A Duet in Clay
by Glenn Adamson
Sometime between 1966 and 1968, Dr. Morton Grossman – who together with his wife Dorothy was a friend and collector of Gertrud and Otto Natzler – made a film of the two great ceramists. The footage shows them at work, in the luminous colors of vintage 8mm. Here is Otto making his glazes, measuring out and mixing ingredients; Gertrud wedging reddish clay and throwing at the wheel, shapes flowing magically from her fingers. And then, the revelatory moment of opening their small electric kiln (which is itself now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum). Otto reaches in, picks out each of the gem-like pots in turn, inspects it, and hands it to Gertrud. Sometimes they both hold the same pot at the same time, turning it round and round, a moment of togetherness and mutual discovery.
The film opens a unique window into the artistry of the Natzlers, touching in its combination of wonder and humility. For all the gorgeousness of what they made, their milieu was domestic in scale; Otto, in his glaze workshop, looks rather like an amateur cook in his kitchen. This was a family business, pursued at a time when ceramics was still considered an essentially utilitarian discipline. Many craftspeople worked at home, like this, and wife-and-husband teams were commonplace, among them Maria and Julian Martinez, Vivika and Otto Heino, Mary and Edwin Scheier.
Gertrud and Otto Natzler, though, had something special. Like their famed contemporary Lucie Rie (she was just six years older), they trained originally in Vienna, where design was still inflected by an exquisitely refined modernism. Otto’s stint as a textile designer clearly attuned him to palette and pattern, while Gertrud’s early study of drawing imparted to her a mastery of line, evident in the taut silhouettes of her thin-walled vessels.
One early notice in the national design press described their works as “exquisite examples of perfect integration of material, shape, color, and texture. There is a preciousness about each piece that is unequaled in contemporary pottery.”
When it came to ceramics, though, they were “99.5% self-taught,” apart from a few classes just after they met, in 1933.1 Otto liked to credit his distinctive glazes to his own ignorance. He’d been “using a high-school chemistry text, half a page was devoted to pottery and porcelain,” as he later recalled. “You can't imagine how these things looked emerging from the kiln. They had bubbles and blisters and holes — all wrong.”2 Of course, what began as failure turned out to be a lifelong interest, and he eventually became a master of pocked and pitted lava glazes.
In 1938 – the same year as Rie – they fled Austria to escape Nazi persecution, ending up in Los Angeles. They immediately found success there. One early notice in the national design press described their works as “exquisite examples of perfect integration of material, shape, color, and texture. There is a preciousness about each piece that is unequaled in contemporary pottery.”3 They displayed and sold their work not at run-of-the-mill craft fairs, but elevated settings like Cartier and Gump’s.
It’s not difficult to understand why when looking at the pieces that the Grossmans acquired over the years (often right out of the kiln, according to their son David Armstrong, who makes a cameo appearance as a little boy in the aforementioned film). The collection is particularly rich in bowl forms – sometimes approximately hemispherical, sometimes nearly conical, always with a precisely calibrated transition from the body to the foot. Gertrud rightfully likened throwing to playing a musical instrument; there was in the swells and hollows of a pot, she noted, “similarity to the application of strength in a musical passage – a crescendo, a forte, a pianissimo.”4
Otto’s stint as a textile designer clearly attuned him to palette and pattern, while Gertrud’s early study of drawing imparted to her a mastery of line, evident in the taut silhouettes of her thin-walled vessels.
With a few important exceptions (notably a handsome horizontally-striated bowl, and a vase, ovoid and tapering elegantly upwards to the neck, that demonstrates Gertrud’s supreme skill), the Grossmans seem to have inclined less toward Otto’s volcanic surfaces and more towards his glossy, highly chromatic glazes. Several of their pieces, like those with Tiger Eye iridescence and subtle “hare’s fur” patterning, caused by the gentle downward drift of heavier glaze elements during the firing, technically, recall historical Chinese wares. But the Natzlers did not subscribe to a hallowed Asian precedent – the “Sung Dynasty standard,” as Bernard Leach put it – as many others of their generation did.
The Grossmans also acquired an example of Gertrud’s hand-hammered copperwork, clearly derived from her throwing vocabulary, as well as one of Otto’s mobiles, made of found abalone shell fragments. The mobile has a charming humility, yet it’s also clearly in dialogue with Alexander Calder – another reminder that for the Natzlers, modesty and ambition were absolutely compatible. I think of the scene in the film, again, where Otto lifts one piece after another out of the kiln, and shares it immediately with Gertrud. One can only hope that on such occasions, they were surprised and gratified; not only humbled by what they had made, but also proud, that these marvels of perfection were the works of their own four hands.
1. Quoted in Florence Rubenfeld, “Otto Natzler: Solo,” American Craft 42/1 (1982),
2. Quoted in Rita Reif, “Theirs was a Marriage of Innovative Form and Finish,” New York Times (Aug. 1, 1993), 32.
3. “Contemporary American Ceramics,” Everyday Art Quarterly 2 (Autumn, 1946), 6.
4. Quoted in Form and Fire: Natzler Ceramics 1939-1972 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 19.
A clip from Dr. Grossman's film showing Gertrud at work. The entirety of the 8mm film will be on view at Rago from January 13-20.