Encircling Infinity: The Natzler Ceramics

by Glenn Adamson

Otto and Gail Natzler, 1975 by Max Yavno Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 13 1/2 (26.4 x 34.3 cm) The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles The Max Yavno Collection © Center for Creative, Photography, The University of Arizona Foundation

It is November 2, 1972. Otto Natzler, in his studio in Los Angeles, is about to do something breathtakingly difficult: glaze a pot. (1)  He’s done that thousands of times before, of course, using many, many different glazes of his own invention (about 2,500 formulas, all told). But this pot is very special. His late wife, Gertrud, shaped it with her hands prior to her death in June 1971. (2)  About two hundred pieces she had made remained in the studio; Otto had been too busy being her caregiver to glaze and fire them. So there they sat. One can only imagine what it meant for him to contemplate these final forms, the last of the last, still replete with potential. Gertrud had always been renowned for the fineness of her shapes, their every curve intuitively refined, the vessel walls a mere one or two millimeters thick. Otto began with the very last one she’d made. “It was up to me,” he remembered thinking, “to do justice to it now.” (3)

Otto always credited his relationship with Gail Reynolds with giving him the courage to face this task. They had met two years earlier, in 1970, at a reception held at Tidepool Gallery in Malibu.  When Gail heard of Gertrud’s death, she wrote to Otto in a spirit of combined condolence and admiration. Her words were touchingly perceptive: “The bowls seemed to encircle infinity. I saw them as the forms they were and the forms they could have become, had they spun too far.” (4) Otto invited Gail to meet again, at a retrospective held at the DeYoung Museum in summer 1971; gradually they formed a relationship. They would marry in the fall of 1973. That same season, the Natzlers’ ceramics were also the subject of a major retrospective at the newly opened Renwick Gallery in Washington DC. The exhibition included some of those last pieces of Gertrud’s, which Otto came to feel were among the most beautiful he’d ever made with her, though she did not live to see them completed. 

Gertrud and Otto Natzler

Gertrud and Otto Natzler’s graceful forms with exquisite glazes stand among the most admired ceramic works of the 20th century. Gertrud skillfully threw the clay, shaping organically inspired vessels with thin walls while Otto performed feats of alchemy exploring various firing techniques and glaze recipes to develop signature finishes. Throughout their prolific career, spanning close to forty years, the vibrant duo strove for perfection.

Gertrud and Otto met in Vienna in 1933 when they were both twenty-five. Otto was working as a textile designer and Gertrud was a secretary, though Otto had originally been committed to being a violinist and Gertrud had attended a business and secretarial school, the Handelsakademie. Both were interested in ceramics and the two studied in the workshop of Franz Iskra in Vienna before opening their own workshop in 1935. Their work received early recognition and they were rewarded the Silver Medal at the World Exposition Paris in 1937. They married in 1938 and fled Austria for Los Angeles, where they continued their robust creative partnership for nearly forty years.

Gertrud passed away in 1971 and Otto returned to creating work in 1973, continuing until his death in 2007. Their bold artistic legacy lives on in such prestigious collections as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

Auction Results Gertrud and Otto Natzler