Rudolf Staffel

(December 11, 2020) Rudolf Staffel (1911-2002) was one of America’s greatest ceramists. Despite his broad representation in museum and private collections around the world, his place in history has not adequately been adduced. A gentle, soft-spoken man, he was notoriously modest to the point of self-effacing, sheepishly accepting of the praise heaped upon him by students, collectors, and museum professionals. A native of San Antonio, TX, his works of the 1930s are classic mid-century examples of glazed stoneware and earthenware wheel-thrown forms. In the 1940s, he studied painting with Hans Hoffman, whose “push/pull” dictum of shifting planes in the pictorial field led Staffel to an epiphany about his work in ceramics. He began working exclusively in porcelain, developing a compound formula through trial and error that rendered the medium translucent. The resulting effect were pots that transmitted the light directed from within through its walls-“Light Gatherers”-displacing the traditional hierarchy of inside/outside of vessels, and transformed his objects into vibrant sculptural dissertations on form and color. Alternatingly wheel-thrown and altered, or hand built, there is an elegance even in the “clumsiest” of his works. His incisions, perforations, and other violations of the purity of ceramic form were as radical as anything attempted by Peter Voulkos, but Staffel worked stoically on a consistently modest scale, like a spider building a web. By contrast, Voulkos was ceramics’ gorilla in the wilderness. Rudi was a Buddhist, and part of his art-making ritual involved burying finished works in his backyard, returning them to the earth temporarily to complete their rebirth. More than once, I can remember frantic digs in his yard trying to locate pieces in preparation for an exhibition. Once discovered, we would scrub them with Clorox revealing their pristine whiteness or subtle washes of color. Like his objects, Rudi was a guiding light whose wisdom resonates through his legacy as a teacher, artist, and friend. More images can be seen posted here.