In the mid-1950s, ceramicist Rudolf Staffel, a teacher at Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art, was commissioned by a local patron to create a dinner service in porcelain. Like most American ceramicists of the time, Staffel did not regard porcelain as a material suitable for craft productions. White, translucent, and vitrified, porcelain was firmly associated with decorative arts and dinnerware manufacturers, not studio potters. Unfamiliar with recipes for kaolin clay and necessary firing temperatures, Staffel’s porcelain plates proved unsuccessful, but he marveled at their ability to transmit light. Soon, he began to experiment with porcelaneous clay bodies to achieve even stronger effects of translucency.
Initially, Rudi Staffel stained his porcelain vessels with colors, but as his experimentations with the physical properties of porcelain and its inherent translucency progressed, he began to produce bowls and cylindrical pots that were pure white. However, he later occasionally introduced a blue tone into his clay bodies. Either wheel thrown or hand-built, these open forms allow ambient light to enter the interior of the vessel and shine softly through thinner sections of the unglazed walls. “Translucency absorbs light, holds light, and lets some go through,” he states; “it stores light, while it transmits light. … inner light.” Because of their luminous effects, the artist calls these containers Light Gatherers, and since their interiors emit light directly through the walls, the viewer is simultaneously made aware of the inside as well as the outside of the pot.
Rudi Staffel’s “light gatherers” have walls of varying thickness, since, he declares: “To be aware of translucency, you must have opaqueness. … It’s the contrast in the body of the pot, between thick and thin, that gives the sensation of translucency.” Thrown vessels are pinched by fingers or scored with sharp instruments, while the more sculptural, hand-built forms are often layered with pieces of clay to vary the transmittal of light.
The optical effects of dark and light contrasts on a pot’s surface are analogous to the results of the “push-pull” theory of abstract painting promoted by Staffel’s one-time teacher, Hans Hofmann. By manipulating the thickness of his pigments, the latter created a dynamic visual tension between transparent areas of thinly colored stash that suggest depth, and thickly painted zones that, by contrast, emphasize the flatness of the picture plane. Like Hofmann’s abstract paintings, Staffel’s porcelain “light gatherers” embody notions of push-pull. The thin, luminous sections of porcelain evoke deep space, while the opaque areas of thicker clay stress the material nature of the pot’s wall. However, these essentially pictorial concerns are always balanced by Staffel’s innate abilities to create vessels that, in their graceful plasticity, are satisfyingly sculptural.
Jeremy Adamson KPMG Peat Marwick Collection of American Craft: A Gift to the Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1994)
In a career that spanned more than six decades, Rudolf Staffel earned an international reputation for his pioneering work in porcelain. Staffel began his career as a painter and attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1932. He became intensely fascinated with ceramics after a yearlong apprenticeship near Mexico City. Staffel started teaching at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1940, and in the mid-1950s was introduced to porcelain through a specific commission. He spent the remainder of his career experimenting with the physical properties of the difficult medium, and became well known for what he called his “Light Gatherers,” pieces in which he used porcelain’s translucence to capture the effects of light.