Rudolf Staffel (1911-2002) has been called a "watercolorist in clay," and the translucency of his porcelain vessels rivals the effects of this delicate medium.1 Indeed, Staffel began his artistic career as a painter. Even as a teenager he was enamored of the loose, wet brushwork of Chinese and Japanese Zen paintings. He studied painting, drawing, and design at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1930s, and later studied in New York with the influential German-born Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, whose push-pull theory of compositional dynamics impacted Staffel's own handling of clay. During a stay in Mexico, where he went to study glassblowing, Staffel encountered pre-Columbian ceramics and was inspired to begin working with clay. His early stoneware works were more figurative, and sometimes overtly political, as in Head, Staffel's reaction to the trials of nine African American teens accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931.
Starting in the late 1950s Staffel worked solely in porcelain, which allows for the same lucidity as glass or paint. The only ingredient that Staffel's porcelain vessels are designed to hold is light. As is most evident in his "Light Gatherer" series, capturing light was his ongoing passion. "Even when I was a painter, I was always interested in light," he said. "Something about light coming through glass, wax, or snow. I wanted to achieve a passage of light."2
Staffel alternated between thrown and hand-built forms, in both cases striving for freshness of execution. His handling of porcelain defied the material's usual associations with fragility and preciousness. While taking advantage of the clay's crystalline luminosity, he had no qualms about manipulating the material in unprecedented ways; piercing, stretching, folding, and engraving were all enlisted to aid in the transmission of light.
His hand-built works, in particular, reveal his improvisation in constructing the vessel, as he pinched, pulled, layered, and patched up tears with clay swatches. Staffel's spontaneous process harked back to his early inspirations of Chinese brush painting and Abstract Expressionism.
-Suzanne Ramljak, from Crafting a Legacy: Contemporary American Crafts in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2002), p. 58.
1. Rudolf Staffel: Searching for Light: Ceramics, 1936-1996, exh. cat. (Helsinki: Museum of Applied Arts, 1996), p. 9.
2. Paula and Robert Winokur, "The Light of Rudolf Staffel," Craft Horizons, 37, no. 2 (April 1977), p. 25.
Photo credit: Michael Nye