New forms of old traditions at the Japan Society

by Robert Yellin

Over the past several years there have been quite a few exhibitions of Japanese ceramics overseas, but “Contemporary Clay/Japanese Ceramics for the New Century,” which is now at the Japan Society Gallery in New York, is the most brilliant by far.

The bulk of the Japan Society Gallery exhibition consists of major works from Halsey and Alice North’s collection. The Norths are founders of The North Group Inc., which assists nonprofit performing arts centers and theaters across the United States. With foresight, passion and a keen sense of beauty, the couple have assembled a major collection of contemporary Japanese ceramics over a period of 20 years. Most of the Norths’ selections bring traditional styles into the present day.

Their collection includes rugged, gritty Shigaraki ware by Shiro Otani and Yasuhisa Kohyama; warm, brown-toned Bizen ware by Ryuichi Kakurezaki, Togaku Mori and Kosuke Kaneshige; and pitted, glazed Shino ware by Yasukage Kato. All these potters have broken with tradition in forms, while retaining the centuries-old characteristic of their styles. The focus of the collection is on Kyoto artists, including Kazuo Yagi, Osamu Suzuki and Hikaru Yamada — the three founding members of the Sodeisha ceramics movement.

The exhibition also features works from the collections of Victoria Chan-Palay, Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen, Stanley and Mary Ann Snider, Elizabeth and Mark Levine, Marc Benda and Mary Griggs Burke. Reactions to the show have been overwhelmingly positive, with visitors raving, “My life has been transformed by what I have seen,” and “I have always loved Japanese ceramics but this group went over the top — I am telling everyone about them.” The Japan Times spoke to the Norths via e-mail about the exhibition, collecting ceramics and 20th-century potter Kazuo Yagi.

How was the exhibition conceived and how did you choose from your extensive collection?

The idea for the exhibition was hatched by Joe Earle when he attended an illustrated lecture on contemporary Japanese ceramics we presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on March 19, 2003. Joe was at the museum to accept the position of Chair, Department of Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa. Our lecture and the resulting exhibition at the MFA Boston (“Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century,” Oct. 7, 2005-July 9, 2006) focused on the work of artist potters we had met in their homes and studios over the last 20 years. The exhibition consisted of 60 works primarily from our collection.

In May 2006, Dick Wood, an old friend of ours and former president of Earlham College (a center for Japan study where we met, graduated, and married), e-mailed us to tell us he was becoming the new president of New York’s Japan Society and would like to launch the society’s centennial year by showing the “Contemporary Clay” exhibition, saying, “Any chance your ceramics show at the MFA Boston might find a place in the JS gallery?”

Five short months later, starting Sept. 29, a much-expanded version of the successful exhibition at the MFA has, in fact, been placed on exhibit at New York’s Japan Society Gallery. The expanded gallery space at Japan Society has allowed Joe Earle to enlarge the exhibition to 103 works, including 16 more from our collection as well as works from the MFA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and other New York- and Boston-area collectors.

Kazuo Yagi’s “Kumo no Kioku (A Cloud Remembered)” (1959) is being shown at the exhibition.

Indicative of the perceived importance of the Japan Society event, the MoMA has loaned to the exhibition “Kumo no Kioku,” by Kazuo Yagi, a pioneer of the postwar ceramic sculptural movement in Japan. Yagi is the central figure around whom our collection and this exhibition is built. Because the ceramic sculpture is fragile, it is rarely on view to the public, although the Japan Society Gallery was blessed with the work once previously in 1993 for its groundbreaking “Modern Japanese Ceramics in American Collections.”

How did you start collecting?

The first significant piece of contemporary Japanese clay we purchased was a flattened blue bottle with rope design by Tatsuzo Shimaoka, which we purchased from the artist at his studio in 1986 during our first trip to Japan together to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. We fell in love with Mingei ceramics on that trip and, since then, have purchased functional ware and dishes for serving food because Halsey is a good cook and we like to entertain.

In 1994, on a trip with Louse Cort, Curator for Ceramics at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, we met Atsuko Koyanagi, owner of Gallery Koyanagi. Atsuko opened an entirely new world of ceramics, introducing us to such artists as Akira Yagi, Sueharu Fukami, Yo Akiyama, Junko Kitamura, Kazuo Takiguchi, Shoko Koike and Masanao Kaneta — all of whom are in the exhibition.

In 1999, Sakiyo Yagi (Akira’s wife) led a trip we organized for New York’s Japan Society to visit many of the artists who had worked with or were influenced by her father-in-law, Kazuo Yagi. During and after that trip, we began focusing our collection on contemporary Japanese sculptural ceramics. Those works form the core of the exhibition, and illustrate the founding and influence of sculptural ceramics in Japan.

What moves you to acquire a work?

To purchase a work, we both have to agree. Decisions are often quick and heartfelt. We especially collect work that builds on tradition but speaks with a contemporary vision. Perfect examples are works by Ryuichi Kakurezaki and Akira Yagi — many of which are exhibited in “Contemporary Clay.”

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