Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Plea for the Touching of Certain Art

Toshiko Takaezu's work at Princeton Art Museum is worth a look. I wish it could be touched. It is art made to be touched. I fell in deep like with a monolith of a piece, a tall black form rising like a classic vase,from a base let's say two or three feet in diameter, up to a rounded shoulder a couple of feet wider. Reminiscent of a classic vase form, it defies vasehood by being closed at the smooth, rounded top. There is no opening. It is a form.

It is glazed a semi-matte black. Something in the glaze, perhaps feldspar, sparkles in the soft exhibition light.

Like much of Toshiko's work, it is like some magnificent stone, in this case covered with a mineral formulation that resembles faintly luminous sumi ink. It is not functional, and of course it does not speak out loud, but still evoked my response by its very monolithic muteness. Maybe early idols were like this, seeming to be more than stone. Of course, this is no idol, but a ceramic piece with an outsized presence.

Remember, this black piece, among the rest of the pieces in the exhibition, is in a museum space. We all know you must not touch museum pieces.

Toshiko sometimes encloses rattling bits in her pieces. If you could lift one of these pieces, you could hear it. It would become interactive. You cannot see the interior at all on her closed forms, or on the forms with just a tiny conelike hole at the very top. You can feel the volume of enclosed space from the exterior of the forms. But I read here about the rattles, and I am only a little surprised. It makes sense. These are quiet "pots" with a presence that radiates a power note. With her rattle enclosures, Toshiko makes the sound into reality. I have never held one of her pots in my hands. I must take this information as it is told, but wouldn't it be good to shake...

The piece I liked so much, towering over shortish me from its place on a museum platform, was so strong and appealing that I stepped as close as I could. In life, I'm wont to touch satins and velvets, netting and bark, feathers and stones. Potters touch things. We fall for texture. We are secret texture fondlers. Quick look around- no museum guard, no other patrons besides my two friends, absorbed in their own trip among Toshiko's pots. I laid a hand on the tall black "stone," named Night, and held it there for a couple of blissful seconds. The glaze was somehow warm and practically electric. I was not disappointed. I needed to be too quick to really assess and disassemble the feeling, but the faint ridges of the skin (from the making process), covered in the semi-smooth feldspathic glaze, connected and completed the viewing experience.

Tactile medium! Touching necessary! Impulse ruled. I hope no one will track me down and bar me from entry to the Princeton Museum over it! But- until this moment of public confession- no one knew. It wasn't ignorance that let me touch the art- me, the rule-observer, the goody-two-shoes! I did know this was not raku, not earthenware, not porous, not easily damaged without a sledegehammer, not delicate!

This is not like a painting. It is high-temperature fired clay covered in a very durable glaze. The glaze will not erode by my touch, as it is truly fired onto (and merged with) the surface of the clay it covers. It may show prints from the oil in the skin of touching fingers (which can be wiped away), but otherwise it would be unaffected by human touch. Ms. Takaezu's work begs to be touched. Can't this be interactive, as it was meant? Can't this art exhibition allow at least this one heavy, large pot, stable in its stance, to be touched? I wonder what the remarkable Toshiko, now 88 years old, would say. I hope she would not censure my impulse, born of the magnetic presence of her pieces and my love of things Clay.

I confess. My own brief, totally unsanctioned moment of touch was marvelous. While I don't recommend it to you, reader, because it is wrong to suggest you break the rule, too, it was a precious couple of seconds I am glad I had.

(The photo at the top of this page show Ms. Takaezu walking in front of pieces very like the one I touched.)


  1. How does one throw something taller than oneself? How does a small person like that move such a huge mass of clay?

    I, too, am a stealth-toucher in museums. (Perhaps that's where I get it from?) Having always been so tactile, touching the thing makes it realer, somehow, connects me with the hands of those who made it. I've only done it a few times, with giant ancient stone carvings, and I know why I shouldn't - the oils from the fingers of thousands upon thousands of people build up, and eat away at the fine details in the stone. But sometimes, just a few occasions, I did it anyway.

  2. This is one way in which I think children's museums have an edge over regular museums: they accommodate the human need to experience art with more than just one's eyes. You don't lose that tactile fascination when you grow up!

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  4. GilaB- Ms. Takaezu starts this form with a large, deep open bowl shape she throws on the wheel. She lights paper with a blowtorch and burns it inside the bowl. She builds up the walls by adding large coils and pieces, which she then throws into shape. You can notice the variations and undulations where she built onto the form as you look at (or touch!) the finished piece. The fire goes out quickly each time, but begins drying and firming the piece bit by bit as she goes along, so that the previous portion of wall is strong enough to hold the next portion and not collapse under the weight of it. She stands on a stool or ladder to add more as the piece grows. She is quite wonderful. 
As for stealth touching- have I been a bad influence? You always were a tactile-oriented child.