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A revolution in clay

Times Staff Writer

The 1950s have settled into memory as a yawningly dull period of American history. But in terms of art, the decade was packed with excitement. The flowering of Abstract Expressionism! The ascendancy of New York as an art center! The birth of Pop art!

In Los Angeles, the ‘50s also brought an explosive development in ceramics. Led by Peter Voulkos -- who launched a graduate ceramics program at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, which evolved into Otis College of Art and Design -- a group of avant-garde artists began to use clay as a sculptural material, as full of expressive possibilities as oil on canvas.

The clay revolution was a West Coast-sparked American thing. Or at least that’s the standard perception. But two coincidentally concurrent exhibitions -- “Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics” at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo and “Standing Room Only,” the 60th ceramics annual at Scripps College in Claremont -- offer a reminder that the revolution was an international affair with a strong Japanese component.

Artists who worked in clay in Japan and Southern California were profoundly influenced by their counterparts on the opposite side of the Pacific. Noguchi, a Japanese American modernist who died in 1988, is known as a New York-based sculptor and designer, but he created works in clay while searching for his roots in Japan and had a big impact on his Japanese colleagues. Paul Soldner, 82, who was Voulkos’ first graduate student and ran a far-reaching ceramics program at Scripps from 1959 to 1991, incorporated Japanese aesthetics and philosophy in his artwork and teaching.

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The Noguchi show presents his ceramics -- created on three trips to Japan, in 1931, 1950 and 1952 -- in the context of Japanese artists’ works, mostly made in the ‘50s. But the story is about his search for his identity.

Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi was the son of American writer Leonie Gilmour and Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, who abandoned them, returned to Japan and married a Japanese woman. Partly raised in Japan, partly in the United States, the rejected son became a world-famous artist, but he was torn between his parents’ native cultures, never feeling completely at home in either country.

His artistic career got off to an unpromising start in the early 1920s with an apprenticeship at the Connecticut studio of Gutzon Borglum, an academic sculptor who would carve Mt. Rushmore. Borglum taught Noguchi plaster casting -- and concluded that he had no future as a sculptor. On the advice of a friend, Noguchi began a pre-med course at Columbia University in 1923. But the following year, he began studying with sculptor Onorio Ruotolo at an art school in Lower Manhattan. Despite Borglum’s prediction, Noguchi quickly excelled. By 1930, he had set up a studio in New York, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and worked in the Parisian studio of modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

In his early years, Noguchi supported himself by making portrait busts, but he evolved from academic figuration to abstraction in his signature work and formed friendships with avant-garde artists and thinkers, including architect Buckminster Fuller and dancer Martha Graham. Longing to explore his Japanese heritage, Noguchi received his Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to the Far East, but several years passed before he went there -- perhaps because he had mixed feelings about the journey. If so, his trepidation was justified.

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When Yone Noguchi learned of his son’s travel plans, he wrote to Isamu asking him not to use his name in Japan. Stung by the request, Isamu spent several months in Beijing before proceeding to Japan. The estranged father and son met briefly, but the relationship was strained. Isamu stayed in Tokyo for two months, living with his father’s brother, then took refuge in Kyoto, where he literally dug into his paternal homeland at the pottery workshop of Uno Ninmatsu.

‘Embrace of the earth’

In his autobiography, Noguchi described his 1931 foray into ceramics as “my close embrace of the earth, a seeking after identity with some primal matter beyond personalities and possessions.” Shunned by the father who was ashamed to have a biracial child, Isamu turned to art made of indigenous clay and found inspiration in prehistoric Japanese tomb figures known as haniwa.

The exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., includes only two small pieces from Noguchi’s first encounter with Japanese clay. “Uncle Takagi,” a life-size terra-cotta head, portrays Yone Noguchi’s brother, Takagi Totaro. “Tamanishiki,” a smaller figurative piece, depicts a crouching sumo wrestler.

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Not a very auspicious beginning, but the ceramic pieces Noguchi made on subsequent journeys, about 20 years later, are far more adventurous. Using inherent qualities of the clay while merging aspects of traditional Japanese art with the whimsy of Surrealism and the primitive power of Brancusi’s abstractions, he created block-like faces and open forms that stand on tapered legs and bristle with strange appendages. Some pieces look like riffs on modern furniture and gadgetry. Others put one in mind of ancient bronze bells or architectural towers.

These works have nothing in common with traditional tea sets. Even when Noguchi created functional objects he thought of them as art. As Karin Higa, senior curator at the Japanese American museum, points out, he called his little square plates “sculptures lying down” and his vases “sculptures with flowers.”

Noguchi worked with several Japanese artists, whose art is represented in the show. Inspiration seems to have flowed freely among them, although some of the Japanese artists continued to produce traditional forms. A 1952 exhibition of Noguchi’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura is said to have encouraged young Japanese potters to infuse time-honored Japanese ceramics with elements of western Modernism.

It was a different story in America. Noguchi exhibited his ceramics in New York and Chicago in the mid-'50s, but that chapter of his career is little known to most Americans. In one of the exhibition catalog’s essays, writer Bruce Altshuler concludes that “his influence on American ceramics was nil.”

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The same cannot be said of Japanese artists.

“Japan was the only other country where I felt at home,” says Paul Soldner, whose 4-foot-tall “Floor Pot” from 1957 is the centerpiece of “Standing Room Only” at Scripps’ Williamson Gallery. An indefatigable artist and charismatic teacher, Soldner has divided his time between Claremont and Aspen, Colo., for many years. But he has also made several trips to Japan and shown his work there, encouraged some of his American students to work in Japan and welcomed Japanese artists to his classes.

The show of works by 116 artists is a tribute to Soldner, who retired from the college after building its ceramics department and turning the annual invitational exhibition into a prestigious event. Now in its 60th edition, it’s the nation’s longest-running exhibition of contemporary ceramics.

Soldner’s vintage piece is surrounded by recent works of his colleagues in the ‘50s -- including Voulkos, John Mason, Mac McClain, Billy Al Bengston, Henry Takemoto, Michael Frimkess and Jerry Rothman -- and pieces by artists he worked with later, many of whom have shown their work in the annuals.

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“It isn’t definitive,” curator Kirk Delman says of this year’s show. “There are lots of could haves and should haves.” But it’s a kaleidoscopic view of ceramic art that has developed since the 1950s. As might be expected, it covers a wide range of styles and sensibilities, from Voulkos’ rugged “Plate,” which might have been cut out of tire-tracked earth, to Joe Soldate’s cheeky pool of rubber ducks and Nancy Selvin’s poetic shelf of text-imprinted bottles.

Echoes of eclecticism

The pioneering artists who explored clay’s sculptural possibilities in the ‘50s were open to ideas from everywhere, including the Mediterranean region and Native American ceramics, says Mason, who shared a studio with Voulkos and became known for making massive walls of clay. Echoes of that eclecticism reverberate through the show at Scripps, but one of the strongest presences is Japanese.

Several of the artists were born or raised in Japan, though their work doesn’t necessarily reflect that. Ryoji Koie, who grew up in the Japanese pottery-making town of Tokoname, is showing a gritty stoneware abstraction from his “Chernobyl Series.” Kazuko Matthews, who was born in Compton and raised in Japan, is represented by “The Cube,” a geometric, table-like piece composed of black and pale gray stripes and checkerboards.

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For many other artists, the Japanese connection is the fast-firing, fast-cooling method that Soldner adapted from Japanese raku. Angela de Mott’s raku firing technique imbues her thin, hand-built vessels with smoky surfaces and an air of unexpected natural beauty. The rudimentary face in Jean Griffith’s rough-hewn “Wisdom Box,” made of thermal shock-resistant raku clay, vaguely resembles some works in the Noguchi show.

But for Soldner, Japanese influence on American ceramics has more to do with philosophy than techniques or materials.

“In the West, which is mainly Christian, we want to be perfect,” he says. “We want to be right. We don’t want to make mistakes.” In the East, or at least in Buddhist Japan, artists tend to go with the flow of the process, he says, accepting unpredictable aspects of firing and interpreting accidents as blessings.

“You see what the fire will do, what shrinking will do, what cracking will do,” he says. “What makes it art is not technology.”

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‘Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics’

Where: Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., Los Angeles

When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to

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5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Ends: May 30

Price: $3-$6

Contact: (213) 625-0414

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Also

What: “Standing Room Only”

Where: Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, 1030 Columbia Ave., Claremont

When: Wednesdays to Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m.

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Ends: April 4

Price: Free

Contact: (909) 607-3397


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