Robert Ellison, ceramics collector with a giving streak, dies at 89

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Robert Ellison, ceramics collector with a giving streak, dies at 89
Robert Ellison, an art collector, with a collection of pottery, in New York, Jan. 14, 2009. Ellison, who amassed an enviable ceramics collection, and in 2009 pledged a gift of more than 300 American ceramic works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died on July 9, 2021 in New York. He was 89. Todd Heisler/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It started, Robert A. Ellison Jr. said, with a white ceramic plate with a border of blue rabbits. He saw it some 60 years ago in a shop in Greenwich Village on one of his walkabouts of Manhattan, where at the time he was trying to establish himself as an abstract painter.

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

He did indeed become a collector of Dedham tableware, as well as countless other ceramics, educating himself along the way until he was an authority on ceramic art. Ellison amassed an enviable collection, and in 2009 he pledged a gift of more than 300 American ceramic works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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

The museum said he had donated more than 600 works in all, gestures that turned the Met’s modest collection of ceramics into a formidable one.

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

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

In February the Met opened “Shapes From Out of Nowhere: Ceramics From the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection,” an exhibition of more than 75 works drawn from his latest gift.

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

With the gift’s focus on modern and contemporary works, she added, “this latest act of generosity leads the museum into the living future.”

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

Ellison’s father died before he turned 2.

“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 Frelinghuysen, Martin Eidelberg and Adrienne Spinozzi published by the Met in 2018, when Ellison’s 2009 promised gift was formally turned over to the museum.

After serving in the Navy during the Korean War, Ellison enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study business administration, then transferred to the University of Miami, where he didn’t last long in the business school, bailing out of college to sail 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 degree in philosophy.

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

He pursued painting, captivated by abstraction, and also developed photography skills. But collecting ceramics soon came to command much of his attention. He likened the search for pieces in shops and flea markets to activities from his Texas upbringing.

“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 surprise that were part of those activities, which I believe could be one element in my collecting urge.”

The pieces began to accumulate, with Ellison relying on his tastes and learning about the medium as he went. A 1972 book edited by Robert Judson Clark, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in America: 1876-1916,” and Paul Evans’ “Art Pottery of the United States” two years later gave him some context for his hobby.

“The cat was out of the bag: I had been collecting something called ‘art pottery,’” he wrote in an essay in “Shapes From Out of Nowhere,” the catalog for the current exhibition. “I continued, now with the knowledge that I was among the first wave of collectors to rediscover this pottery from my grandmother’s era.”

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

His first marriage ended in divorce. He had moved to Greenwich Village in 1990, and he and Appel 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 Marina Kellen French director of the Met, said that Ellison’s donations would enable 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 by email. “He was a true trailblazer for that medium.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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