Ceramic Artist Toshiko Takaezu Gets a Posthumous Reappraisal

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There was no excuse that Toshiko Takaezu, a formidable ceramist, deemed acceptable when students missed her class at Princeton University’s Program in Visual Arts.

Not even if a student was training for a place on the United States women’s field hockey team for the Olympic Games.

Martha Russo was a sophomore in 1982 who was absent for two weeks while traveling with her team. “I have given your spot away to someone who cares about ceramics,” Russo says Takaezu snapped at her. “Don’t ever come back.”

But after Russo’s Olympic dreams were dashed by a career-ending knee injury in 1984, she did return, begging readmittance from her teacher, who was recognized at the time as one of the pre-eminent figures in the field. And Russo said that she came to treasure Takaezu’s bluntness and tough criticism.

“Toshiko became my new coach,” Russo recalled in a recent interview. After graduating, she worked as an assistant in Takaezu’s class for three years, lived in her kiln shed as an apprentice and remained close with her until the artist’s death in 2011, at age 88. “She kind of saved my life,” said Russo, now a sculptor and instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Russo is among dozens of former students, apprentices, collectors and family members who have maintained an almost cultlike devotion to Takaezu and collaborated on national exhibitions from Boston to Bentonville, Ark., that are repositioning her squarely at the center of 20th-century art.

Last year, Takaezu’s glazed stoneware “Moon” from 1985, a celestial sphere washed in purples, golds and rusts, set a new auction record of $541,800 in a sold-out sale at Rago. It is part of the potter’s posthumous reappraisal and broader art world embrace of long-marginalized craft mediums as well as female artists.

“This surging interest and recognition is in large part because of the incredible force of Takaezu’s extended network so deeply committed to her and her legacy,” said Kate Wiener, a curator at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, N.Y., who helped organize the artist’s largest exhibition to date, “Toshiko Takaezu: Worlds Within,” opening March 20. Takaezu was close friends with Isamu Noguchi, the renowned Japanese American sculptor, who collected her work.

A smaller show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “Toshiko Takaezu: Shaping Abstraction,” through Sept. 29, is built around a significant gift of ceramics the potter made in 2007 to the institution. It is one of 16 museums that Takaezu strategically earmarked to receive self-selected constellations of her best works.

“She knew she was ahead of her time,” said Nonie Gadsden, the senior curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the MFA Boston. “She was just laying the seeds so it was there — ready when we were.”

Gadsden unearthed seven of Takaezu’s pots from storage in 2019 for the exhibition “Women Take the Floor,” placing the vessels, with their vibrant glazes and calligraphic brushwork, in lively conversation with Abstract Expressionist canvases by female contemporaries, including Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner.

The Noguchi retrospective — which will travel to the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Chazen Museum of Art, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and the Honolulu Museum of Art — includes about 200 works in ceramics as well as the artist’s paintings, weavings and bronze-cast sculptures. They span functional wares Takaezu produced as a student in Hawaii, where she was born to Japanese émigré parents — the middle of 11 children — to her highly experimental and organic “closed” forms, including monumental cylindrical sculptures, that she grouped in immersive installations.

“This idea of the total environment does register very well with contemporary art and what’s happening now,” said Glenn Adamson, an art historian and a curator of the forthcoming show at the Noguchi Museum and another at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, N.Y., opening March 30. (Reflecting her holistic approach, the artist once said, “I see no difference between making pots, cooking and growing vegetables. They are all related.”)

At her home and studio in an 1800 farmhouse in Quakertown, N.J., Takaezu would host fellow artists and Princeton students for large communal meals and Raku firings. Today, an animated crowd of closed forms cluster around its stone hearth, the space largely as she left it. It is preserved by Don Fletcher, who bought the home with the artist’s blessing and is president of the Quakertown Studio Project, which has kept facilities open to artists interested in working there, according to Takaezu’s wishes.

Fletcher was drawn into her orbit at Princeton in 1969 after she initially rebuffed him for coming to her class late.

“She was a fantastic teacher — I’ve never seen anybody like her for knowing what to say to inspire somebody,” Fletcher said. For three decades after graduating, he would hang out at the house on weekends, firing pots and cleaning gutters or planting a strawberry bed. “She was really good at putting people to work.”

Susan Sayre Batton, the executive director of the San Jose Museum of Art, recalls walking into Takaezu’s open kitchen, teaming with students, as a college graduate prepared for a professional interview. The artist merely said, “Why don’t you make the salad,” before reprimanding Batton for hurting the lettuce by twisting too hard. Takaezu then instructed her to put the wet lettuce in a pillowcase and dry it by dancing in the garden.

“It was liberating and odd and wonderful,” said Batton, who worked with Takaezu for the next eight years.

During Russo’s apprenticeship in 1990, she remembers driving her mentor into New York with roast chickens for Takaezu’s weekly visit with her closest friend, the fiber artist Lenore Tawney. Takaezu would give Russo lists of exhibitions to see as part of her art education and would quiz her on the ride home.

“Phony or not phony?” Takaezu would ask about artists such as Cy Twombly. “You must feel it in your stomach, not your head!”

Now sculptures by Russo and Fitzhugh Karol, another apprentice, will be displayed in dialogue with works by Takaezu and Tawney in the show at LongHouse Reserve.

When Takaezu had a stroke in 2010, Russo’s brother, Peter Russo, who collected her work in depth, helped get her back to Honolulu to be with her siblings, where she died the following year.

Peter Russo initiated the digitizing of Taekaezu’s papers left in Fletcher’s home, which fostered research for the current exhibitions. The two men also recruited Takaezu’s grandniece Darlene Fukuji to take the helm of the Toshiko Takaezu Foundation, and they have worked in concert to promote her legacy.

“Auntie Toshi never really spoke in complete sentences,” Fukuji said, comparing her utterances to poetry. “It was up for so much interpretation.”

The foundation is working with the David Zwirner gallery to present an online exhibition “Toshiko Takaezu: Beyond Form,” beginning March 15, with 20 works priced between $25,000 and $150,000. Fletcher, whose Takaezu collection in Quakertown numbers over 1,200 expressive clay forms, has collaborated with the James Cohan gallery on recent well-received presentations that have crossed-over “to a whole cohort of collectors in the painting and sculpture world,” Cohan said.

The separation between ceramics and what was traditionally considered fine art was something that Simone Leigh bumped against as an emerging artist using clay as her primary medium. But her success representing the U.S. in the 2022 Venice Biennale has helped break down old hierarchies in the art world.

“I really wonder what would happen if Takaezu was having her career now,” Leigh said, adding, “I’m sure she also had to live through all kinds of things being a Japanese American.”

Fletcher described the discrimination Takaezu encountered when she attempted to buy the Quakertown farmhouse in 1966 from a neighbor who refused to sell to a Japanese woman. So she had a friend buy it and in turn purchased it from him.

“Toshiko just knew how to not let other people’s bigotries and limitations wreck her life,” Fletcher said.

The Noguchi retrospective will spotlight an aspect of Takaezu’s closed vessels not obviously apparent: they all emit sound. After she accidentally dropped a piece of clay inside one before sealing the rim and firing, it produced a rattle. Takaezu continued the practice, wrapping clay pebbles in paper with secret messages and sometimes inscribing hidden words inside of the pots.

“There’s this whole other layer of these interior landscapes that you can only understand by listening to them, and imagining what they are,” said Leilehua Lanzilotti, the composer and sound artist who helped curate the Noguchi retrospective and created a concert program and video works highlighting their sound.

For Takaezu, that dark space inside her monumental forms — sometimes taller than she — was as compelling as their expressively painted, three-dimensional surfaces. When “I’m up there on a scaffold and the wheel is moving, there’s an almost psychic feeling that I’m going to be pulled down into the pot,” Takaezu said in a 1993 interview with Studio Potter magazine. “There’s a danger that I might go in. It’s a fantastic sensation.”

She added, “It’s as if the whole universe is right inside the pot.”

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