Exhibition review: Milton Moon: Crafting modernism, AGSA

A retrospective display of the work of one of Australia's most eminent ceramicists.

Milton Moon was a pioneering Australian potter who in later life became a mainstay of South Australia’s artistic community, based in his Summertown studio in the Adelaide Hills. The Art Gallery of South Australia’s retrospective exhibition, Milton Moon: Crafting modernism, celebrates his career by contextualising his work within his connection to place (including his love of the Australian landscape and his time working in Japan), his community of friends and fellow artists, and his contribution to both modernism and the craft revival movement of 20th century Australia. 

The pieces on display at AGSA represent several stylistic phases of Moon’s work. They chart his development as an artist, beginning with a series of small earthenware pots from his first exhibition in 1959, which show similarities to the work of his friends David and Hermia Boyd. Moving into the 1960s, his stoneware pieces are rugged and dynamic, looking at once alive with the earthy textures of the Australian bushland, and as ancient as fossils (early reviewers described them as the sorts of objects one might uncover on an archaeological dig). By contrast, elegant plates and platters with delicate floral motifs from the mid- to late-1970s illustrate the influence of his 1974 Myer Foundation Geijutsu Fellowship in Japan. 

What connects these and other works from across his career is something curator Rebecca Evans calls Moon’s ‘painterly quality’, evident in his experimentation with glazes, the brush strokes that decorate his pots, and the way his plates seem to want to be hung on walls rather than arranged on tables. In acknowledgement of this side of Moon’s artistic approach, Evans was keen to include some of his lesser-known canvas paintings in this exhibition, as well as one of his sketchbooks. Moon’s ‘painterly’ style may in part be due to his long association with painters such as Ian Fairweather (a 1966 pot decorated with calligraphic strokes is named, in tribute, Fairweather pot). 

In this exhibition, we get a sense not just of the artist’s output, but also of Moon as a whole man, with a life and practice rooted firmly in community. A photo display shows Moon at home, in his workshop, and with family and pets. In one touching snapshot, he is dancing with wife Bette (whose business acumen, an accompanying biography notes, was instrumental in advancing her husband’s career). Moon also enjoyed a long relationship with AGSA itself, working with successive curators to develop the Gallery’s collection of Japanese ceramics. 

Read: Book review: Blackwater, Jacqueline Ross

Many attendees at Rebecca Evans’ introductory talk had their own memories of Moon and his work: visiting the Summertown studio or being taught by him during one of his stints as an art lecturer and tutor. Milton Moon: Crafting modernism is a fitting tribute to a ground-breaking artist and a beloved mentor, colleague and friend. 

Milton Moon: Crafting modernism is on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia until 6 August 2023.

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.