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A Remarkable Alliance of Form

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

A 50-year survey of ceramics by Otto and Gertrud Natzler is more than an opportunity to admire impossibly beautiful pottery. It’s a chance to remember the lives and the accomplishments of the Los Angeles-based couple who became world-famous for marrying elegantly simple clay forms with spectacular glazes. And no one knows the story better than Otto Natzler, who lost his wife 29 years ago but is still going strong.

“How many other 92-year-olds have you interviewed?” he asked, strolling into Couturier Gallery on La Brea Avenue. His easy gait, bright eyes, quick wit and near-perfect recall make it difficult to believe that he’s a day over 70, but he can account for that. Taking a hike every morning, followed by an hour and a half of yoga--during which he stands on his head--keeps him fit and remarkably young. Even as he frets about lapses in his short-term memory and the failing eyes and fingers that have prevented him from working for the past couple of years, he tells one anecdote after another, detailing the evolution of a remarkable artistic partnership.

One favorite story takes him back to 1939, a year after the Nazis annexed Austria and the newlywed Natzlers fled Vienna for Los Angeles, with the help of a cousin who had emigrated from Germany and settled here. Otto and Gertrud could only take $12 apiece out of Austria, and they each spent $1 of that when their ship docked in Guatemala. “We couldn’t resist buying a snakeskin belt and a crocodile belt,” Natzler said.

They were allowed to bring Gertrud’s pottery wheel, a small electric kiln and some furniture to America, but their early days in Los Angeles were a struggle. The Natzlers had achieved early success in Europe and even won a silver medal at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, but they were starting over here. Finding commercial outlets for their pottery was a slow process, so they accepted a few students to provide them with a steady--if decidedly meager--income, Natzler said.

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At the insistence of one of their students, they sent five of their pieces to a prestigious competitive national exhibition at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts in New York (now the Everson Museum of Fine Arts). “We had to pay a $3 entry fee and shipping charges. We couldn’t afford that and we thought the pieces would be broken, so we didn’t want to do it. But this student said we had to, so we did--and then forgot all about it,” Natzler said.

“Then one day in November of 1939, when we were both at work, the doorbell rang. It was Western Union, delivering a telegram. We still had parents in Vienna, so our hearts stopped beating. We didn’t want to open the telegram.”

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The opening word, “Congratulations,” was a huge relief and the message was “the greatest surprise,” he said. They had won a $100 purchase prize from the museum, which would add their work to its collection. “It was a fortune at the time,” Natzler said. “It would be worth $1,000 today.” Actually, a bit more than that: $1,230.22.

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America was indeed “the promised land,” he said. And the artists’ arrival did not go unnoticed for long. They gained increasing appreciation for their work even as they took classes in English at a local high school and studied American history in preparation for citizenship examinations, which they passed in 1944.

On March 10, 1939, nine months before the telegram from Syracuse arrived, The Times published a front-page article with five photographs of the Natzlers, announcing “Artist-potters busy here after flight from Vienna.”

“We had rented half a house at 1835 St. Andrews Place,” Natzler recalled. “At 7:15 in the morning the day that article came out, our landlord knocked on the door and said, ‘If you had committed murder, you wouldn’t have had more publicity.’ ”

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The Natzlers became known as a team, but it was Gertrud who introduced Otto to ceramics. They met in 1933, after he had lost his job as a textile designer and she was working as a secretary but learning to use a potter’s wheel. As Otto tells the story--in an autobiographical essay in the catalog of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1968 exhibition of Natzler ceramics--he was far more interested in Gertrud than in ceramics. But he accompanied her to a ceramics class and began making clay sculpture.

Essentially self-taught, they soon began working on their own, with Gertrud at the wheel and Otto at the kiln. She perfected her extraordinary talent for throwing paper-thin pots while he pursued his interest in chemistry by experimenting with glazes and developing more than 2,000 formulas for a wide variety of surface effects ranging from iridescent lusters to crystalline patterns to bubbly eruptions.

In the foreword of the LACMA catalog, then-museum director Kenneth Donahue praised the Natzlers’ “subtle but infinite variety of simple, unaffected shapes and surfaces” and said their works “seemed to have been born and to have grown as if they were natural things.” He likened Gertrud to “a musical virtuoso who lets the form flow intuitively from her fingers” as she created “timeless” shapes of “refined, natural simplicity.” As for Otto, Donahue said he created “the perfect complement” by developing “glazes as fine as insect wings and rough as cratered lava” during many years of experimentation.

By that time, the Natzlers had compiled an impressive exhibition record. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago had shown their work. Inevitably featured in national surveys, their ceramics also were selected by the Smithsonian Institution for an American exhibition in Prague in 1962.

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Gertrud’s death in 1971--shortly before a retrospective exhibition at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco--was devastating to Otto. “I lost my wife, my lover, my right hand at the life we were living,” Natzler said.

Fortunately, the previous year he and Gertrud had met Gail Reynolds, a teacher who made sculpture in her free time and was attracted to the Natzlers’ ceramics. “I thought I was finished, but Gail said, ‘Your work isn’t done yet,’ ” Natzler said. She persuaded him to glaze pieces Gertrud had made in a productive period the year before her death. In 1973, Natzler and Reynolds were married. Since then, he has developed his own body of hand-built, architectonic ceramics.

The Couturier Gallery exhibition will include about 40 works, dating from the 1940s to the ‘90s. Natzler is looking forward to the show, but--in a sense--it will be like all the others.

“It’s always the same,” he said. “I look at these things and think, ‘How did we ever make them?’ We tried to do the work that we felt was the essence of ceramics--thrown pots in the purest abstract form with a glaze that works organically. But they are partly man-made and partly due to good luck and God’s will.”

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“GERTRUD AND OTTO NATZLER: A 50 YEAR SURVEY,” Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave. Dates: Friday to July 1. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone: (310) 933-5557.


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