Artist to Know: Toshiko Takaezu

Liz Catalano
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Bonhams Brings Five Closed Pots to Auction in January

Toshiko Takaezu was one of the most influential American ceramicists of the 20th century. A companion of Dale Chihuly, Arline Fisch, and Anni Albers, Takaezu spent decades perfecting her signature closed-form vessels. While she experienced great success in her lifetime, Takaezu refused to bend to the whims of the art market. Instead, she systematically explored every dimension of her pots. When asked about her artist statement in an oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, she responded: “My statement is doing what I want and doing the form that… is mine.”

Bonhams’ upcoming Modern Design | Art auction, held on January 13th, 2021 at 2:00 PM EST, will feature several stoneware pots by Toshiko Takaezu. Learn more about the artist before placing a bid.

Toshiko Takaezu. Image from Studio Potter.
Toshiko Takaezu. Image from Studio Potter.

Toshiko Takaezu, born in 1922, was the middle daughter of Japanese immigrants. Takaezu and her ten siblings grew up in the farmlands of Maui before moving to Honolulu, Hawaii. The Great Depression soon brought financial hardship, prompting Takaezu to drop out of school and work at a lumberyard. She first stumbled across ceramics during this period. Takaezu eventually joined a local pottery guild and pursued a formal education at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art. Finnish-American artist Maija Grotell, often called the “Mother of American Ceramics,” was one of Takaezu’s mentors and inspirations while in school. 

After college, Takaezu spent years exploring closed-off vessels that serve an aesthetic rather than functional purpose. The evolution of Takaezu’s style mirrored her own search for meaning, identity, and self-expression. Trips to Japan, often to seek the work of other women potters, inspired a fusion of Eastern philosophy and Western Modernism. Her clay vessels were completely sealed besides one or two tiny air holes. This choice added an air of mystery to each vessel by concealing its interior from the curious eye. Takaezu sometimes placed a small clay ball in the pot to draw attention to the hidden space and create a musical sound.

Toshiko Takaezu, Mountain Pot and Full Moon Pot, 1980s and c. 2000, respectively. Image from Bonhams.
Toshiko Takaezu, Mountain Pot and Full Moon Pot, 1980s and c. 2000, respectively. Image from Bonhams.

The upcoming Bonhams auction will include five pots by Takaezu, presented in three separate lots. Most belong to her signature Moon pot series. One of the available lots places a Mountain pot from the 1980s alongside a Full Moon pot from the early 2000s, together offered with an estimate of USD 2,000 to $3,000. Each of the available glazed stoneware pots features earthy, pastel streaks of glaze. The tallest piece measures nearly ten inches high. 

Takaezu’s largest pots tend to fetch the highest prices at auction. These labor-intensive pieces are usually no more than six feet high, sometimes resembling a human figure or a tree. To achieve their height and size, Takaezu had to throw the bottom half on her pottery wheel before building the top half by hand. Any cracks that emerged during the firing process were filled with generous amounts of glaze. One of these large-scale pots sold for $9,375 with Rago in 2017. That price has held steady for many of Takaezu’s biggest sculptures. 

More recently, a small closed-form pot achieved $17,000 in March of 2020. Wright brought the piece to auction with an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. Takaezu’s smaller pots occasionally gather more attention than the large ones if they sport distinct imperfections and irregularities. The glazed pot offered earlier this year, for example, features a striking depression that breaks up an otherwise smooth surface.

Toshiko Takaezu, Moon Pot, undated. Image from Rago.
Toshiko Takaezu, Moon Pot, undated. Image from Rago.

Takaezu died in 2011 after a long, respected career. Besides being a prolific potter, the artist taught at Princeton University for 25 years and mentored many young creators. The Takaezu Studio, an artist working space based in her New Jersey home, continues her work by supporting other sculpture artists. The Toshiko Takaezu Foundation also preserves her legacy by sponsoring workshops, residencies, and cultural events. 

Five pots from Toshiko Takaezu will come to auction with Bonhams on January 13th, 2021, starting at 2:00 PM EST. Visit the auction house’s website for more information. 

Interested in reading more artist profiles? Auction Daily recently looked at the career of Shanti Dave, an Indian Modern artist of the 20th century.