Finding Beauty in Clumsiness

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The Hunterdon Museum of Art abuts a rushing waterfall on the Raritan River in Clinton, N.J. Originally a 19th-century gristmill and, later, a blacksmith shop and sausage factory, it is built of limestone and thick, exposed, rough-hewn timber. The museum is the perfect place to see the ceramic sculpture of Toshiko Takaezu.

When I visited the Hunterdon last week, the staff had just cleared floodwater out of the museum. Minor water damage – brownish-yellow lines resembling the surface of high waves on a miniature, rough sea – had buckled and stained the bases of the galleries’ pristine, white pedestals. I overheard the museum staff discussing how they were going to repair the damage, but as I walked through the show, I could not help but think that the waterlines were a fortunate accident.

The water damage helped to open up the roughened, earthen surfaces of Ms.Takaezu’s signature vessels. Her sculptures’ various and rich surfaces, which seem to be influenced equally by Abstract Expressionism and Japanese restraint, evoke the elements and actions of nature.

Ms. Takaezu works in either stoneware or porcelain, and most of her vessels are untitled and undated. She has been known to say that there is no difference between making pots and cooking and growing vegetables. She has also said: “I think sometimes my potatoes are more important than my pots.” Once, while describing her forms, she remarked, “Well, there’s round and there’s tall … What else is there?”

Her sculptures range in shape and size from handheld forms that look like overgrown nuts, gourds, and tuber vegetables, to round and squat Moon-forms that look like gigantic eggs, seedpods, and pumpkins. They can also be taller and more slender, resembling tree-like forms or subtle hourglass shapes that, from tabletop scale to roughly 6 feet high, look like ancient fertility figures, beehives, phalluses, or those cocoon pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Roughly 60 of her abstract vessels, some of which are begun on the wheel, and some of which are built out of coils and/or slabs, are at the Hunterdon Museum. Another 40 can be viewed at the Charles Cowles Gallery in Chelsea.

Ms. Takaezu installed both exhibitions herself, and seeing the conversations she elicits between textures, colors, shapes, and shifts in scale can be enthralling. While in Hunterdon, and looking back and forth between the water damage and Ms. Takaezu’s sculptures – whose earth-toned and cobalt-blue surfaces resemble sky, ocean waves, trees, sea shells, or volcanic ash – I was reminded of Hawaii, where the artist, who is of Japanese descent, was born in 1922.

Ms. Takaezu is a master potter but, as far as I know, she no longer makes pots. Her forms are often stout, blunt, and club-like. They invariably rise and finish with a nipplelike point, ending like giant breasts. Top-heavy, they can appear to wobble. They also seem to shift just under their surfaces and incline slightly,first in one direction then in another, as if they were communicating with each other or getting comfortable in their tightly wrapped skins.

In some forms, Ms.Takaezu creates the experience of spinning tops; elsewhere, she gets her curved, rectangular volumes to hover somewhere between circular and square. She evokes tree stumps, planets, bells, bamboo, and a forest after a fire. And her forms, clustered in groups within the galleries, can make you feel as if you had stumbled onto prehistoric rituals.

She is also a master with glazes, whose unpredictable alchemy she controls with a talent that is nothing short of wizardry. Ms. Takaezu can turn solid into air, as if her forms had suddenly dissolved into fog. She can evoke the movements of storm clouds, deep water, and tall, feathery grasses; she can achieve a dark, glassy depth or a golden, fiery flicker in her surfaces.

In one porcelain vessel, a creamy, pinkish white and leafy yellow-green, she re-creates that experience of leaves blowing in the breeze and of light filtered through a grove of trees. In another, circular starbursts open up as if the pot were transparent and lit from within. In yet another, spermatozoa-like forms seem to swim or to be imbedded in the surface. In still others, rings of color appear to ripple upward along their wavy contours as if pebbles had been thrown into liquid or as if the pots were doing some exotic, shimmering dance.

The artist really knows how to group forms together, especially at the Hunterdon, where the installation is more surprising than that in Chelsea. A gathering of moon forms on a low pedestal at the Hunterdon creates overlapping circular shadows that help to activate and weight the sculptures. Ms. Takaezu can also get color in one vessel to seem as if it were bleeding through layers and jumping into an adjacent form. Splashes of violet, red, blue, or green seem to have leapt from or through form to form.

Although Ms.Takaezu’s sculptures, seen in groups, can enliven each other as if they were members of the same extended family, they also tend to cancel out each other’s uniqueness. As magical and beautiful as her vessels are, Ms. Takaezu’s forms lack a necessary lightness and grace.They do not transcend nature.

Her vessels are beautifully clumsy, almost as if they had been prematurely stunted: As objects, like us, they are grounded, which is part of their usefulness and charisma. But there is also something earthbound, or bottom-heavy, about her work that keeps it from achieving liftoff. As abstract sculpture, they are missing an inner desire to be free from us. Their surfaces transform clay into air or thrust stable forms into motion – admirable achievements, none of which, certainly, is easy to do – but ultimately they lack that necessary paradox and payoff: that of heaviness transformed into lightness. They lack the ability to transcend this world – that ability, though grounded, to rise above.

Until July 28 at Charles Cowles (537 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-741-6222); until August 20 at Hunterdon Museum of Art (7 Lower Center Street, Clinton, N.J., 908-735-8415) Prices at Charles Cowles: $10,000-$45,000.

The New York Sun

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