Years ago, when I was on the teaching staff of a museum, I led a group of schoolchildren to view an installation of sculptures made by the American ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu (1922–2011). The assemblage included several multicolored orbs, each about two feet high, positioned a few inches apart from each other on the floor. One child exclaimed that the sculptures were like “giant bath bombs,” the kind that fizz and dissolve when you drop them in water. Her classmates agreed with hearty nodding, one of them raising his arms and adding, “Bath bombs from outer space!”

Had she been able to see it, Takaezu would likely have been delighted, since the children’s insight came directly from their own sensations of daily life and the matter that fills it. As any observant child will tell you, a bath bomb’s disintegration in water is not merely a visual experience, but a sonic and tactile one as well. The ball hisses as it melts, and its effervescing bubbles tickle the skin as they rise and spread throughout the tub. 

Something analogous happens to viewers of Takaezu’s immersive, multisensory work, much of which is now on view at the Noguchi Museum in Queens through July. Toshiko Takaezu: Worlds Within is the first major museum retrospective devoted to Takaezu’s sixty-year career in two decades, and it succeeds brilliantly. Takaezu is best known for what she called her “closed forms,” round or cylindrical ceramic vessels that are closed off at the top with just a pinhole, to allow air to escape during the firing process. Ranging in scale from palm sized to six feet high, the pots are awash in layers of colored glazes that Takaezu developed herself. Curators Glenn Adamson, Kate Wiener, and Leilehua Lanzilotti convincingly showcase the potential of Takaezu’s ceramic vessels to conjure lush environments filled with sound, movement, and atmosphere. 

Exhibition image from 'Worlds Within' (Nicholas Knight/Noguchi Museum)

Rather than representing landscapes figuratively, Takaezu’s pots employ a number of techniques to evoke the varied sensations of place and space. First, Takaezu’s pouring, splashing, and layering of colored glazes onto the vessels’ surfaces produce effects of spatial depth. Abstract impressions of mountain ranges, drifting mist, and ocean surf conjure the vague foregrounds and backgrounds of landscapes. In many of her vessels, Takaezu also inserted tiny clay balls that hardened into ceramic beads in the kiln. Whenever the pots are gently tilted or rotated by hand, the beads tinkle, rattle, and roll, enabling handlers to “hear” and imagine the varied topography of the vessels’ “interior landscapes.”

Takaezu was also a weaver and a painter, a fact the show underscores by situating textiles and canvases behind, beneath, or alongside her ceramics. Critics and art historians often point to the distinction (and occasional rivalry) between “craft” and “fine art,” that is, between “useful” objects and purely aesthetic, nonfunctional ones. Takaezu had little use for such strict categories, instead sculpting ceramic vessels of singular beauty and interest, which could then be creatively assembled to conjure all-encompassing, sensory-rich settings. 

Takaezu herself grew up in a region of lush landscapes. She was born in 1922 in Pepe‘ekeo, Hawai‘i to Japanese parents who had immigrated from Okinawa at the turn of the twentieth century. The sixth of eleven children, Takaezu described herself as the “navel child”—the middle sibling. Her position at the center of the birth order is an apt metaphor for the potter’s wheel, whose centrifugal force and circular rotations transform shapeless lumps of clay into cylindrical vessels.

Though the rest of Takaezu’s career unfolded on the mainland, Hawai‘i resided as a kind of “home” for Takaezu’s artistic imagination.

Takaezu’s affinity for working with clay emerged out of necessity and came as a surprise to her. Her parents were agricultural laborers, first in Pepe‘ekeo and then in Maui. All of Takaezu’s older siblings pitched in to support the large family; Takaezu herself dropped out of high school her sophomore year to help supplement the household income. In Honolulu, she was hired as a live-in maid for a couple who were owners of the Hawaiian Potters’ Guild, the first ceramic manufactory to be established in Hawai‘i. In 1940, at the age of eighteen, Takaezu began working there, making ashtrays, casserole pans, and other wares by pressing molds into clay. Although the process was repetitive and left no room for artistic exploration, it was pivotal for Takaezu, who discovered her creative connection to clay. “Once I started touching clay, I loved it,” she said. “I knew there was something much more than making commercial things.”

One year later, in 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced evacuation and relocation of over 125,000 West Coast Japanese Americans to remote detention camps. While Hawai‘i was officially still a U.S. territory (it would not become a state until 1959), Roosevelt placed the islands under martial law during the war. More than two thousand Japanese Americans were incarcerated or placed under surveillance in Hawai‘i, but the majority of laborers—including Takaezu’s family—were largely left alone. Takaezu recalled that her parents stopped speaking Japanese in public and purged their home of Japanese-language books. (Two of her brothers were among the thirty-three thousand second-generation Japanese Americans who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during this period.) 

After the war ended, Takaezu pursued an arts education focused on ceramics, first at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, and then at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Seeing clay as a medium for self-expression, she began forming her pots in semi-abstract shapes and adorning their surfaces with loose, gestural marks. Alongside ceramics, Takaezu took courses in textiles, learning how to weave plush, high-pile rugs that featured fields of earthy colors, occasionally shot through with hot pink or vivid blue. 

Toshiko Takaezu at her exhibition 'Toshiko Takaezu: Potter Weaver' in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1967 (Charles Okamura, Courtesy Honolulu-Star Advertiser/© Family of Toshiko Takaezu)

Though the rest of Takaezu’s career unfolded on the mainland (she would eventually teach at Princeton University and set up a studio in Quakertown, New Jersey), Hawai‘i resided as a kind of “home” for Takaezu’s artistic imagination, its atmosphere and landscapes permeating her weavings and vessels. “Hawai‘i certainly does influence my work,” she said. “You can see the color in my pots—the color of the ocean, the sky, the sunset.” In a sense, her glazing techniques mirrored her life: by tilting the pots as she poured, dribbled, or sprayed glazes onto them, Takaezu allowed the liquids to flow and meander in unpredictable directions, creating abstract patterns on the exteriors. The element of chance applies to the final colors of the pots as well, since all glazes appear white or beige until the vessels are fired in the kiln. Even a highly experienced potter who mixes her own glazes, as Takaezu did, cannot predict with absolute certainty how they will react in the kiln—that is, which precise chromatic variations they will yield—until after the vessels have been fired. 

This partial surrender of certitude and control had spiritual resonance for Takaezu. She considered the different components—clay, fire, chemistry, gravity—as partners in her creative process. By letting each one play its part, she was allowing nature to take over. “The clay is alive and responsive to every touch and feeling,” she explained. 

When I make it into form, it is alive, and even when it is dry, it is still breathing! I can feel the response in my hand, I don’t have to force the clay. The whole process is an interplay between the clay and myself, and often the clay has much to say.

By attributing agency and wisdom to the materials and processes—and by acknowledging herself as a willing listener and participant—Takaezu seemed to articulate a personal spirituality of creativity.

This spirituality is apparent in the way she saw the circle of life reflected in her creative process: “One can feel the whole cycle of growth and life and death in the pots,” she said. Indeed, the practice of dropping tiny balls of clay into her vessels before closing them bears a ritual quality. The hidden nature of the balls within the vessels—and the toy-like rattling sounds they produce when shaken—allude to stages of pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. 

On the opposite end of life are Takaezu’s taller, cylindrical “closed forms,” which have the appearance and proportions of burial shrouds. She often described her experience of looking into their dark and deep interiors as they were being made as existentially sublime: “When I’m building one of the enclosed forms and I’m up there on a scaffold and the wheel is moving, there’s almost a psychic feeling that I’m going to be pulled down into the pot.” Towards the end of her own life, Takaezu even described herself as a vessel, crediting her artistic gifts as something that simply flowed through her: “I realized that beauty was coming from outside of me; a power that was passing through me; an intangible source that I can’t pinpoint.”

Of all the stages of life that Takaezu’s sixty-year oeuvre encompasses, the one that stands out most palpably in this retrospective is childhood—particularly the feelings of wonder and curiosity that erupt at its best moments. In one corner of the exhibition, several multicolored ceramic orbs sit on a glittering black floor. Ranging from one to two feet high, and positioned about one to two feet apart from each other, they are each spotlighted from the top to cast eclipse-like shadows. Nothing in recent experience has transported me to the cosmos as quickly as the sight of this assemblage. Nothing else has more forcefully—and joyfully—made me recall this phrase from my past: “Bath bombs from outer space!” 

Xiao Situ is an art historian and religious scholar based in New York City.

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Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
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