Robert Ellison, ceramic collector with a tendency to give, dies at 89


It all started, said Robert A. Ellison Jr., with a white ceramic plate with a border of blue rabbits. He saw it some sixty years ago in a Greenwich Village store on one of its Manhattan sidewalks, where he was trying to establish himself as an abstract painter at the time.

“My hand just seemed to reach out to her – it wasn’t a conscious process,” he recalls decades later. “So I thought, maybe I’ll be a collector of Dedham – that’s what was at the bottom of the plate – even though I didn’t know anything about Dedham.”

He indeed became a collector of Dedham tableware, as well as countless other ceramics, gradually forming until he became an authority on ceramic art. Mr. Ellison has amassed an enviable collection and in 2009 he pledged a donation of over 300 American ceramic works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He followed in 2013 with another gift at the museum, this time European pieces, and last year he made a new donation of modern and contemporary ceramic works.

The museum said it had donated more than 600 works in total, gestures that turned the Met’s modest ceramic collection into a formidable one.

“It’s a transformative gift – that’s the only word for it,” Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang curator of American Decorative Arts at the museum, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a truly lasting and important legacy that he has achieved.”

Mr. Ellison died July 9 in Manhattan. He was 89 years old. His wife, artist Rosaire Appel, said the cause was a brain hemorrhage.

In February, the Met opened “Shapes from Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection”, an exhibition of more than 75 works from his last donation.

“The show expands the historical narrative of art while distinctly representing a person’s passionate vision,” Roberta Smith wrote in a review of The New York Times.

With the donation focused on modern and contemporary works, she added, “this latest act of generosity leads the museum into a living future.”

Robert Anderson Ellison Jr. was born May 14, 1932 in Dallas and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. His parents, Robert and Margaret (McCracken) Ellison, owned the Ellison Furniture and Carpet Co., founded in 1888 by his grandfather.

Mr. Ellison’s father died before he was 2 years old.

“Mother decided to continue the business with hired managers and wait until I grew up so I could continue my father’s mission,” he said in an interview for “American Art Pottery,” a book by Ms. Frelinghuysen, Martin Eidelberg and Adrienne Spinozzi released by the Met in 2018, when Mr. Ellison’s promised gift in 2009 was officially handed over to the museum.

After serving in the Navy during the Korean War, Mr. Ellison enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study Business Administration, then transferred to the University of Miami, where he did did not last long in business school, dropping out of college. sail in the Bahamas and elsewhere. He eventually returned to the University of Texas, but his perspective had changed: When he graduated in 1958, it was with a philosophy degree.

He had also married Nancy Harrell, in 1957, and after graduating, they spent a year in New York City, where she was studying art. He gave him credit for introducing him to the art world and encouraging him to try painting. They returned to Fort Worth, and Mr. Ellison indeed ran the family furniture business for a few years and also opened a gallery. But in 1962 the family sold the business and Mr. Ellison and his wife returned to New York City, taking a loft on the Lower East Side.

He pursued painting, fascinated by abstraction, and also developed photographic skills. But the collection of ceramics soon came to capture much of his attention. He compared finding parts in stores and flea markets to his educational activities in Texas.

“Very early on, I learned the ways of hunting and fishing from various family members,” he said in the 2018 interview. “I liked the anticipation and the surprise that came with it. were part of those activities, which I think could be part of my desire to collect. “

Coins began to pile up, with Mr. Ellison relying on his tastes and familiarizing himself with the medium as he went. A 1972 book edited by Robert Judson Clark, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in America: 1876-1916”, and “Art Pottery of the United States” by Paul Evans two years later gave him some context for his past. time.

“The cat was out of the bag: I had collected something called ‘art pottery,’ he writes in an essay in ‘Shapes From Out of Nowhere,’ the catalog for the current exhibit. “I continued, knowing now that I was among the first wave of collectors to rediscover this pottery from my grandmother’s time.

His collection has become much more adventurous than that initial Dedham plate, encompassing objects of all kinds, from the conventional to the abstract. He was particularly won over by the work of George Ohr, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made eccentric vessels reminiscent of the works of artists like Picasso. In 2006, Mr. Ellison published a monograph on him, “George Ohr, Art Potter: The Apostle of Individuality”, illustrated with his own photographs.

Her first marriage ended in divorce. He had moved to Greenwich Village in 1990, and he and Mrs Appel were married in 1994. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Hillary Ellison, and two grandchildren.

Max Hollein, the French director of Marina Kellen at the Met, said Mr. Ellison’s donations would allow the museum “to properly celebrate many great artists working in this medium.”

“Bob Ellison was a visionary collector and a unique champion of the ceramic arts,” he said via email. “He was a real pioneer for this medium. “


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