Toshiko Takaezu: Abstraction

Toshiko Takaezu in 1997

Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011) was a technically masterful and innovative artist best known for her ceramic sculptures, which she treated as abstract paintings in the round. Her gestural style, distinctive palettes, and complex layering of glazes align with the practices of Abstract Expressionists who were her contemporaries. Yet Takaezu added an element of chance as her pieces revealed their final colours only after firing. She often showed her ceramics in groups, sometimes with her equally innovative paintings and textiles, in carefully constructed arrangements that responded to their environments. This exhibition takes inspiration from these displays, tracing Takaezu’s development from potter to multimedia installation artist.

It is clear to see that Toshiko Takaezu forged her own path. As an Asian American woman born in Hawai’i in 1922 to immigrant parents from Okinawa, she defied societal expectations to boldly pursue a career in art. A technically masterful and innovative potter, painter, weaver, and sculptor, she challenged narrow definitions of American abstraction, pushing it into three dimensions. Thrown in clay, splashed with glaze, knotted in yarn, or poured on canvas, Takaezu’s abstraction was rigorous and physically demanding. She also crossed social and artistic boundaries, developing a distinctive and deeply integrated approach to art and life. As a 20th-century artist ahead of her time, she embraced change, pioneered methods of display in deliberately constructed arrangements, and even experimented with incorporating sound into her work.

Toshiko Takaezu always carefully considered the display of her work. Early in her career, she arranged her pottery in seemingly informal, yet rhythmic formations on low platforms. She used her weavings as grounds or backdrops for the ceramics, and included houseplants and furniture to suggest the ambiance of a domestic interior. In the 1970s, Takaezu began to experiment more deliberately with her installation strategies, exploring the relationship of her works to one another, their environment, and the viewer. These immersive displays often alluded to nature or landscapes. For example, she embedded groups of her near-spherical ‘moons’ and smaller closed forms in gravel, small rocks, or sand to evoke a dry riverbed.

Similarly, she combined her tall, cylindrical vessels modelled after trees into tight formations, suggesting a forest. As her works became larger, Takaezu’s exhibitions became even more interactive. Her Star series (1999-2000), composed of 14 monumental closed forms, invites viewers to walk through and around the works, finding their own unique pathway.

Toshiko Takaezu and Alexander Calder both pushed the boundaries of American abstraction. While Takaezu worked in three dimensions using clay and fibre, Calder explored motion in his famous hanging mobiles, such as Mobil blanc that also features in this exhibition. The two artists admired each other’s work, even trading pieces. Takaezu hung a small, all-black mobile by Calder in her ceramics studio, where its subtle oscillating movement served as a source of contemplation and inspiration.

One section in the exhibition looks at how the artist explored the world of sound and aural experiences – Sound: A Fourth Dimension explores how Toshiko Takaezu happened upon one of her most radical artistic innovations by chance. After she accidentally dropped a piece of a pot’s rim into a vessel, the bit of clay happened to stay separate during the firing process, producing a rattle inside the finished pot. Intrigued by the effect, Takaezu began purposefully dropping balls of clay into her closed forms, experimenting with the amount and size to produce different sounds. When speaking about her closed forms, the artist once commented that ‘the most important part about this piece is the dark space that you cannot see’. Takaezu further explored sound in her bronze bells, which were modelled after those found in Japanese temples. Her bells did not have the traditional clapper inside to make sound, but were played by striking the exterior with a mallet or stick.

The Museum of Fine Arts holds a significant collection of Takaezu’s pottery – more than 20 examples are featured in the exhibition alongside loans from private collections. Highlights also include a large-scale weaving – a recent museum acquisition – and a grouping of works exploring the artist’s cross-cultural interactions with contemporary Japanese ceramicists during her pivotal eight-month trip to Japan in 1955-56. In September 1955, Toshiko Takaezu set sail for Japan hoping to explore her own heritage and learn the working methods of Japanese ceramic makers. She discovered that, in the wake of World War II, clay was not just a medium of expression, but a way to discover and shape national, regional, and individual identity. She also observed Kaneshige Toyo creating vessels based on traditional Bizen ware techniques and aesthetics.

There was also a visit to the revitalised regional kilns inspired by Hamada Shoji, a leader of the mingei (folk art) movement. In Okinawa, still under US occupation, she was among the first visitors to attend the making and firing of postwar Ryukyu ceramics. Takaezu did not seek to mimic the styles of any of the Japanese artists that she visited. Instead, she took inspiration from their various interactions with clay and their insights into its manifold characteristics, she once said, ‘I was raised in a Western atmosphere, but my heritage roots were in the East. I went to Japan to try to understand my cultural roots better’.

Unlike many of her peers, Toshiko Takaezu maintained a multi-disciplinary practice for most of her career. Although best known for her ceramics, she was equally innovative in weaving, painting and, later, bronze casting. Takaezu felt that her investigations in each discipline informed and improved all her work; she often repurposed techniques across different fields. Whether sculpting in clay or bronze, painting, or weaving, Takaezu deeply considered the intersections of colour, texture, form, and movement. Her knowledge of all these media allowed her to make some of her best work, in which she expanded the boundaries of abstraction into three dimensions.

Until 29 September, 2024, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Noguchi Museum has organised a major touring retrospective, Toshiko Takaezu: Worlds Within, which will open in New York in March 2024 and will travel within the US until 2026