Viola Frey was an internationally respected artist and leading figure in contemporary ceramics. She was known for her monumental, intensely colored ceramic sculptures, which explored issues of gender, cultural iconography, and art history. Along with Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson, Frey shaped and defined contemporary ceramics to explore contemporary ideas and concepts.
Born into a ranching family in Lodi, California, in 1933, Frey realized early on that she “had to be an artist to survive.” She received a bachelor of fine arts from California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in 1956 and a master of fine arts from Tulane University in 1958, studying with George Rickey and Mark Rothko. In 1965 Frey joined the faculty at CCA and continued a relationship with the college through 1999 as full professor and chair of the Ceramics Program. During Frey’s tenure, she guided the design and building of the Noni Eccles Treadwell Ceramic Arts Center on the college’s Oakland campus. In 1999 she was awarded the status of professor emerita and in 2003, the college established the Viola Frey Chair in Fine Arts, created specifically to bring noted artists from around the world to teach as visiting professors at CCA and to share their work with the Bay Area community.
Frey’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries since 1961. Some of her most important exhibitions included “Viola Frey: A Retrospective,” originating at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento in 1981 and traveling to the Oakland Museum of California, the St. Louis Art Museum and the Huntsville Museum of Art. In 1984, Frey had a one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1994, “Viola Frey: Plates 1968–1994” traveled throughout the country. In 2001, “Larger than Life: Ceramic Figures by Viola Frey” was shown at the Boise Art Museum. Frey’s work is represented in public collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Viola has had a profound impact on the visual arts. She was able to take the culture around her and reform those elements into a totally original form of sculpture that defined one of the great contributions to modern art,” commented CCA President Michael S. Roth. “As a teacher, she inspired generations of artists with her impassioned commitment to her work.”
For many years, Frey has been represented by Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco and Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. Nancy Hoffman observed, “On the last day of her life, Viola worked in her studio, completing the final sculpture for her 2005 exhibition. Her perseverance to finish the last piece for her show was testimony to who she was—a veritable force of nature.”