The David Kordansky Gallery mounted a wonderful wormhole of an exhibition, “Doyle Lane: Weed Pots.” Its point of access is the small unassuming “grass pot,” a common accent in modern California interiors beginning in the late 1950s. Cast on a wheel, Lane’s pots were rarely more than 3 or 4 inches high, spherical or elliptical in volume and usually topped with a short, narrow neck, small mouth and turned lip, designed to hold a dried sprig of weed.
From this seemingly modest beginning, Lane (1923-2002), who was African-American, created a brilliant universe of color, shape, texture and proportion. He also made ceramic tiles, jewelry, paintings and murals, but the “grass pot” is his signature. Kordansky’s generous display of 100 pots is Lane’s first solo show in New York. It’s also a refresher course in close-up viewing, and a reminder. of the power of form.
Lane didn’t invent the “herb pot,” but as this exhibit proves, he perfected it. It was his stage. From its confines, he unfolded his miraculous glazes, working alone with two small kilns in his studio in El Sereno in East Los Angeles. One of the largest here has an almost timeless quality; it might be archaic, recently unearthed in Peru or China, but it’s also contemporary. It features a double glaze: a light matte green underglaze and above, a brittle yellow glaze, almost translucent, which swells during firing, creating holes that expose the green.
The show was organized by the Australian-born, Los Angeles-based sculptor Ricky Swallow, who discovered Lane’s pots in an antique mall in Pasadena in 2010. Swallow curated a smaller, similarly installed iteration for Kordansky’s Los Angeles home base in 2020. The installation is luxurious: The pots are lined up in single rows of 14 in each of seven display cases in plenty of space. Walk along either side of the display cases and you will see each piece fully in the circle. And while the accompanying catalog may not be the monograph the artist deserves, it is the largest yet and contains a wealth of information about him and his environment.
Doyle Lane (1923-2002) was born in New Orleans and came to Los Angeles in 1946. He studied ceramics at East Los Angeles City College and at the University of Southern California, and to his great wealth, got a coveted job as a glazer. . technician for the industrial chemical company LH Butcher, where he worked for eight years. There Lane formulated and tested hundreds of different glazes, gaining experience and knowledge that few other postwar artist-ceramists possessed.
In this show two areas of special interest are evident: one is a passion for red and orange glazes, which are used on almost a third of the pots here. The other is an expert cultivation of randomness in the glaze firing to encourage the imperfections of either cracking, originally treated most carefully by Chinese and Korean potters, or the lesser known effects of creep. This occurs when a thick glaze contracts during firing into separate islands on the exposed clay, which Lane often stained with yellow or ocher for greater contrast.
In some pots, it appears that cracking and creeping might converge, as with an orange glaze on an ocher-stained pot. The glaze contracted without exposing much clay, piling up into a kind of dense bas-relief and pattern that suggests innards.
His glazes feel experimental, yet he always seemed to know what he was doing. Swallow said in a phone call that Lane used his oven as an instrument, understanding how placement in an oven could affect the outcome and knowing when to interrupt a shoot that was going ahead of him.
The small size of those vessels fulfilled several needs, the main one was the desire to live from his work, which he did. They used his small stoves effectively and were easy to transport. Lane has only had a few gallery shows in Los Angeles – and none anywhere else. He sold his pots from showrooms he built adjacent to his studio, at craft fairs and sometimes door to door. (Lane was determined, and largely successful at, to live off his work.)
But the main function of small size was aesthetic: Lane excelled at compression, making something small seem big. Small size meant that encounters with his pieces were close and full, grainy. After Lane’s glazes, the most interesting aspect of this assemblage of so many “herb pots” is the way they reveal his sensitivity to form, weight and volume. Pots with round silhouettes are sometimes as round as softballs. But usually their volumes have gentle bumps either above or below, which communicates a quietly vibrant balance.
Lane once said that many of his colors didn’t exist until he figured out how to make them. Their originality is just one way that his weed pots transcended craft to become art. They form a historical high point that reaches across mediums and cultures. They are period pieces that have survived their period.
Doyle Lane: Weed pots
Through August 4, David Kordansky Gallery, 520 West 20th Street, Manhattan; davidkordanskygallery.com; 212-390-0079.