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.
Their collaboration had begun long ago and far away, in Vienna, when the city was shadowed by the rise to power of the Nazis. They’d had a courtship through clay. Otto was unemployed—the company where he’d worked as a textile designer had been shut down because its owner was Jewish—and was in the process of disentangling himself from an early ill-matched marriage. When he met Gertrud, who had herself just begun to work in ceramics, he asked her for a lump of clay, a thinly disguised means of getting her attention. She duly provided one. He’d never so much as touched the material before, but produced two sculptures, which were promising enough that she suggested she join him taking lessons from potter Franz Xaver Iskra. At the studio, Otto marveled at Gertrud’s wizardly skill at the wheel—it was as if she were born to it—and, having had a little previous experience with chemistry, he wondered openly about the commercial glazes used, which might go on pink but turn out green. How did that happen? “You hit right upon it,” cried Iskra, “this is one of the great mysteries of ceramics!” As Otto later put it, “Unfortunately his answer did not quite satisfy my inborn sense of curiosity.” (5)
When he and Gertrud proceeded to set up their own studio in 1935, it was only natural for them to adopt a division of labor in which she created the forms and he the glazes. For a few excruciating weeks, this meant that Otto ruined nearly everything that Gertrud made. “With about as much knowledge as the first potter on earth, I started to mix the materials I had bought. I mixed indiscriminately whatever came into my hands and, of course, the results were in keeping with my complete lack of knowledge.” (6) But he learned quickly (for starters, he realized he should use test tiles, not Gertrud’s vases and bowls). In later years, Otto always said that his early blind stumbling had been a blessing in disguise. First and foremost, it instilled in him an autodidact’s individuality. So many of his glazes are unlike anything else in the history of ceramics. Many writers have compared the Natzler’s work to classical Chinese ceramics, for lack of any other equally sophisticated precedent. (7) But there’s actually little relationship between their work and the East Asian tradition. Gertrud used a red clay formula Otto devised for her throwing, not porcelain or stonewares, and to the extent that her forms had an external inspiration, it was the architecture of Austria itself: as Gail Natzler has pointed out, the country’s baroque-era structures—the onion domes atop church towers, as well as inverted bowl-shaped motifs found on secular building roofs—have similarly graceful curvatures. Otto, meanwhile, did express his regard for the great products of the Sung dynasty, but his own output hardly ever resembles them. Even his celadon and “sang” oxblood glazes—the closest he came to the Chinese idiom—are distinctively his own.
Otto’s early experimentation also yielded a key, unexpected insight. Right from the start, he took an interest in his own “mistakes,” the results of over- and under-firing, and poor fit between a glaze and a clay body. Otto realized that these effects had their own aesthetic possibilities, which could be controlled. This led him to his most dramatic and recognizable effects: “lava” cratering, achieved through multiple firings; iridescence, resulting from the purification of metallic elements in the glaze; and what he called “melt fissures,” which were caused by a rapid cooling in the firing cycle, which partially solidifies and separates the surface, exposing still-molten glaze materials beneath. (8)
In 1938, after only three years together in their Vienna studio, Gertrud and Otto realized—though they could not have guessed the scale of the horror that were about to unfold—that it was time for Jews like themselves to leave Austria. (9) After a long voyage with all of their worldly goods on board—including Gertrud’s kick wheel and Otto’s electric kiln—they arrived in Los Angeles. (10) Destitute, they went deep into debt to set up a house and studio. It was an extremely precarious time, but their work, unlike anything being made in America (or anywhere else for that matter), immediately attracted attention. Within just a year, they were covered in the Los Angeles Times, won a top prize in the Syracuse Ceramic National, and had sales outlets both in L.A. (the legendary Bullocks Wilshire, a connection via fellow Viennese émigré Paul Frankl) and San Francisco. Soon they were selling work across the country, including in New York City at design-forward stores like Bonnier’s and Georg Jensen, as well as America House, the pioneering store of the national craft council, founded by Aileen Osborn Webb in 1940. (11)
“It is the creative emotional force that produces the form,” he wrote, “and it is the creative intellectual force that relates it to the natural forces of the fire, and thus the medium.”
They also made a series of other fortuitous connections, including with the pioneering wood turner and sculptor James Prestini—who on first meeting them, bought $140 worth of ceramics in one fell swoop for his shop in Lake Forest, Illinois—and the prominent L. A. art dealer Dalzell Hatfield. He would show the Natzlers’ work from 1940 to 1967, alongside works of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, an unparalleled juxtaposition in American ceramics of the time. Hatfield was effective in positioning them in museums nationwide, including in a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1946. The Natzlers were also among the craft artists actively promoted in the Museum of Modern Art’s design program, with work included in the 1947 exhibition 100 Useful Objects of Fine Design Available Under $100, alongside Swedish glassware, aluminum pots and pans, and “a cheese slicer of great ingenuity and a rough but noble beauty.” In this context, another aspect of their work shone through: their uncompromising modernism, in which form and function were honed to the purest essence.
As their work matured, so did their thinking. Unfortunately Gertrud left no major writings or interviews, but we do have eloquent comments from her on the art of throwing, including this passage: It must, of necessity, start with the centering of the clay. This takes strength and an iron grip. The further the form develops, the more delicate the touch must become until in the end there is simply a describing of the curve, a movement of the hands—with the yielding clay in between –that determines the final line. There is a spontaneity without parallel while playing the clay. The word ‘playing’ suggests a similarity to the application of strength in a musical passage—a crescendo, a forte, a pianissimo. But the difference is that the moment the note has been sounded, it has already passed, while the strong pressure or the mere caressing of the pliable clay is retained in its final form. (12)
It was Otto who became the primary spokesman for the couple. As his proficiency in English improved, he began to write for an American audience. A 1964 piece for Craft Horizons modestly called “The Natzler Glazes,” a title that suggests a straightforward technical treatise, proves to be a complete account of their aesthetic framed in terms of the age-old elemental order. First he wrote about Earth, “the basic, the most static ingredient of a ceramic,” but subject to great transformation. For Otto, working clay was something like accelerated geology; the challenge to the potter was to bring out “its own indigenous movement.” Next came Water, which courses in and out of the clay body as it first made plastic, then dried and fired. The quality of a finished pot retains something of this fluidity, “giving an expression of the liquidity and thus the dynamism of the glaze.” Finally there was Fire, by which Otto meant not just heat—which he described as “sexless”—but actual flame and smoke, coursing powerfully through the kiln. “It is the creative emotional force that produces the form,” he wrote, “and it is the creative intellectual force that relates it to the natural forces of the fire, and thus the medium.” (13)
Gertrud Natzler throwing a bowl on her Viennese kick wheel, early 1940s, Photo by Dorothy Hoffman
Reading this last line, you might think that Otto was allotting creative roles to himself and Gertrud based along traditional lines—she was the emotional one, he the intellectual—but I am sure that is not right. She might have been the thrower and he the alchemist, but they both concerned themselves deeply with the other’s domain. Some of Otto’s best writing, in fact, is about Gertrud’s forms. In a 1968 monograph for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which features gorgeous photography by Max Yavno, who would later create a memorable portrait of Otto and Gail) he delineated four main typologies of Gertrud’s work: the round bowl, the bowl with a flaring lip, the teardrop bottle, and double curved forms. All of these have fine points of articulation, with the last, he thought, being the “most elusive as to the arrangements of its curves and proportions. In its ideal development it gives the impression of expanding and contracting motion, as if breathing.”
“The true lover of a pot will see a world contained in it and he will never see himself as its owner, but as the trustee through whose hand it will pass to the next.”
Of course, Otto also responded to Gertrud’s pots on their actual surface. He did not dip her pieces into glaze, or pour it over, but rather painted it on with a brush, carefully modulating the thickness of application depending on the shape, all the while anticipating the flow that would occur in the firing. And this was only the first stage. While Otto did have some glazes suitable for just one firing, he more often re-glazed a piece and put it into the kiln again, sometimes as many as three, four or even five times. This approach has become common recently among contemporary ceramists, but was then rather unusual—as was his combination of oxidization and reduction firing cycles. For the uninitiated, this distinction has to do with the presence or absence of oxygen in the kiln atmosphere, which produces different chemical reactions on the surface. Otto did not use a gas kiln (as is often assumed), only an electric, but could create a fiery, smoky, de-oxygenated atmosphere by adding organic material. He used homegrown woods, bamboo, and the seedpods of eucalyptus grown on the property, and on long walks up into his beloved High Sierra, he would gather pitch—“the blood of pines, firs, junipers”—for the purpose. (14)
These mountain hikes were one of Otto’s great joys in the years after Gertrud’s death, an experience that he shared with Gail. Again thanks to her encouragement, by 1976, he was emboldened to try his own hand at clay again—creating his first real solo work in the medium. (He had earlier created a few sculptures like Family Group, in the present auction, which was made during an artist residency in 1956). The architectonic pieces he now embarked on making reflected the mountain landscape both literally and spiritually; his “monolith wall” works, for example, conjure the awesome experience of standing at the base of a granite cliff. As Gail points out, his late work is also in many ways a return to Vienna. The city’s architecture can again be felt as a reference, this time the Secessionist buildings of Otto Wagner such as the Kirche am Steinhoff (1903-07), which he is known to have admired.
In these late years of Otto’s career, he had another artistic collaboration of sorts – this time with Gail, who had a strong background in the arts (she studied sculpture, as well as ceramics and painting, at Otis Art Institute) and was now pursuing photography. In 1982, she used profits from the sale of her bronze sculpture to invest in a Hasselblad set-up which allowed her to create extraordinary close-ups of Otto’s ceramics. (15) These brought new meaning to her earlier comment that the Natzlers’ work seemed to “encircle infinity.” The photos—which hover somewhere between scientific studies and abstract compositions—showed that Otto’s glazes did, indeed, seem to contain endless incident: spreading crystals like peacock feathers; shifting veils of overlaid pigment; canyons and craters that could be from some extraterrestrial planet. Gail’s photos showed even Otto things he had never seen in his glazes: “she recognizes form,” he said, “and emphasizes the form by proper lighting to produce three dimensions in a two-dimensional photograph.” (16) They manifest in glorious extent what was already implicit: each Natzler pot, each sculpture, is like a vast terrain ready to be explored. It’s a thought that Gertrud expressed well: “The true lover of a pot will see a world contained in it and he will never see himself as its owner, but as the trustee through whose hand it will pass to the next.” (17)
As late as 1993, Otto remained fascinated with this medium that he and Gertrud had mastered so completely: “The wonderful thing about ceramics that's different from any other art,” he told the New York Times, “is that you never know until you open the kiln after the very last firing what you have created.” He died in 2007, having completing a systematic numbered archive of his life’s work, both with Gertrud and on his own. (18) Sometime later, Gail was preparing to move his second home studio kiln—this one made in California—to be given to a local school, and thought to check inside. Lo and behold, there were a few pieces within, glazed and fired. In a strange and moving symmetry, she had found Otto’s final creations. And, no surprise, they were beautiful.
1 Author’s interview with Gail Natzler, 25 March 2022. My thanks to Gail for her insights on this moment in Otto’s life, and all the other moments she shared with him too.
2 Gertrud’s last three pots were made in April 1971 at the request of Life Magazine photo editor John Lowengard. While he did photograph this process, the proofs are currently unlocated.
3 Oral history interview with Otto Natzler, 1980 July 7-14, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. My thanks to Liza Kirwin for sharing this resource.
4 Gail Reynolds Natzler, in oral history interview with Otto Natzler, 1980 July 7-14, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
5 Otto Natzler, in Gertrud and Otto Natzler Ceramics (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968). Natzler said of his chemistry teacher at Realschule, Hugo Ludwig Fulda, “I think he influenced my life more than anybody else, because he directed me to use my brain for thinking and not anything else.” Oral history interview with Otto Natzler.
6 Natzler, in Gertrud and Otto Natzler Ceramics, 24.
7 For example, “Natzler Ceramics Again on View Here,” New York Times (Mar. 18, 1954); Roberta Smith, “Art in Review,” New York Times (Sept. 3, 1993).
8 Natzler, in Gertrud and Otto Natzler Ceramics, 43-47.
9 Otto’s cousin had previously located with his family from Regensburg to Los Angeles; when initially inquiring about coming to join them there, Otto wrote asking, “is there clay in California?”
10 The wheel and kiln are now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
11 An unpublished, hand-written catalog of works that Otto prepared includes a list of galleries and stores that carried Natzler work, which includes nearly a hundred venues nationwide. On America House see Bella Neyman, “The (America) House That Webb Built,” Magazine Antiques (July/August 2012).
12 Gertrud Natzler in Form and Fire: Natzler Ceramics, 1939-1972 (Washington, DC: Renwick Gallery, 1973), 19.
13 Otto Natzler, “The Natzler Glazes: Control Over the Accidental,” Craft Horizons 24/4 (July/Aug. 1964), 24, 39-41.
14 Quoted in Florence Rubenfeld, “Otto Natzler: Solo,” American Craft 42/1 (1982), 2.
15 “Gail Reynolds Natzler,” Hasselblad Forum (Jan. 1995), 20-23.
16 Oral history interview with Otto Natzler, 1980 July 7-14, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
17 Gertrud Natzler in Form and Fire: Natzler Ceramics, 1939-1972 (Washington, DC: Renwick Gallery, 1973), 23.
18 Numbering is in sequence of completion, starting with 101 to 10,000, then A001 to A1000, B001 and so on. Miniatures (of which only about three hundred were made) follow the same rule, A01 to A99, then to B01 to B99. W numbers were given to works made in Vienna (Wien), though of course these were assigned several decades after the fact. Q numbers designate questionable dates, as occasionally pieces were located well after their moment of production. X numbers, finally, were assigned to Otto’s ceramic constructions. My thanks to Gail Reynolds Natzler for this explanation.
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.