An Alexander Calder mobile twirls lightly in the soft HVAC breeze on the top floor of the MFA’s Americas wing, dangling above Toshiko Takaezu’s stony ceramics unambiguously moored to the ground.
The Calder, in cool steel, feels almost like a leftover, abandoned in place by chance. Instead, it’s a touchstone: Calder, famous for his whimsical abstractions, whether on canvas, on paper, or in precariously balanced form, admired Takaezu, and the feeling was mutual. The pair even traded pieces from time to time. Their work and their careers couldn’t have been more different. He was famous and revered; she was just the right side of unknown. The question, as always, is why?
With “The Shape of Abstraction,” an exhibition mostly of Takaezu’s ceramics (there are two textile pieces, and two paintings among the 69 works), the MFA offers a better-late-than-never remedy, an increasingly standard practice for museums all over. That these exhibitions tend to feature women — just to pick two at random this year, the Venezuelan sculptor Gego at the Guggenheim Museum and Jaune Quick To See Smith, who is Native American, at the Whitney Museum of American Art — should tell you something. The MFA’s positioning of the Takaezu show, which slips into a long channel of gallery that bisects its recently reinstalled 20th-century Americas collections — much of which is recast, resurrected, or on view here for the first time — should tell you something else.
Takaezu’s pride of place in the MFA’s Americas galleries helps break open a narrative of Modern art that has conventionally narrowed to merciless exclusion. Her career paralleled the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s that redefined the art world and put the United States at its peak. She worked principally in ceramics, her painterly abstract glazes giving three-dimensional scope to what typically played out on the flat surface of a canvas; her own foundation describes her work as “painting in the round.”
That innovation — or heresy — would help put her on the outside of the first truly American art movement. A 1970 ABC News documentary that featured Takaezu was partial reclamation at best: Titled “With These Hands: The Rebirth of the American Craftsman,” the piece recast Takaezu more as artisan than artist, a response to the increasingly esoteric conceptual art movement that was bamboozling the American public with an affection for performance, installation, and fewer and fewer actual things (the title of Lucy Lippard’s landmark 1966 essay “The dematerialization of art” says it all).
Takaezu, of course, was interested in just the opposite. Her ceramic pieces are seductively tactile across a dizzying range of touch: delicate and light in her “closed forms,” vessels conceived without purpose beyond aesthetic (art, in a nutshell), or robust and gestural in pieces like “Ka Hua 7,” 1966. With its ridges and slashes of glaze — swipes of glossy green and taupe, raw in spots — “Ka Hua 7″ is as urgent and visceral a work as you’ll find anywhere on the floor. With Hyman Bloom’s gutsy anatomical paintings hanging in the collection gallery next door, that’s saying something.
Takaezu was born in 1922 on the big island of Hawaii to Japanese parents from Okinawa. She studied ceramics in Honolulu, and then went to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, a hotbed of American Modernism in the 1950s. There, she would learn to cross-fertilize traditional craft and the spiritual belief structures of her Japanese heritage with surging modern sensibilities.
To be among a cluster of Takaezu’s work can provoke some dissonance; this, rest assured, is a good thing. Cool, spare forms tease at utility — her “closed forms” hint at vases or vessels; her flat, frisbee-size discs hung on the wall, at plates — but refuse to cooperate. Her spare mark-making is self-consciously calligraphic, but never resolves into legibility. Like great abstract canvases, her pieces exude mystery — expressive surfaces that are now relics of a touch, a gesture, and a human presence long gone.
Takaezu was as exacting in their display as in their making. Dozens of pieces perch on a low plinth that snakes through the gallery front to back. Some have the slick sheen of a glossy glaze, others are chalky and matte, as though dusted with color that might surrender to the breeze. It feels almost silly to pick one, or three, or half a dozen from a crowd that yearns to be considered in sum, not as parts.
The experience of “Shaping Abstraction” is holistic like that, and auditory as well as visual. Takaezu once accidentally dropped a clay fragment into a closed form and didn’t discover the mistake until after it was fired. But the muffled rattle of the errant shard excited her so much that she started including them intentionally. Enticing as it might be to give a piece a shake, you’ll have to settle for recordings: “We recorded some of these sounds to help you resist the temptation to make them yourself!,” reads a squib of friendly text on the wall. (Also: “Please do not touch the artwork.”)
The hollow sound of the void roots each piece in the material world, a whimsical counterpoint to the ambitions of abstraction, in AbEx orthodoxy, of capturing emotion at its most raw and pure. Takaezu painted, and well, too, though the two works here mostly pointed me back to that glorious winding plinth, and the space it takes up in the world. “Murasaki,” 1972, with its dark, fiery stains of color, suggests a tumultuous landscape of crimson skies and broken ground. It’s surely beautiful, but it speaks the common language of abstract painting. In ceramic, Takaezu spoke fully and uniquely a language all her own.
TOSHIKO TAKAEZU: SHAPING ABSTRACTION