Form Without Function

Stephen Harrison Curator of Decorative Art and Design

For the first time in her long, illustrious career as one of America’s greatest living ceramic artists, the Cleveland Museum of Art is currently showcasing the work of Toshiko Takaezu. Installed in the gallery devoted to post-1945 decorative art and design, the exhibition situates her work within the context of other Cleveland artists as well as the American modernists. The legacy of this quiet, unassuming force in American studio pottery resounds through the grace and elegance of her now iconic pots. 

Toshiko in her studio, Quakertown, New Jersey. Photograph by Andrea Baldeck.

For well over 50 years, Toshiko Takaezu has led a minor revolution in ceramic art. Her bold soft shapes, with their exuberant yet subtle decorative glazes, represent poetic studies in organic form that have stood as totems for several generations of late 20th-century potters. Her early work from the 1950s and ’60s took shape in the context of postwar biomorphic design, resulting in double, triple, and sometimes multi-spouted “vessels” that challenge the notion of a functioning pot. 

Toshiko continued this evolution in the decades that followed, first with nearly closed pots, leaving only a vestigial reminder of a functional past in the guise of a tiny puckered opening. Later, she abandoned the spout altogether in her bulbous spheres, which recede to become vehicles for a mystical palette of glazes. Passionately devoted to technique and practice, Toshiko has brought to the potter’s wheel a disciplined approach to her quest, while somehow still capturing the spirit of nature and the alchemy of life. As she once stated, “When an artist produces a good piece, that work has mystery, an un-said quality; it is alive!”

When I began to think about the opening exhibition for this space, purposefully placed within the suite of contemporary art galleries, immediately Toshiko’s work came to mind as the perfect installation, since her ceramics are such a great strength of the Cleveland collection in postwar studio work. Over the years, from her first entries in the May Show during the late 1950s while she was heading the ceramics department at the Cleveland Institute of Art, through her 25 years teaching at Princeton, and then to her prolific years in retirement, the CMA’s collection of her work has grown into one of the most comprehensive in the country. 

This current installation of Toshiko’s work is meant to reflect what I believe is the essential revelation of her pottery: each vessel finds resonance in the one next to it. They live as friends in an endless conversation of shape and decoration, point and counterpoint. Thus, they should be seen displayed as openly as possible so that an intimate interaction between the visitor and the works themselves can emerge. A sea of conventional cases and vitrines caging her work just didn’t seem right. In the end, with our excellent crew, the design department, and Jeffrey Strean in particular, we worked out the concept of a long shelf to put the visitor as “up close and personal” as possible. Likewise, because identical labels all saying pot, pot, pot, etc., seemed overly distracting, we gathered all of the pertinent information elsewhere, resulting in an innovative interpretation appropriate to the spirit of the art itself.

Over the next few years, other distinguished artists and collections of work in post-1945 design will be the focus of this gallery, but for now, Toshiko Takaezu’s work holds pride of place as a tribute to her great contribution to American art.  

 


Cleveland Art, December 2009