JAPANESE AMERICAN MASTER
ARTWORKS SPANNING FIVE DECADES
From the New Jersey State Museum and the Collection of the Artist
January 30th - March 13, 2008
The home and studio of Toshiko Takaezu are nestled among the rolling hills of rural New Jersey, just an hour’s ride from Kean University. On her property, groups of tall ceramic totems are mysteriously positioned together as informal outdoor installations. Beside the barn and studio are several of the artist’s original large bronze bells, which hang in the yard tempting any onlooker to ring them just to hear an anticipated peaceful clanging sound. The large brick kiln is massive enough to hold works that are on a human scale, up to six feet tall and fired up to 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, the studio is filled with equipment, and projects that are finished and unfinished. Everywhere you look there are bits and pieces of ideas, objects and things that make up the working environment of one of the great ceramic artists of our time. This is the private world of Toshiko Takaezu who has lived in New Jersey since 1967 and has been appropriately recognized for her outstanding artistic achievements, which include the Governor’s Award and several honorary doctorates. For good reason, New Jersey should be proud. However, don’t think for a moment that Toshiko Takaezu is a local artist as she is well known from Asia to Europe.
Toshiko Takaezu was born in 1922 in Pepeekeo, Hawaii, to Japanese immigrants from Okinawa. She came of age during the trying times of the Depression and World War II. Perhaps the positive side of this was that when she was nine-years-old, her family moved to a rural location on the island of Maui. It was a beautiful place right on the ocean. We had spring water for use at home, and we had a pond…we raised fish that we got from the ocean that came into the river. We used to take a scoop, put the fish in the bucket and run and put them in our pond. My childhood was very good - the memory of all the things that we grew and the things that we ate and the fish we could get.
Toshiko Takaezu went to art school at the University of Hawaii and arrived in the States in 1951 on the heels of Pearl Harbor, the interment of Japanese –Americans, and the calamity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At Cranbrook Academy of Art she studied with Maija Grotell (1899-1973) who had come from the Bauhaus in Germany. In the following decade, she became known for her closed forms which she achieved by the simple yet radical act of closing the mouth of the vessel. Takaezu and other ceramic artists of the 1950s and 1960s, were instrumental in exploring clay as a medium for art beyond its conventional utilitarian purpose. Early on Takaezu established her position in a male dominated field where Peter Voulkos (1924-2002) and John Mason on the West Coast were already doing enormous experimental work in clay. In spite of the physical demands of this heavy and temperamental material, Toshiko Takaezu manipulated masses of clay on the potter’s wheel and quietly pursued her own evolution as an artist. From 1955 to 1964 Takaezu went on to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and from 1967 to 1992 at Princeton University.
Takaezu’s closed vessels possess a fascinating contrast between their rounded, cylindrical shapes and the intense color and kinetic brush strokes of her glazes. Her artworks become three-dimensional canvases on which color erupts, blends, and disappears, only to reappear in a different form on the other side of the vessel. When asked what it is for, she has been known to say, the most important part of the piece is the black air space that you can’t see. On the inside wall of the empty volume are written secret words or phrases. One would have to break the piece to find out what it says. When the closed forms are moved they make a lovely sound as the artist has intentionally left little pieces of clay inside to rattle about.
Toshiko Takaezu is truly an established figure in the world of fine art and her work is included in the collections of some of the world’s finest museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan, and the Bangkok National Museum in Thailand. Along with these honors, she has also been named a Living Treasure of Hawaii.
Kean University is honored to present the work of Toshiko Takaezu and extremely grateful that she has generously loaned thirteen works from her personal collection. We also want to thank Margaret O’Reilly, Kean alumna and curator at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, for her efforts to secure the loan of twenty-one pieces from the permanent collection for this show. The works in this exhibition represent a fantastic cross section of artwork spanning a magnificent career over five decades. No doubt, the influence of Toshiko Takaezu’s art will continue to inspire generations of artists to come.
Director of University Galleries