Toshiko Takaezu | Worlds Within

On View Now at The Noguchi Museum

Written by

Julia Smith

Photographed by

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Toshiko Takaezu with her works at home in Quakertown, New Jersey, 1997. Photo: Bobby Jae Kim.The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Liliane and David M.Stewart Collection, gift of Bobby Jae Kim, D97.183.1.© Family of Toshiko Takaezu

In an newspaper clipping from 1959, the Honolulu Advertiser ran a story on Volcano, Hawaii, wherein the author, journalist and historian Bob Krauss spoke with a teasing prophetic tone, “Fifty years from now, when my children's children climb on my knee and ask, “Grandpa, tell us about a volcano eruption” I will answer thusly: “Well, son, it was way back in ‘59, the very same year Hawaii became a State, that Kilauea Iki erupted over on the Big Island. Nov. 14, I believe it was.” The 1959 eruption poured out for the next five weeks, sending fountains of lava to record heights over 1,900 feet high, creating an eruption so violent as to not flow, but really to explode, reducing the landscape around it to an iron red cinder, earning the complimentary moniker of the “Devastation Forest.” 

At around the same time, Okinawan-American artist Toshiko Takaezu had just fulfilled a year-long position teaching at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts, fulfilling the McInerny Foundation Grant. It’s neither the beginning or the end of this story, but rather someplace in the middle. One could imagine that she would have traveled back to the Big Island upon hearing the news, enshrining the experience in the landscape of ‘Bowl’ (1962).

I begin with this, as to examine Toshiko Takaezu’s body of work purely through the footnotes of an academic paper (spanning institutions like the Cranbrook School of Art, Princeton University, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the University of Hawaii, among others,)  or through the breaking records set at auction, (‘Moon’ recently sold for $541K at the Rago auction house), is impossible as the true breadth of her heritage can only be understood within her teachings and ties to the natural world. 

Toshiko Takaezu,Homage to Devastation Forest (Tree Man Forest), 1982–87.Stoneware. Racine ArtMuseum, gift of the artist.Installation view,Toshiko Takaezu: Worlds Within, The Noguchi Museum, New York, March20–July 28,2024. Photo © Nicholas Knight. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Known for her unbending devotion to her student’s learning and her boundary stretching work within ceramics, her latest posthumous retrospective at the Isamu Noguchi Museum Foundation and Garden Museum is the artist’s first nationally touring exhibition in over twenty years. There, in a corner of the exhibition is the artist’s 1980 work, in which the artist revisited the idea of the Devastation Forest in, “Homage to the Devastation Forest,” reconstructing the bones of the ash-blasted Ohia trees in the Ka’u forest. It’s one of the most true-to-form pieces in the artist’s retrospective show.

The title itself sounds dramatic, as otherworldly as the artist's other abstract nomenclature like the hanging nests carrying “Gaea,” or her glazed stoneware simply titled, “double-spouted vase.” On further reflection, perhaps it is not as otherworldly, but rather humorously to the point. 

Throughout Takaezu’s body of work, from the Henge-like “Star Series,” (1994-2001) to the glazed stoneware titled “Moon” (1985), there is an element of the natural world to be found. In one of her decorative ceramic plates, I recognized vistas from our shared home island of Hawaii, where the unprintable blue sky of dawn blankets the sleeping giants of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. In the slip-washed closed forms, I recognized the martian slopes of iron oxide, I recognized the once vibrant battle grounds at the edge between the Pacific Ocean and Madame Pele now embalmed in cool earth. 

Toshiko Takaezu,Homage to Devastation Forest (Tree Man Forest), 1982–87. Stoneware,each approximately 92 x 12 in. (233.7 x 30.5 cm). Racine Art Museum, gift of the artist.Photo:Installation view,Toshiko Takaezu, Tang Teaching Museum,2002; Courtesy of TheFrances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. © Family ofToshiko Takaezu

In examining the colors of the ceramics, one of the curators had shared that Takaezu was so precise to get the color needed, so as to resort to impractical shades of radioactive materials. These self made slips are a mirror of the natural world, and Takaezu – an ardent observer and replicator. Her practice earned her recognition among peers as a painter in three-dimensional form and as one of the premier in abstract work in ceramics. Growing up on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small agricultural commune named Pepe’ekeo, Takaezu was one of eleven children. Her parents had traveled from Okinawa, and like many other Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants, were looking for a better life working on the farmland of Hawaii. 

Toshiko Takaezu,Egg-Shaped Moon, 1970. Stoneware. Crocker ArtMuseum, gift of the artist,2007.10.15.Eclipse, 2003. Stoneware. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with funds contributed byThe Women’s Committee and the Craft Show Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mrs.Morris Stroud, 2004, 2004-93-1.Moon, 1990s.Stoneware.Allentown Art Museum, gift of the artist,2006, 2006.33.9.New Black Moon, 1990–91.Stoneware.Collection of Linda Leonard Schlenger.PurpleMoon, c. 1998.Stoneware.The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Leatrice S. and Melvin B. EagleCollection, gift of Leatrice and Melvin Eagle, 2010.2265.Installation view,Toshiko Takaezu: Worlds Within, The Noguchi Museum, New York, March20–July 28,2024. Photo © Nicholas Knight. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum

You can see hints of her émigré upbringing in throughout her work, ceramic analects created in the style of Raku firings akin to scorched yakimono, entwining the heritage craft of Okinawan indigo blues with ink splatterings of permanent soot, mediating her connection to the land via kiln offerings. Takaezu’s work is methodically perfect and expands the ceramic form beyond the typical clay vessel. Her closed forms are the artist’s ceramic apotheosis, in which the dark space inside is just as important to understanding the artist’s work as the swirling paintings on the surface. Dropping clay pebbles wrapped in paper and occasionally inscribing words within the closed forms, she builds her interior chrestomathy, only to be interpreted through the rattle they produce. 

Toshiko Takaezu, Closed Form, 2004. Porcelain, 19 1/2 x 11 in. (49.5 x 27.9 cm). PrivateCollection.Photo: Nicholas Knight. Courtesy The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and GardenMuseum.© Family of Toshiko Takaezu
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Toshiko Takaezu, Noguchi Museum, Art, Julia Smith