The Art of Toshiko Takaezu: In the Language of Silence
The University of North Carolina Press, 2011
160 pp., $40.00
Wombs and Bombs
A true work of art is created not to be reproduced but to be experienced. Van Gogh's Starry Night, now reproduced a billion times over, still needs to be seen with the naked eye because the mystery imbedded there escapes reproduction. Andy Warhol recognized, embraced, and commoditized this gap in translation: his Last Supper is not even a direct photograph of the da Vinci masterpiece; rather, it is a photograph of a kitschy, ten-cent reproduction of the masterpiece (thus a photograph of a photograph), which could have been bought at Woolworth's. By magnifying and multiplying the famed image of an image hundreds of times over, Warhol intentionally addressed the problems and the limitations of representation. Today, every artist has to deal with this cheapened realm of image reproduction.
Takaezu, however, did not join in this postmodern dance. She even seemed oblivious of the contemporary obsession with reproduction. This anachronism is perhaps why this book shines so brightly and speaks so eloquently. Impossible to reproduce in a two-dimensional format, Takaezu's works remind us of their untranslatability even as they enjoy a surprising reprieve—a forced excellence in another dimension. This book, full of two-dimensional images, is now what one would hold instead of her pots, as a descriptive pause, an antidote to the culture that demands easy answers and quick reads. Takaezu's pieces are beautifully photographed mute objects, somehow speaking in thousands of tongues at the same time. This book, too, somehow multiplies the depth and weight of her works into a shared experience. To Takaezu, her creativity was a gift alive with possibilities, and In the Language of Silence is a perfect tribute.
Takaezu was born in 1922 to Japanese immigrant parents in Pepeekeo, Hawaii. After studying at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, she continued her studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art, studying under Maija Grotell, who has been called the "mother of American ceramics." Takaezu ended up teaching at Cranbrook later in her life, as well as at Princeton University.
Taking a pottery class at Princeton must be, one might muse, relaxation fit for élite students needing a breather between hard classes. But Takaezu developed a reputation over the years as "the most difficult grader on campus." She was known to take a hammer and destroy any pieces that were not satisfactory to her.
Making an object of art, teaching—whatever she was doing at the moment, Takaezu regarded it as part of an integrated process of creativity, requiring patience, commitment, and dedication. "In my life," she said, "I see no difference between making pots, cooking, and growing vegetables. They are all so related. However there is a need for me to work in clay. It is so gratifying and I get so much joy from it, and it gives me many answers in my life." Her students were invited not just to a classroom to be instructed, they were invited to share her life. She was tough on herself, and seeking the highest level of excellence was simply a way of life. Perfectionism was not the goal; what mattered was the process of seeking the greatest joy. To seek joy was to collaborate with the imperfection, whether it be in clay or in her students, and simply to claim the journey as a gift.
"A work of art is a gift, not a commodity." Are these words from Lewis Hyde merely a utopian fantasy, or do they get to the heart of the matter? Whether it be the commissioned art of the Renaissance, or kitsch art in the malls of today, Hyde's point is that what endures transcends the marketplace of its time. Let's assume that he is right, that enduring works of art desire to reside in the precinct of the gift, rather than the marketplace; then such enduring objects of contemplation will gravitate toward, and even redefine, what a gift ought to be. Takaezu put it this way:
I never thought my work as beautiful. I thought it was okay, that's all … [but] I realized that the beauty was coming from something outside of me; a power that was passing through me; an intangible source that I can't pinpoint. So I felt that in a way, I couldn't take the credit. But since it wasn't only me that was involved in making them, it felt alright to say that they were beautiful.
She saw herself as a vehicle for this "beauty" to pass through, first receiving the gift herself and then offering it in turn to the world.
What resonates in these passages is a missing link in today's art-world conversations. If we speak of a contemporary work of art in the same way Takaezu speaks of her works, we will be asked to define what we mean by "beauty." Her intuitive language includes assumptions that the contemporary art market, filled with cynicism and ironic distance, rejected long ago. And yet, rather stubbornly, Takaezu paved a path not taken by others. Janet Koplos, in a descriptive, insightful essay in the book, writes: