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At the Sackler, an Underground Gallery Glows with Sunlight

A new exhibit at the Sackler: "Reinventing the Wheel," celebrates an era when Japanese potters abandoned the wheel to pursue new expressive forms of the art

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No. 5, by Takiguchi Kazua, image courtesy of the Sackler Gallery

Basking in the glow of reflecting pool on the underground fourth level of the Sackler Gallery, is a collection of ceramic arts that represents significant trends in Japanese pottery from the 1930s onwards—a period in which traditional workshop masters took on new roles as studio potters, reviving ancient firing and glazing technology in attempts to create new expressive forms of art.

A mere dozen or so pieces show how ceramic artists of this era departed from conventional ideas of function to hand create more sculptural forms, essentially giving up the potters wheel that had been the staple of Japanese pottery.

The new exhibition “Reinventing the Wheel: Japanese Ceramics 1930-2000,” which opened July 23, is a celebration of the museum’s imminent 25th anniversary. (The gallery opened to the public in 1987, five years after Arthur M. Sackler, the museum’s founder, left his collection of 1,000 masterpieces of Asian art.)

“The purpose of the exhibition was to show some of the best pieces from the collection of modern and contemporary Japanese ceramics,” says curator Louise Cort. “I wanted to highlight these pieces. Most of the pieces have never been seen before so it’s a chance for people to see new things.”

The gallery glows with light that comes from multiple hidden sources. It is an underground space yet natural lighting seems somehow to pierce the three floors overhead and highlight the pieces in the cases. Deep blue and sky-colored pottery blended into the blue tiles of the reflecting pool. Earthy tones of dusty red and green glazes enriched the space as the architectural columns and sounds of running water elicited the feeling of being in a sunlit forest. It was a peculiar feeling, being so far below the surface but seeming to be perched atop the sunlit atrium.

“I chose absolutely what I thought were the most outstanding pieces in the collection. I had a limit on the number of pieces that could be used because of that very peculiar architecture in that space so I had to cut down the list until pieces would fit into that limited number of cases. I wanted pieces that looked good together, and I wanted to show, as much as possible, pieces that people had never seen before. So it was a combination of the goal of the exhibit and the practical matter of what pieces looked good together or next to each other,” says Cort.

Form is obviously ranking high over function, these pieces would not be found on a dinner table. Precise edges and symmetry are replaced by uneven curves, even just blobs. But their simple elegance and beauty can not be disputed.

A curious metallic-silver ceramic, entitled No. 5 by Takiguchi Kazua’s, seems to be sprouting a head and arms. The label says that the artist stretched a single sheet of clay to make the piece, in hopes of evoking a human or animal body.

“We sat and talked about the way in which the role of the potters wheel came into question among many potters in the mid 20th-century, and as people felt that they wanted to move beyond the cylindrical, symmetrical form that one gets from making a pot on the potters wheel and treat ceramics as sculpture or treat it, at the very least, as asymmetrical. And that title, Reinventing the Wheel, popped out,” says Cort.

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