profundity will be on display in the CJM’s 7,000-square-foot Koshland Gallery: scores of sculptures Rosen has made over the past two decades along with dozens of her paintings and drawings — mostly in ink, gouache and acrylic paint — that echo and often prefigure her three-dimensional objects. But, Rosen stressed, the images are not studies or sketches of work to come.

“I’m not doing schematics,” Rosen said. “The drawings are a tangential body of work, another form of expression, vague sensations [and] ideas I’m trying to develop … They used to be ahead of the work, [but now there is] fluidity between the drawings and the sculptures.”

For the past 22 years, Rosen has been working out her ideas and laboring with clay and other materials in a hangar-like studio at UC Davis, where she is the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair in the art and art history department. Fifteen months ago, she was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship, which freed her from academic responsibilities so that she could create even more prolifically than she already did.

Annabeth Rosen's "Tube II," 2012 (Photo/Christopher Woodcock)
Annabeth Rosen’s “Tube II,” 2012 (Photo/Christopher Woodcock)

“I didn’t have to attend meetings or teach classes,” she said, “but I still had the throng of the students down the hall.”

Creative energy is a stimulus to the 62-year-old Rosen. “She’s in constant motion … generating new things and stumbling into new things,” said curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, who organized “Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped” when it debuted in 2017 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Many who have commented and written about Rosen note that she spent much of her first 40 years indoors in urban environments.

Reared in Jewish working-class Brooklyn, New York, she was the daughter and granddaughter of seamstresses, carpenters and laborers who were facile with the manual arts. She took buses and subways to the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, then left for upstate to study at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University (the country’s No. 1 ceramics program according to U.S. News and World Report).

By that time, she had moved away from creating cute, little ceramic jars that held her mother’s and grandmother’s buttons — a skill she finessed in Sunday classes for children at the Brooklyn Museum — and toward more radical notions of what ceramic art could be.

“Alfred had a very traditional program,” Cassel Oliver related, “and she made very thick plates … no one would want to eat off of. She was a true rabble-rouser.”

After earning an MFA in ceramics from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in suburban Detroit (No. 2 on the U.S. News list), Rosen went on to teach at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and the Rhode Island School of Design (No. 5 on the U.S. News list).

Annabeth Rosen's "Boogaloo," 2015 (Photo/Annabeth Rosen)
Annabeth Rosen’s “Boogaloo,” 2015 (Photo/Annabeth Rosen)

When she came to the Sacramento area in 1997 to teach at UC Davis, following a four-year stint at Bennington College in Vermont, something seismic happened to her.

“When I moved out here, it was a shock to the system,” she said. “Nothing is like California. It’s gorgeous and lush … When you’re inside, you don’t know about the external world.”

In the Golden State, Rosen was suddenly someone who would “engage in the natural world … and pay attention to how things change.”

The openness, richness and color of the Pacific landscape are reflected in many of her works, such as “Classical Order—Forest Floor,” which she completed in 1999, soon after she moved to the West Coast.

“I can’t look at her [work] and not help think of Tisha B’Av,” said Lori Starr, the CJM’s executive director, referring to the holiday that marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. This year, Tisha B’Av begins on Aug. 10, less than three weeks after the Rosen exhibit opens. The synchronicity seems fitting, Starr said.

For Jews and their history, Starr said, there is always a “binding back [of] what was broken.” It reminds us that we are “a bundle of parts … held together in a seemingly fragile way.”

That is, of course, what Rosen has done in her work.

In terms of what remains and what survives, “she has created a new idiom,” Starr said.

“Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped”

July 25 through Jan. 19, 2020; opening reception 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, July 24. At Contemporary Jewish Museum, S.F.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.