Arts, Off Campus

Crossing Borders With Her Hands: MFA Boston’s ‘Toshiko Takaezu: Shaping Abstraction’

Almost everyone has played with mud at one point in their lives. To take the earthy material and turn it into a work of creative innovation is a true feat. For this artistic accomplishment, Toshiko Takaezu is someone to look up to. 

With over 20 pieces from the museum itself and some from private collectors, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, Mass. is displaying a special full-year exhibit titled Toshiko Takaezu: Shaping Abstraction from Sept. 30, 2023 to Sept. 29, 2024. 

Takaezu, an Asian American ceramist and painter, impressed the world with her mastery in ceramics and abstract paintings. Born to Japanese immigrant parents in 1922 in Hawaii, Takaezu forged her own path as an innovative, multidisciplinary artist in the United States. 

As part of the MFA’s mission to introduce American artists of diverse cultural heritages, Toshiko Takaezu: Shaping Abstraction highlights Takaezu’s practices and explorations on crossing cultural boundaries and integrating modern abstraction with traditional Japanese pottery.

Toshiko Takaezu: Shaping Abstraction is a comprehensive exhibition featuring her lifelong work in ceramics, as well as some acrylic on canvas paintings and a newly acquired large-scale weaving. 

“You are not an artist simply because you paint or sculpt or make pots that cannot be used,” Takaezu said. “[Art] has mystery, an unsaid quality; it contains a spirit and is alive.”

The exhibit resides in Gallery 332 in the Art of the Americas section of the museum. The area is an open space where visitors can move freely around and view the exhibit in any order of their preference. 

Unlike most exhibits that take viewers through an artist’s creative journey in a chronological way, this layout was interesting and relaxing because of the option to wander around, stay a little longer at certain sections, return to pieces, and make connections among them.    

The layout of the gallery is very simple—neutral color backdrops with dim lights cast onto each piece, emphasizing the unique colors and textures of each artwork. Porcelain and stoneware plates are hung up against the wall, just like how Takaezu would display them. This method of display recreates Takaezu’s desire for plates to resemble paintings and how she used unconventional materials—like sculptural surfaces—as her canvases. 

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are invited to sit down and watch a short video. In the video, Takaezu explains her artistic visions and viewers can see Takaezu in her artistic element. The video explains that Takaezu experimented with various forms of craftsmanship, such as hand glazing her ceramic plates in a free-flowing fashion. 

The highlight of the gallery is undoubtedly the center area, where pottery of various sizes and shapes are placed in a wave-shaped platform. The layout allows audiences to view the same pieces at different angles, fully immersing the audience in her craft. With each different angle, gallery viewers could discover new details on the potteries’ surfaces. 

Toward the back of the gallery, there are two wooden chairs titled “Pair of Conoid Chairs.” Despite being part of the museum’s collection, visitors are invited to sit on them as part of an immersive experience. The chairs originally furnished Takaezu’s home, made by her close friend George Nakashima. Both artists shared a love for nature and a commitment to hand-craftsmanship and individual artists’ expression. 

The large woven piece “Ao-Ao” is also something to look out for. Takaeazu takes on the traditional weaving method called “ryijy” in Finnish or “rya” in Swedish modernized by Scandinavian artists. Instead of using traditional wool and linen, Takaeazu mixes both natural material and synthetic fibers, including wool, nylon, and rayon. The rya rug is mostly dark blue, with a hint of brownish yellow on the bottom rim. 

“Ao-Ao” stood out because it was very different from Takaeazu’s other artworks, where she focused on ceramics and non-useable art. Her rya rug really emphasizes her ability as a versatile, well-rounded artist.  

Throughout the exhibition, various sounds and chimes can be heard spontaneously. Takaezu worked extensively on sound, and one of her artistic innovations was accidently birthed from the dropping of a pot’s rim into a vessel. After she began to drop clay balls into her closed finished pots, creating unique sounds through the rattling of ceramics and later bronze bells found in Japanese temples. This addition made the exhibit appeal to another sense: hearing. The chimes were very soothing and meditative. 

The MFA’s exhibition Toshiko Takaezu: Shaping Abstraction takes visitors through the lifelong artistic practice of Asian American artist Takaezu and reflects on her lasting impact on merging abstract designs with traditional Japanese art forms.

October 22, 2023