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Otto Natzler, 99; master glazer of daring ceramic objects made with wife Gertrud

Special to The Times

Otto Natzler, a master glazer and wizard of the kiln who with his wife, Gertrud, created some of the most admired ceramic objects of the 20th century, has died. He was 99.

Natzler, who was vital and active into his 90s through a regimen of yoga and physical exercise, died of cancer April 7 at his Los Angeles home, his art dealer, Darrel Couturier, said Tuesday.

The Natzlers’ elegant and daring works -- she was the potter -- helped elevate ceramics from a “decorative art” to a fine art. Their works were featured in innumerable gallery shows over seven decades and are housed in dozens of museum collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Metropolitan and Modern Art museums, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Natzler himself developed more than 1,000 different glazes for pottery. “Many were shimmering glazes that gave a glossy, silken look,” Catherine Benkaim, a collector who owns a number of pieces by Natzler, told The Times.

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Undaunted by the fragility of his wife’s exquisite simple vessels, Natzler invented ever bolder glazes to enhance them.

Kenneth Donahue, former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wrote of the Natzlers that their works “seemed to have been born and to have grown as if they were natural things.” Gertrud, he said, was like “a musical virtuoso who lets the form flow intuitively from her fingers,” while Otto complemented them with glazes “as fine as insect wings and rough as cratered lava.”

Lisa Hammel, writing in the New York Times in 1986, said the couple’s work “seems always in equilibrium.”

“Even the most violent glazes are held in a state of restraint by Gertrud’s thin, gently curving shapes,” Hammel said. “Deep, crusty pocking, for example, forms the surface of a slender slice of bowl.”

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The death of Gertrud in 1971 of cancer ended the Natzlers’ unique artistic partnership, although she left behind about 200 pots for Otto to glaze. He did so one by one over many years, carefully matching the glaze to the pot as he had done throughout their 37-year relationship.

Eventually, Natzler moved on to his own works, including menorahs and slab sculptures, which brought him new admirers.

Sarah Booth Conroy, writing in the Washington Post in 1981, said the glazes on these very different Natzler pieces provide the link with the earlier work done by the couple.

They are “like new worlds in creation -- craters, volcanoes, ocean bottoms, mountain fissures, molten pools, atomic crystals exploding into star shapes,” Conroy said. She described one glaze as looking “rather like a sunset reflected in blue water,” while another “looks like snowflakes landing on the mountains of the moon.”

But it was the “O&G;” works, as they sometimes were called, that secured the Natzler name in art history.

“The Natzlers are to vessels as [ceramist] Peter Voulkos is to sculpture -- renowned for their handling of materials, for their ability to create the perfect object by coaxing soulfulness -- anima -- out of inert, inchoate and meaningless clay,” said Jo Lauria, an independent curator and specialist in contemporary decorative arts in Los Angeles.

Otto Natzler was born Jan. 31, 1908, in Vienna to a dentist and a housewife. As a child, Natzler discovered art through his uncle’s “artist-a-day” wall calendar featuring Rembrandt, Titian, Durer, Tintoretto and other great artists.

At 15, his parents enrolled him in a textile design course. He began his work life designing and thinking up color schemes for neckties at a local firm. But in 1933, after Adolf Hitler took over Germany, the firm was blacklisted by German retailers because the owner of the firm was Jewish. Natzler lost his job.

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During the summer of that year, Otto met a secretary named Gertrud Amon. By then, his first marriage was failing (it ended in divorce in 1934) and Natzler was “very stricken by Trude,” her nickname at the time. When she told him of her budding interest in clay, he feigned a similar interest, although he detested the preciousness of the Chinese, Swedish and other ceramics he had seen in museums and shops.

But, as he soon discovered, such objects never were the intention of Gertrud.

“Gertrud had a feeling for form right from the very beginning,” Natzler said in an interview for “Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000,” a video made to go with LACMA’s similarly named exhibition in 2000.

The two soon had rented a studio together. Otto at first did sculptures but, recognizing Gertrud’s talent, began glazing her objects. Neither of them knew how to fire the pieces. Of the first batch, Natzler said in a July 1980 oral history with Ruth Bowman for the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution, “Everything was ruined.”

Natzler eventually learned how to make a traditional glaze, but he became fascinated with his “mistakes,” trying for “more blisters, larger pockmarks!”

In 1937, the couple took a big step by submitting a few pieces to the Austrian pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition. But by March 1938, the German army was on the move. As Gertrud and Otto received the news that they had won a silver medal at the exhibition, German troops poured into Austria.

The couple got help from Otto’s cousin in Los Angeles to get out of Austria. They married in June of that year and left Vienna in September, taking along Gertrud’s potting wheel, their electric kiln and “all our earthly belongings,” Otto said.

In Los Angeles, curator Lauria said, the Natzlers joined a rarified group of exiles that included novelist Thomas Mann and filmmakers Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann. Couturier, whose La Brea Avenue gallery represented the Natzlers’ work for many years, said that when the couple fled Vienna, they brought with them “a tradition in ceramics that had not been seen in this country -- it was totally unique.” They seemed not to be influenced by the decorative work of ceramists associated with Wiener Werkstaette, an arts and crafts workshop in Vienna.

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First at a house on St. Andrews Place in the Midcity area, and later at their home in the Hollywood Hills, the Natzlers turned out piece after piece that stands “among the finest pottery of all time,” said Dane Cloutier, an art dealer and ceramic art consultant, writing in 1999 in Modernism magazine.

Gertrud’s ability to “capture lift in a vessel,” Cloutier said, resulted in “graceful, finely balanced and well-proportioned” pieces that lent themselves perfectly to the popular modern furniture of the time.

Arthur Millier, an art critic for the L.A. Times, became a champion of the Natzlers, giving their work a major boost.

The Natzlers entered five pieces in the prestigious Syracuse (N.Y.) Museum of Fine Arts (now Everson Museum of Fine Arts) competition and won a $100 purchase prize -- more than their total living expenses for a month.

By 1940, they had their first “solo” exhibition at a small museum in San Diego, and they got representation at Dalzell Hatfield’s gallery in L.A., where they remained until 1967. Hatfield also got them an exhibition at Chicago’s Art Institute.

“Pottery by the Natzlers was a prized wedding gift in the ‘40s and ‘50s with prices ranging from $35 to $400,” Benkaim said.

In the early 1940s, Natzler began experimenting with “reduction” firings--a step taken after the first “bisque” firing (which dries and hardens clay) and the initial glaze. This third step uses organic material such as leaves or twigs to reduce the amount of oxygen in the fire to bring out various colors and effects.

“What a fire does really is more or less up to nature and up to God, and all you can do is pray that you get some of the things you intend to get,” Natzler told Ori Z. Soltes, who wrote and directed “Earth, Fire, Water and Wind,” a film about Otto Natzler’s ceramics. “Sometimes you get even surprises that surpass your expectations.”

The last photographs of Gertrud at work were taken by Life magazine in April 1971. She died that June 3.

At first, he couldn’t bring himself to glaze the last of the pots that Gertrud had thrown. His third wife, photographer Gail Reynolds, whom Natzler married in 1973 and who survives him, persuaded him finally to face the task.

Otto also began to do his own work, wanting to do something “completely contrary to what Gertrud had done.”

“It started really because I had a few leftover glazes I wanted to use up,” he told American Ceramics Magazine. “I kind of slithered into it.”

The first public showing of his solo work came in 1977 in an exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.

Benkaim recalled Natzler as a “very pragmatic, very well organized man who kept complete records of his firings and glazings. He was curious about the scientific aspect of glazes, the chemical reactions caused by adding certain ingredients.”

Natzler told American Ceramics that he aimed for pieces “where you don’t know whether it was done 10,000 years ago or yesterday.”

“Anything you do is a craft until you master it,” Natzler said in an interview for the “Earth, Fire, Water and Wind” film. “And if you really master it and add to this craft, invent maybe something new, give it another turn, it may become an art.”

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Times staff writer Mary Rourke contributed to this report.


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