Toshiko Takaezu / #8 Closed Form, 1970-1979, Salt-glazed stoneware, 9 x 8 1/2 inches (22.9 x 21.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 2007-68-8, © Toshiko Takaezu
When potters are learning essential skills on the wheel, they will often use a gauge – perhaps no more than a chopstick held in place with a lump of clay – to ensure that a series of pieces reach the same height and diameter. And to develop an awareness of the vessel as a 3-dimensional object, and to ensure uniformity of shape, they might use a mirror held in place to reflect the side which is out of view as the piece is being formed. In short, everything the potter does reminds her of the form and volume of the object she is making.
For several decades the American artist Toshiko Takaezu (b. Hawaii 1922, d. Hawaii 2011) taught the skills involved in forming pottery on the wheel, teaching first at the Ceramics Department at the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio, and then at Princeton, where she helped to develop the visual art program. She herself had studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan under the influential Finnish ceramist Maija Grotell – a training which would give her a solid yet experimental approach to the unique challenges and problems of ceramics.
Toshiko Takaezu throwing a ceramic pot / Toshiko Takaezu papers, 1937-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Wheel formed pottery’s unique challenges are tied to the demands of the medium and the skills involved in handling and forming it. This is a factor which often leads to more subtle shifts and developments over time than might be registered in another artform, such as painting. Another factor which influences the way the potter thinks about her medium is the serial mode of producing vessels on the wheel. In Japanese pottery this repetition, and the natural impulse to try to produce identical objects, was harnessed and made central to the creation of such objects as Chawan – tea bowls thrown off the hump – a method of repeat throwing in which the potter forms a series of vessels one after another from a single large hump of clay on the wheel. In Japanese pottery the subtle inconsistencies and imperfections which necessarily result from any attempt at identical repeat throwing are embraced rather than rejected.
Toshiko Takaezu was maturing as a potter and artist in the 1950s – a period when artists such as Peter Voulkos were exploding the very form of the vessel itself. Voulkos, like Takaezu, was an immensely skilled potter. He took his experiments to a large scale and chopped up and reassembled his colossal pots so that they relinquished all functionality and now looked more like modernist sculptures. To me they recall the wobbly urns and jugs that Braque painted in his patient 1940s reworkings of Cubist still life. Voukos’ rupture with the integrity of the vessel looked dramatic on the scale at which he carried it out and was in tune with concurrent developments in painting. On deeper reflection however, Voulkos’ innovations might equally appear as radical reworkings of the kind of openwork ceramics being produced in Korea in the 5th century AD which often featured ventilated bases and angular protrusions. So, the idea of a complete rupture with tradition in ceramics is one which disregards the knowledge and skill which the serious artist will have acquired in order to be able to make even the slightest shift in what he produces and how it looks.
Toshiko Takaezu / Enclosed Form, 1980; ceramic wheelthrown white clay vessel form with small hole at apex. Gift of MaryAnne Normandin. Credits: Photo by Hannah Finegold. Rights: All Rights Reserved. Image: https://mimi.pnca.edu/
Takaezu’s rupture with the idea of functionality in ceramics was, on the face of it, subtler than that of Peter Voulkos. At the end of years of wheel forming open ended vessels, manipulating subtle shifts in elegant necks, and experimenting with glazes, Takaezu’s revolutionary break came in the moment she decided to close the form completely, sealing it at the top with a steady and patient hand. It is the kind of shift which one can imagine happening in a single unplanned moment following thousands of near repetitions of thrown pots on the wheel, like waves lapping the shore until one finally covers the last visible rock. It was a radical shift very much in keeping with the artist’s personality. In the same way that there is no distinction made in Japanese culture between the status of a painter and a potter, Takaezu saw no distinction in her life between the activities of pottery, cooking and gardening. To her the attention and patience required by each were essential to ensuring any degree of mastery.
From this tidy gesture of sealing the top of her vessels, the artist proceeded to elaborate on the forms which could be produced now that the functionality of the object had been reduced to a memory. As she became further drawn into the formal properties of the sealed form, she produced objects of larger scale and more ambitious technical challenge. Like Braque’s pots which seem to emerge from the camouflage of the densely patterned canvas, and with a steady, humming energy like that of Giorgio Morandi’s painted arrangements, Toshiko Takaezu’s vessels from this point on were objects pure and simple, with all the mystery and beauty that this implies.