Waylande Gregory: A Cascade of Art Deco
By Thomas C. Folk
Before Waylande Destantis Gregory (American, 1905–1971), ceramic sculpture meant small porcelain figures displayed in vitrines. Gregory, one of the leading American ceramists of the 1930s, designed and created the first monumental ceramic sculptures of modern times and helped to elevate ceramics from a decorative to a fine art. Today, Gregory’s artwork is well represented in museum and private collections, but he is best remembered for his futuristic Fountain of the Atom for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
After working as an assistant to Chicago-based sculptor Lorado Taft in the mid-1920s, Gregory became lead designer at the Cowan Pottery Studio in Rocky River, Ohio, where he designed a series of limited-edition Art Deco ceramic sculptures. When Cowan Pottery ceased operation in 1931, a casualty of the Great Depression, Gregory found a new position as resident artist in ceramics at the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Although he remained at Cranbrook for only eighteen months, during this time he created some of his finest work, including the award winning Girl with Olive.
In the early 1930s, Gregory relocated to the New York City area. He leased an apartment at 227 East 57th Street in the Sutton Place neighborhood and also purchased White Goose Cottage, a rambling farmhouse in Metuchen, New Jersey, a rural area near the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company where he fired his increasingly monumental sculptures.
Gregory used the New York apartment as a private showroom, where he could meet gallery owners, other art professionals, and collectors. The apartment’s central focus was The Swimmer, his first major fountain and first truly monumental ceramic sculpture. The February 1937 issue of New York Visitor offered this description of the female nude swimming with fish:
Postcard from the 1939 World's Fair showing Waylande Gregory's Fountain of the Atom. Photo: Randi Bye
Waylande Gregory with The Swimmer, ca. 1933, Waylande Gregory Archive
The fish forms are covered with layers of glass in brilliant colors. The fountain is partially submerged in water through which the striking hues of the lower portion are discernible. Instead of being a fountain spurting water, air emanates from the fish mouths.
The central female swimmer was exhibited at the second Whitney Biennial in 1936. In his review of the Biennial, New York Sun critic Henry McBride wrote: “The Swimmer is particularly strange . . . with glazes here and there, [it] might not be inappropriate in the patio of some Miami hotel.” Although McBride was slow to see the new role of ceramics as sculpture, he was not wrong in envisioning The Swimmer outdoors on a patio rather than indoors on a shelf, as ceramics had traditionally been displayed.
In 1938, Gregory sold his Metuchen residence and moved to an ultra-modern concrete and glass home of his own design in Bound Brook, New Jersey. Here he built enormous custom kilns large enough to fire the unprecedented large-scale figures he would create for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
The fair with its theme of “Building the World of Tomorrow” was situated historically between the Great Depression and World War II and proved to be a microcosm of the rapid changes occurring in the larger world. Two monumental white structures designed by Wallace Harrison and J. André Fouilhoux became symbolic of the fair—the Trylon, more than seven hundred feet high, and the Perisphere, almost two hundred feet in diameter. They appear on many souvenirs produced by Lenox and other ceramic companies, but a commemorative plate created by Gregory was perhaps the most unusual. It features a relief of a very Art Deco Uncle Sam riding a horse encircled by the inscription “Yankee Doodle Went To Town, New York, 1939.” Uncle Sam balances tiny models of the Trylon and Perisphere on his right hand.
Gregory’s work was also well represented on the fairgrounds. He designed fourteen terra-cotta figures for the General Motors Building and sculptural reliefs for the United States Building. However, his most prominent and important work for the fair, and the most important design of his life, was the Fountain of the Atom, which stood outdoors on Bowling Green Plaza in front of the Contemporary Arts Building, very close to the subway entrance to the Fair.
Waylande Gregory, Yankee Doodle Went To Town, New York 1939 commemorative plate, glazed earthenware, private collection
The Fountain of the Atom, with its twelve large-scale nude allegorical ceramic figures, was a dramatic visual expression of the growing international interest in atomic energy. A blue-green pool, sixty-five feet in diameter, formed the base. Rising from the pool were two concentric, circular tiers, or “terraces” as Gregory called them. Poised on the first terrace, which represented the valence shell of the atom, were eight Electrons, four male and four female terra-cotta figures, each approximately forty-eight inches tall. Above them, on a narrower terrace representing the nucleus of the atom, were four much larger and heavier terra-cotta figures of the Elements, each averaging about seventy-eight inches high and weighing about a ton. Water and Air were portrayed as male, Fire and Earth were female.
A shaft of sixteen glass tubes rose from the center of the fountain above the representations of the four elements. Water tumbling down the shaft flowed from tier to tier and into the pool. A bright flame at the top of the shaft burned constantly. The glass block tiers were lit from within and combined with the flowing waters to create a glowing gurgling effect.
Waylande Gregory, male diver representing the element Water from the Fountain of the Atom, ca. 1938, Cranbrook Collection.
Wayland Gregory, Male Electron with Fins, from the Fountain of the Atom, ca. 1938, private collection.
Photo: Randi Bye
Waylande Gregory, Female Electron with Lightning Bolt, from the Fountain of the Atom, ca. 1938, collection of Martin Stogniew. Photo: Randi Bye
The most popular of the four elements was Water, a nude male diver surrounded by fish. Gregory’s African-American assistant, known today only as Ralph, is believed to have been the model. The pose is neither traditional nor classical, and the diver appears weightless.
It was the Electrons, however, that received the most attention. These brightly colored, modern day “putti,” exuded sexual vitality. Gregory described them as “elemental little savages of boundless energy.” A female Electron playing with bolts of electrical energy seems especially fierce.
One fairgoer who witnessed Gregory’s interpretation of the atom knew all about atomic energy—Albert Einstein. According to Bianca Brown, a personal friend of Gregory, Einstein told him, “Young man, I wanted to meet the artist who gave honor to the atom.” Gregory would later create a portrait bust of Einstein.
By the end of World War II, many would begin to view technology and the machine age in a negative light. But in 1939, Gregory’s playful Fountain of the Atom, with its unforgettable whimsical figures, embodied promise for the future and, like the fair itself, served as a beacon of hope and optimism.
About the Author:
Thomas C. Folk is an art historian and certified appraiser. He is noted for his publications on the Pennsylvania Impressionists, as well as on American ceramics. He teaches in the Appraisal Studies program at New York University and is on the education committee of the Appraisers Association of America.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.