RICHMOND, VA. — During this spring and summer Art Deco aficionados will have an unusual opportunity to see some of the finest examples of Art Deco in this capital city on the James River. The Lora Robins Gallery at the University of Richmond Museums has organized the first retrospective of the art of Waylande Gregory in “Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse,” including ceramic sculpture, porcelains, glass and paintings, which will be on view through September. Then, on the other side of Richmond, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has on permanent display Parisian Art Deco from the Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection.
Gregory’s connection to Richmond reaches back to a VMFA solo exhibition in 1944. A major figure in American Art Deco, Gregory is credited for being the first to create monumental ceramic sculptures in modern times. Perhaps his finest work, “The Fountain of the Atom,” was executed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and included 12 large-scale sculptures, some measuring more than 70 inches and weighing over a ton. Four of the actual “Electrons” from this atomic grouping are included in the Lora Robins exhibition. There are also other related materials on display from this iconic fair.
Gregory was also the major sculptor and designer at the Cowan Pottery, Cleveland, which was one of the leading American art pottery companies before the Great Depression. Some of Gregory’s limited edition sculptures for Cowan are in the exhibition, including “Salome,” circa 1929, a very rare work, which can be considered one of his first in the Deco style. “Clowns on Unicycles,” circa 1932, is a unique sculpture, very much in the Cubist style, and displays the artist’s unusual technique of painting on terracotta.
One of his finest Deco works in the show is not ceramics at all, but is a folding screen depicting polo players on horseback, circa 1935. The full exhibition is geared to enhance the viewer’s appreciation of Deco, and includes 69 pieces.
The Parisian Art Deco from the Lewis collection at the VMFA is considered one of the finest collections in the United States. Sydney and Frances Lewis were the founders of Best Products Company, amassing the majority of their collection for their own enjoyment between 1970 and 1985. The collection also includes major examples by Louis Comfort Tiffany as well as other Art Nouveau manufacturers; it was donated to the museum in 1985.
Renovations at VMFA in 2010 accommodate and show off the Lewis collection, which includes several pieces by Eileen Gray, an Irish-born interior designer at the turn of the Twentieth Century who later became an architect, noted for her lacquer finishes. A major piece on exhibit is her is “Canoe Sofa,” 1919–20, an unusual lacquered wood and silver leafed chaise lounge that was inspired by a dugout Polynesian canoe.
Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann’s “Sun Bed” was created by the French Deco cabinetmaker for the residence of Jane Renouardt of Saint-Cloud. Designed in 1923, and crafted in 1930, this bed of macassar ebony demonstrates the Deco technique of using exotic woods with fine inlays.
Richmond also has some significant Art Deco buildings, probably the finest of which is the Central National Bank Building. At 22 stories and rising to 282 feet, it was completed in 1929 and was one of the first skyscrapers to be erected in Richmond’s downtown. It features classic Deco ziggurat inspired setbacks, and although very modern in appearance, the building’s lower level recalls a Roman triumphal arch. The bank is on Grace Street and is surrounded by other fine examples of Art Deco architecture. More intimate but particularly noteworthy for its Deco reliefs is 208 Grace Street, designed by Carl Messerschmidt and completed in 1930.
For those interested in WPA post office murals, Richmond has two of the finest, painted by close friends Paul Cadmus and Jared French. Cadmus’s mural depicts “John Smith and Pocahontas,” while French’s represents “Raiders at the Swollen Ford.” Both were executed in 1939 and both have been moved to the Fourth Circuit of Appeals Library on Main Street and are now displayed opposite each other. They have been conserved and are available for public viewing.
The “Waylande Gregory” retrospective was organized by the University of Richmond Museums and curated by Thomas C. Folk, independent ceramics scholar. His monograph on Gregory, published by University of Richmond Museums, serves as a catalog for the exhibition, which will travel the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in November.
The University of Richmond’s Lora Robbins Gallery of Design from Nature is at 28 Westhampton Way. The VMFA is at 200 North Boulevard. For more information, www.museums.richmond.edu or 804-289-8276; 804-340-1400 or www.vmfa.state.va.us.