Meredith Harper’s White Road: The estate of porcelain master Rudolf Staffel
IN THE WHITE ROAD, EDMUND DE WAAL, RENOWNED AUTHOR AND CERAMICIST RECOUNTS HIS PILGRMINAGE TO THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT SITES IN THE HISTORY OF PORCELAIN – JINGZEDHEN IN CHINA, NAZI DRESDEN AND CORNWALL, ENGLAND. A RAREFIED AND DELICATE MEDIUM, DE WAAL BRINGS ITS ALCHEMICAL MAGIC TO HIS READERS AND TO CULTURAL HISTORIANS, ARTISTS AND COLLECTORS OF THIS EVER MORE RECOGNIZED ART FORM.
“It’s really quite simple, a pilgrimage of sorts, to beginnings, a chance to walk up the mountain where the white earth comes from …I have a plan to go to three places where porcelain was invented, or reinvented, three white hills in China and Germany and England.” Three white hills, each yielding a white object.
-Edmund de Waal, The White Road, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015
“It’s an inscrutable material,” he replies, slowly at first, “in the sense that it comes from earth but seems to aspire to something else. It seems closer to glass – closer to air – than the earth. So to me it’s utterly about a moment of alchemical change.” He pauses. “Does that sound b——-?”
He gives another little laugh. “Also, porcelain has an otherness, an elsewhere-ness, about it – it has come a long way, it’s part of a trajectory of a thousand years, and has mystery and mystique and all that stuff within it. There is no moment when porcelain ever becomes ordinary. It is always ‘best’.
-Edmund de Waal, New York Times Magazine Interview, November 29, 2015
TODAY, THE LRFA BLOG IS PLEASED TO WELCOME MEREDITH HARPER, ADVISOR AND CURATOR. MEREDITH HARPER FINE ART REPRESENTS THE ESTATE OF RUDOLF STAFFEL, AN ARTIST IN PORCELAIN. IN A CAREER SPANNING MORE THAN SIX DECADES, PHILADELPHIA BASED STAFFEL ENJOYED AN INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION. HE LIBERATED A STRONG, WHITE CERAMIC MATERIAL INTO ONE OF TRANSLUCENCY AND SCULPTURAL FORM. http://www.rudolfstaffel.com/about/
MEREDITH, STAFFEL IS REALLY A SCULPTOR IN PORCELAIN.
Absolutely — they’re sculptures that just happen to be made from porcelain, but also which by their very nature could only be made from porcelain. They’re also like three-dimensional paintings … Rudi thought of himself as a watercolorist in clay, and I think this feeling and accomplishment is very clear in these works. It’s not accident that the Staffel sculptures and the Ryman paintings in my White Magic exhibition had such a strong affinity.
Staffel was trying to do the same type of thing that occupied many of the Minimalist artists who also found their voices in the 1960s, not just Ryman, but also Agnes Martin, and Sol Lewitt, etc.: how to economize your means to create a deeper message, how to create an artwork that draws one in and inspires meditative contemplation, and how to reduce and manipulate the medium to its own pure ends. Zen Buddhism was important here, for many of these artists. They limited themselves to a set of rules, and the result was expansive — Rudi did so too, with porcelain, whiteness, and light.
HOW DO YOU INTEND TO REPRESENT THE ESTATE?
Rudi passed away in 2002 at the age of 91, and not long thereafter his primary gallery, Helen Drutt in Philadelphia, closed it’s day-to-day operations. He’d had major retrospectives in the Netherlands in 1990 and at the Design Museum in Helsinki and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996-97, but those were his last major museum shows. So for me in representing the Estate it’s not about establishing his reputation so much as reviving it, and exposing a new generation of collectors to his work. I do that through my own work with it, and also by partnering with galleries such as for the White Magic exhibition at David Nolan Gallery. We’re fortunate in that there’s now an incredible amount of much-deserved attention now being focused on ceramics, but what one of the things I explain to collectors less familiar with him is that Rudi has been a giant in that world for a long time … There’s not a significant book or exhibition on American studio ceramics that doesn’t recognize his sublime vision and contribution to the art form.
TELL US ABOUT THE 2014 EXHIBITION AND WHAT INSPIRED YOU.
I had wanted to do an exhibition of Staffel and Ryman for several years — I think the affinities between these two artists is incredible. Both limited themselves almost exclusively to exploring how to manipulate the color white, and when on occasion they did/do introduce other colors, they both limited that as well to base tones of blue, green or red. They are both very interested in optics and our perception of light, as well as the fundamental properties and messages inherent to their media of choice — porcelain and paint. As we started bringing the works together for the installation it was even more exciting than I had imagined, as the works resonated so strongly together. Although I’d know the works of both artists really well for years, having them together like that still taught me to see and appreciate new things about both, which I think was true for a lot of the visitors to the exhibition.
ARE THERE MANY WORKS IN THE ESTATE THAT COULD BE MADE AVAILABLE TO MUSEUMS AND COLLECTORS?
Yes, on both counts — there are many wonderful works still in the Estate. Although Rudi is widely represented in museums collections, I’ve recently been working directly with museums in acquiring them. The Newark Museum of Art recently purchased a gorgeous and very unique Light Gatherer, and there are some other acquisitions in the works. But I think that it’s just as important to place these in wonderful private collections where they can be enjoyed as a part of day-to-day life. Many of the collectors who purchased works from the Staffel/Ryman exhibition are on museum boards, so it’s nice to think that they may end up as gifts one day.
HOW DO YOU INTEND TO FURTHER RUDOLF STAFFEL’S RECOGNITION AS AN ARTIST?
Rudi had a very special vision that he channeled into his art. I love seeing other people have that same “wow” moment that I had when I first encountered his work, and to continue to be moved by it. So my goal is, through various means, to expand awareness of his work and make sure that this continues to happen: through exhibitions, the marketplace, and I’d love to do a major monograph sometime soon.
DO YOU HAVE OTHER EXHIBITIONS IN MIND AND IF SO, WHAT ARE THEY?
I do … But they’re still for the moment, under wraps!
MEREDITH, THANK YOU FOR SUCH AN INFORMATIVE AND HEARTFELT CONTRIBUTION TO THE BLOG.