Howard Kottler: Ceramic Artist

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"Elaborating his ideas in compositions that are frequently astonishing, he created a body of late work that, in retrospect, has content and depth perhaps unparalleled in contemporary ceramics." footnote 1

The late Howard Kottler (1930-89), former UW art professor and ceramist, "helped to redefine the entire field of contemporary American ceramic art," footnote 1 writes UW art historian Patricia Failing in her recent book, Howard Kottler: Face to Face.

His work is a reflection of the personality: exuberant, irreverent, provocative, making liberal use of irony and double entendres. He is described by Failing as an "unpredictable iconoclast whose mode of address was innuendo."

Kottler began his career with a traditional crafts orientation in the 1950s. As a student, he had been trained in traditional ceramic techniques and glaze technology. After earning a masters degree from Ohio State University, Kottler studied with distinguished artist Maija Grotell at the Cranbrook Academy. With support of a Fulbright grant, he spent time working at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and at the Arabia Ceramic Factory in Finland, studying the creation and application of ceramic decals, where his contacts with the artists had perhaps the greatest impact on his future development. He returned to Ohio State, where he received a Ph.D. in ceramics in 1964. He joined the UW faculty in 1965.

By the mid-1960s, Kottler had succeeded in forging a link between his work and the major new directions in painting and sculpture. Kottler came to consider himself an artist-potter, who sought to link ceramics to the broader context of the world of modern art, rather than a studio-potter who takes inspiration from ceramic history and tradition.

During the 1960s, he created a range of multimedia works made of ceramic, decals, fur, and other novel combinations. In the 1970s, his interests broadened to include slip-cast assemblages, Art Deco-inspired creations, and several series of decal plates, for which he is perhaps most widely known. His plates dealt with social and political commentary--subject matter rarely explored in ceramic art at the time. Art Deco-inspired pots were "wallpapered" with sheets of decals placed over lustrous glazes to create sumptuous pattern and visual depth.

By the 1980s, writes Failing, Kottler had developed into "a conceptual artist who approached his materials as vehicles for art-historical commentary and physical eroticism, and as metaphors for probing the unbridgeable gap between the Self and the Other." footnote 1 During his last decade, Kottler was among the few major ceramic artists in the United States actively involved with making sculpture.

Among other forms, Kottler experimented with bold geometric bottle-and-stopper vase sculptures combined with brightly colored or faceted balls. He began a series of self-portraits in 1977 using his silhouette in profile, a concept he further explored in subsequent works. In 1978, he paired two profiles, face to face, to create a Rubens-Vase effect, in which the void between the two silhouettes creates the form of a vase--a visual pun: ceramicist using clay to make a "vase." His Portrait of a Vase (1979) was included in a widely reviewed traveling exhibition mounted by the Seattle Art Museum in 1987 entitled "Clay Revisions: Plate, Cup and Vase."

  1. Howard Kottler: Face to Face, Patricia Failing, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995.

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