New Acquisitions: 2016
Square serving dish
In 1956, a few years after he made this dish, Kaneshige Tōyō (1896–1967) became one of the first Japanese ceramic artists to be named a Holder of Intangible Cultural Properties, also known as a “Living National Treasure.” Kaneshige earned this great honor for his contributions to revitalizing Bizen ware. Although museums, collectors, and tea practitioners admired the appearance of unglazed woodfired Bizen clay as seen in medieval storage jars and early tea wares, Bizen potters had lost the ability to create that subtle coloration.Over time, advances in kiln technology, offering hotter and more uniform firing, had transformed the surfaces of Bizen wares. Ornamental sculptures with smooth, glossy finishes had replaced tea wares as mainstay products. Tōyō himself began as a sculptor, following his father, but in the late 1920s he became fascinated with rediscovering and studying old kiln sites. Today, he is celebrated for recreating the ancient kiln structure, firing methods, and clay selection and forming techniques to enable modern potters to emulate the ash-dusted, dark-brown surfaces.
Much of Kaneshige’s work focused on reinterpreting classic vessel forms for tea. In May 1952, however, the Kamakura-based ceramic entrepreneur and gourmand Kitaōji Rosanjin (1883–1959) came to make pottery in Kaneshige’s workshop, accompanied by his houseguest, the American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988). They introduced novel forming approaches. Rosanjin had invented ways of draping clay slabs over molds to make angular serving dishes—a new form in clay, though inspired by older lacquer trays. Noguchi, trained as a sculptor, previously had used his skill with plaster molds to shape square plates with relief decoration, which he then glazed. In Kaneshige’s workshop, Noguchi worked more boldly, adding freehand cut edges or appendages to squares of gritty, unglazed Bizen clay.
Kaneshige’s encounter with Rōsanjin and Noguchi inspired a dramatic expansion of his work to encompass modern tableware. For this serving dish, he let the rich Bizen clay be the focus, simply framing the gently concave surface with a thick, uneven edge and beveled corners. Firing brought the clay to life: Kaneshige placed the dish in the kiln with experienced calculation, shielding the rear portion while leaving the front exposed to catch gusts of flame-borne ash that deposited a crust of grays and ochres on the uplifted edge. The back of the dish bears Kaneshige’s incised mark, the syllable tō (for “clay”).
This dish’s ownership history is of special significance. The American artist J. B. Blunk (1926–2002) studied ceramics at UCLA with Laura Andreson (1902–1999), from whom he learned about Japanese ceramic traditions, before serving in the US Army in Korea. Upon his discharge, Blunk chose to stay in Japan. He had a chance encounter with Noguchi in a Tokyo coffee shop, which led to an introduction to Rōsanjin. Blunk then met Kaneshige, who was at Rōsanjin’s workshop in late 1952 and early 1953 to build and fire a Bizen-style kiln. Preferring Kaneshige to Rōsanjin, Blunk sought an apprenticeship and spent fourteen months with the artist in 1953–54, during which time Kaneshige gave him this dish. It is a significant marker of one of American potters’ earliest encounters with Japanese traditions of wood-fired kilns and unglazed stoneware ceramics.