on a Kawai plate

This example of Kawai’s studio production ware was most likely pressed into a mold by assistants and then decorated by him. The dish is a square with rounded corners bound by a hexagon: a sophisticated geometry. The clay wall is revealed in the flat rim where the softly rounded inside corners play off the outside’s straight cuts, rendering a playful tension between inside and out that is further advanced by the slightly uneven thickness of the edge. This rather structured shape is countervailed by the gestural use of color and line in the glaze: A stiffer red glaze and a transparent glaze have been vigorously poured in circular motions creating third milky green effect where they overlap over the iron base glaze. The iron glaze shows a slight break on the edges of the rim, revealing the rich character of the light buff body: pinholes and coarser particles as well as metallic spots from the body modulate the glaze’s silky matte texture. There is a sense of contained motion and energy. Kawai and Hamada claimed to have done over 10,000 glaze tests in their youth as employees of the Kyoto Ceramic Testing Institute. Kawai is often cited for his mastery and spectacular use of glaze effect, which is born out in this example. Kawai was one of the original members of the Mingei movement (along with writer Soetsu Yanagi and fellow potters Kenkichi Tomimoto and Soji Hamada), which found inspiration in the beauty and utility of traditional common crafts and sought to preserve them in a rapidly modernizing Japan. Though this example fits in the idiom of traditional Japanese tableware, much of Kawai’s work is quirky and has been described as otherworldly. Considered somewhat eccentric and individualistic, he developed an ambivalent relationship to the Mingei establishment—and perhaps establishments generally (he later refused the so-called National Living Treasure designation). He seemed to absorb a range of influences, including European modernism, into his wide-ranging artistic production, which included work in wood and metal and even poetry and aphorisms transcribed in calligraphy. Hamada said of Kawai, “I have known few artists who incorporate what impresses them into their own works more promptly and with greater enthusiasm….”

—from Innovation and Change: Great Ceramics from the Arizona State University Art Museum, edited by Peter Held (2009).