In the Language of Silence: Toshiko Takaezu

Born in Hawaii in 1922, Toshiko Takaezu, who just died on March 9, helped transform ceramics into a major artistic medium. Whether small enough to cradle in the fingers or approaching life size, her closed forms approach monumentality by stripping sculptural exploration to its essentials—volume and mass. The best of her pieces give visible shape to hidden interiors, enclosed spaces of restless energy and potential whose pulsing subterranean breath expresses its rhythms in subtle irregularities and asymmetries on the surface. A touchstone for countless artists and students, she inspired several generations with her example of art as life and life as art. Her holistic approach established a kind of ecological support system conjoining studio work in clay, textiles, and bronze with teaching, meditation, and the rituals of daily life: as Takaezu herself put it in 1975: “In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking, and growing vegetables.” A true potter’s potter (and her use of that word is significant), it is tempting to see Takaezu as a kind of anti-Voulkos, a counterweight to aggressive machismo (both in the studio and out) and a corrective to the cultic worship of inflated artistic gods.

Outside of the clay world, Voulkos, not surprisingly, has received more critical attention, most likely because his mythology strikes a familiar chord in an art world accustomed to the strivings of heroic genius. But the comparison, which Janet Koplos takes up several times in this monograph, remains important for the light it casts on a few fundamental prejudices. Takaezu was not a “pioneer” in the way that art criticism and art history define the term. As Koplos points out, Takaezu’s period of innovation lasted far longer than Voulkos’s (and when she turned to bronze for her bells, she used the medium for more than casting already existing work in clay), but the nature of her innovation was too quiet, too private, to compete with the more strident rupture that Voulkos enacted and re-enacted over the course of his career in a tale of larger-than-life protean struggle custom-tailored to Modernism’s master narrative.

Takaezu operated differently, more concerned about making work and living life than in constructing a biography. She stayed away from galleries and the enticements of the art world sideshow. Notoriously reticent, she said little (even to her students); like Maiji Grotell, her teacher at Cranbrook, she instructed through example, and her work served as her voice. When she did speak, her words were brief, to the point, and often interpreted as cryptically “Japanese,” though they made perfect sense. And as Koplos laments, Takaezu rarely dated her pieces, which makes them difficult to analyze and survey. For all these reasons, Takaezu’s work is not as well known as it deserves. Those who have seen it, remember it (and she has had many exhibitions), but she has appeared in far too few publications—in fact, her name is absent from several important volumes on 20th-century ceramic art.

This book marks an important step in correcting that situation. While there are one or two other monographs available on the artist, this is the first to place her work in a more scholarly context (which in this case doesn’t mean “dry.”) In addition to Koplos’s insightful critical/historical essay, which traces Takaezu’s development from her early training to her mature work, more personal contributions from Paul Smith and Jack Lenor Larson (the artist’s colleagues and friends) offer glimpses into the life and philosophy behind the work and more than a few illuminating anecdotes highlighting Takaezu’s work ethic and generosity (one of my favorites involves her famous kiln-cooked chicken). A chronology by Jeffry Spahn gives a step-by-step snapshot of Takaezu’s career, filling in many missing details. Most importantly, though, In the Language of Silence offers stunning, detailed color photographs—an essential requirement for ceramic sculptures drenched in delicately layered washes of glaze, whose colors (from earth tones to vibrant cobalts) and patterns transcend surface decoration to fuse with the clay body in a unified expression of form. For anyone who understands art as a journey, who has ever been, in Takaezu’s words, “interested in what would happen,” this is a book worth reading.

– Twylene Moyer

Book Information:
In the Language of Silence: Toshiko Takaezu
by Peter Held, Jack Lenor Larsen, Paul Smith, and Janet Koplos.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Hardcover; 160 pages, 105 color photographs.
$40. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3482-4

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