Elsa Rady dies at 67; leading contemporary ceramic artist

As a leading contemporary ceramic artist, Elsa Rady created elegantly simple porcelain vessels and often controlled how they were presented by bolting the refined pieces into place.

“She really forged her own path and became a force,” said Jo Lauria, an independent curator who included Rady’s work in “Craft in America,” a national touring show that debuted in 2007.

“Calculating the experience of the viewer — I don’t know of any other artist who is her equal in that,” Lauria said.

Rady, who had been experiencing health problems, died unexpectedly Jan. 29 at her Culver City home, said her brother-in-law, George Lynes. She was 67.


Reviewers invariably used the word “exquisite” when referring to her sleek interpretation of a core group of forms — the vase, bottle and bowl.

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art included her nearly paper-thin porcelain pieces in the 2000 exhibit “Color and Fire,” Times reviewers called her lustrous works a “highlight” and admired their “delicacy and grace.”

“Elsa was a truly extraordinary artist,” said Harold B. Nelson, curator of American decorative arts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. “Her work — like her approach to life itself — was spare, serene and elegant.”

She was born July 29, 1943, in New York City and grew up in an artistic home. Her mother, Lily Mehlman Rady, had been a Martha Graham dancer, and her father, Simon Rady, was a record company executive and producer.


By age 7, Elsa was taking ceramics classes with her older sister, Jane, who became a photographer. She is Elsa’s only immediate survivor.

Her father’s career took the family to Paris in the late 1950s and to Beverly Hills when Elsa was in high school.

From 1962 to 1966, she studied ceramics at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles with renowned ceramic artists Ralph Bacerra and Otto and Vivika Heino.

At the institute, Rady was encouraged to freshly interpret classical ceramic shapes and techniques, which led her to focus on an ancient form and material — the vessel made of porcelain. She was also influenced by Chinese ceramics.


In the late 1960s, Rady spent two years at the Interpace China Corp. of Glendale, designing tiles and border decorations for dinnerware. She returned to Interpace from 1989 to 1994 and also designed modern wares for the Swid Powell company.

Her pieces are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and many other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and LACMA.

After photographer Robert Mapplethorpe discovered her work in 1984 at the Chicago Art Fair, the two bonded as artists. They both framed their still lifes “with similar sensitivity,” according to the catalog for a 1993 Santa Barbara Museum of Art joint exhibit of their works.

The next year, Rady lost 70 ceramic pieces valued at $225,000 during the Northridge earthquake despite storing them in carpet tubing to prevent that very disaster.


“It was horrifying to see it all go before your very eyes,” Rady told the New York Times in the days after the quake.

Her art was included in the 200-year history “Craft in America: Expanding Traditions” because her work was “important,” said Lauria, a curator of decorative arts, craft and design who oversaw the exhibit for the nonprofit organization Craft in America. The show toured seven states, including California, for two years.

A 2005 show of her “Cycladic Swing” series at the Long Beach Museum of Art and another in 2006 at the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica represented a “breakthrough” in the way she presented her art, said Nelson, then the museum’s director.

She placed porcelain forms inspired by her affection for ancient Cycladic sculpture on platforms that she suspended swing-like by wires.


“Her pure white vessels hovered in space free from time, place, and physical circumstance,” Nelson said. “They were inventive, voluptuous and breathtakingly beautiful.”