HANS COPER—LESS MEANS MORE features the sculptural work of Hans Coper, a radical Jewish artist of the mid-twentieth century who was at the vanguard of British studio ceramics, pushing the boundaries of clay and forms of abstraction in his work. Coper’s work fuses the functional with the cultural with the symbolic.
The exhibition presents forty-five works by Coper from the 1950s until the late 1970s, drawn from an extensive collection of his work in England’s York Art Gallery, significant works in a Portland collection, and related examples of his work from California and Iowa. Coper’s works in the exhibition are presented as a “Gesamtkunstwerk" or “total work of art,” focusing on individual works and arrays of work, including his Ovoid, Spade, Thistle, and commanding Disc-shaped bottle on foot with indented front. These show Coper’s use of scale, form, and earthen hues, some burnished, some black.
Hans Joachim Coper was born in 1920 in Chemnitz, Lower Saxony, Germany and died outside London in 1981. His Jewish father prospered as the manager of a textile mill until he was forced to resign after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. In 1936, Coper’s father took his own life, believing that his death might save the family since Coper’s mother was not Jewish. Hans Coper left Germany for England as a Jewish refugee in early 1939. Shortly after his arrival, he was declared an enemy alien, arrested, and sent to a Canadian internment camp. He joined the Pioneer Corps of the British Army, which enabled him to return to England in 1941.
In 1946, Coper found work with Jewish ceramicist Lucie Rie who had fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938. At Rie’s 18 Albion Mews studio, they worked side by side, making ceramic buttons, and later focused on the production of tableware, often signed together. In their work, Coper and Rie drew on the philosophy and practices of the Bauhaus and Wiener Werkstätte, both founded and active in early 20th century. It was their philosophy of melding art and craft that set Coper and Rie’s work apart from the mainstream British studio pottery movement. The exhibition also foregrounds Lucie Rie. A focused selection of Rie’s bowls, vases, and pots demonstrate her modernist and functional approach, along with her exaggerated shapes, elongated necks, and flared rims. She employed a wide range of surface treatments and glazes, including etched scrafitto lines and thick glazes with strong crackle. Rie also experimented with color—peacock blue, sage green, celadon, and gold—to dramatic, yet controlled effect.
In the late 1950s, Rie’s and Coper’s personal styles diverged: while hers remained functional, his became increasingly sculptural. In 1958, Coper left Lucie Rie’s studio to become an artist resident at Digswell Art Trust in Hertfordshire where he lived and worked until 1963. The vessels Coper created in the late 1950s at Digswell were often based on cylinder and chalice forms, many influenced by ancient Greek and Roman art which he spent hours studying at the British Museum. He also shared an affinity for Cycladic sculpture with two contemporary sculptors he admired, Giacometti and Brancusi. Coper’s Cycladic forms are tall and elongated, often appearing as an arrow, or piercing form with wings.
At Digswell Coper struck up a life-long friendship with artist Donald Brook, a former student of Henry Moore. They spent long nights playing chess, drinking whiskey, and conversing on the philosophy of art and the Bauhaus, while waiting for the kiln to finish. This led to their life-long correspondence and occasional visits after Brook left Digswell for Australia, last seeing each other in 1976.
In pursuit of Bauhaus architect Mies van de Rohe’s maxim “less is more,” Coper maintained a minimal set of materials and methods in creating his work—clay as material, the wheel at the core of generating form and, at times, the assembling of two or more thrown shapes with metal pins or rods. The presence of each form—whether a four-inch beaker or the seven-foot candlesticks he created for Coventry Cathedral—simultaneously projects an inherent modesty and monumentality.
HANS COPER—LESS MEANS MORE leads us to think more broadly about the work of Hans Coper within a contemporary art context by including the work of minimalist artist Dan Flavin, who was inspired by and collected work by Coper and Rie. In 1990, he created untitled (to Hans Coper, master potter), a series of nine all white neon light works, in addition to untitled (to Lucie Rie, master potter), a series in pink, yellow, and blue.
There are many silences surrounding artist Hans Coper. He neither returned to Germany nor spoke about his family story. As a teacher at the Royal College of Art in London from 1966 to 1976, Coper’s impact was described as “gentle yet shattering.” In individual tutorials with his students, he would question not what they were doing, but why. He more often than not took his students to a teashop and talked about jazz, noting that “improvisation” around a theme was part of his own practice. By 1979, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Coper had ceased working altogether and spent the last two years of his life alone in his studio, reading, writing in notebooks, and listening to music. Leaving his work to speak for itself, Coper had all his writings and letters destroyed upon his death in 1981. Similarly, Lucie Rie did not describe her work, nor share her life story. Rather, she welcomed people to her studio and served them tea.
Jane Gate Coper, well-known photographer and later Coper’s wife, photographed his work over his lifetime. She framed her images of Coper’s pots to erase any reference to the functional in his work. Her photographs raise the stature of his work to the scale of the streetscape in London where they lived.
The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s exhibition space is more intimate than grand, more akin to the scale of domestic settings of private collections from which many museums have been gifted their collections of Coper and Rie.
The York Art Gallery’s Coper collection stems from a large gift in 2001 of over 3,600 works of British Studio ceramics from W.A. Ismay, the first collector of Coper’s work. The first work by Coper in Portland’s Shipley Collection was acquired after the collector visited the 1969 exhibition Peter Collingwood / Hans Coper at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
HANS COPER—LESS MEANS MORE is the first presentation of Coper’s work on the west coast, following recent shows in New Zealand, Japan, and The Netherlands, and the first to take place in the US since the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1994 exhibition Lucie Rie/Hans Coper: Masterworks by Two British Potters in New York. In 2020, the York Art Gallery will mount a Hans Coper exhibition to celebrate the centennial of his birth in 1920.
Hans Coper exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1953; won a Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale in 1954; and exhibited in New York in 1956. His work was shown and purchased for the collection of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1967, and, posthumously, 1984 and 2014. Exhibitions also include: 1970 at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; 1980 at the Hetjens-Museum, Dusseldorf; 1984 at the Serpentine Gallery, 1985 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and 1997 at the Barbican Art Gallery, London; 2009-2011, a Hans Coper retrospective featuring work from the York Art Gallery toured in Japan; and, most recently in 2018, Dan Flavin, to Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, master potters brought together Flavin’s 1990 neon series dedicated to Hans Coper and Lucie Rie with individual ceramic work by Coper and Rie at the Vito Schnabel Gallery, St. Moritz, Switzerland.
In college I heard a story about Giacometti and Picasso walking down a decrepit street in Paris. Picasso, looking up at the ramshackle buildings, asked, "How can these buildings possibly continue to stand?"
"Force of habit," Giacometti replied.
I found the comment hilarious, but as I grew older and began to struggle to get my own sculptures to stand, I started to wonder, "What does the guy know that I don't?"
Since then I've kept coming back to Giacometti's work. With each return I get a new insight, a fresh experience, but also something harder to articulate: a sense that over time Giacometti began to convince space itself to shape and model his sculptures. That's an amazing feat. You can see what I mean starting on Thursday, when the Museum of Modern Art opens an exhibition of sculptures, drawings and paintings by Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). The show will include nearly 200 works from 1919 to 1965.
I first encountered Giacometti's sculpture on the cover of a paperback anthology of existentialist writing. It seemed appropriate. Here was an elongated burnt stick of a man pointing his bony finger at what I thought could only be the establishment that had dropped the bomb. This was in high school. In college I read the anthology, and then my art history teacher told me to note the figure's large weighty feet. This guy is earthbound, alone; he's not going to fly. He must be existential man.
I was told that Sartre and Giacometti were friends. One day I picked up an interview with Giacometti in which he was asked about an existential reading of his work. He replied, no, actually he was trying to make his figures as realistic as possible. What? To me, these figures were walking out of Dresden or Hiroshima.
He went on to explain that when he looks at you he can't see all of you. He scans you, looking at your nose, then your lips, over your shoulder, then at your breast, belly and knees, all the way down the leg past your foot to the toes. As I recall, he said something like this:
"We see parts of each other and we put them together. But if I want to see you in totality, you need to move away; we need space between us. Across the street I can see all of you at once, but then I also see this huge vista of space surrounding you, coming in and compressing you."
This thought has never left me. And through it I began to see that rather than thinking about sculpture, one might be able to learn to think sculpturally.
Other interviews with Giacometti were equally confounding and enlightening. Once while looking at his ''Four Women on a Base'' I remembered reading an interview that took place in a hotel lobby. Giacometti was saying to a critic that the four beautiful women who had just entered the lobby could not be seen separately from the space the shiny marble floor generated between him and them.
I think Giacometti's sculptures somehow carry that space with them. To me, it's a kind of world space that we exist in. We can look at it in different ways. Biblically we were cast into it. Architects talk about public and private space. Physicists connect space to time. Some scholars even see it as a construct. But when you look at Giacometti's "Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)," you realize that you will never know what space is, even though, just as you can touch the rectangular slab resting on the figure's feet, you can touch it, hold it and get lost in your relationship to it.
Smaller works like "City Square," "The Cage (Woman and Head)" and some of the various small figures and busts are fantastic for their sculptural use of scale. Mediocre sculptures all have scale. They're really big, life-size, small or miniature. Good sculptures use a psychological yardstick rather than a physical one to measure scale. Great sculptures, like some of Giacometti's, have no scale. Rather, scale becomes one of the tools he uses to carve his work into our present space and time. When you look at a small Giacometti you never say, "Oh! Look at the little guy. What a wonderful miniature." No. You say, "This guy can sculpt!" It's never big or small, it's always simply the right scale.
This sounds elementary, but it's not. It's one of the essential ways he imbues his work with the life and breath of our real world. These works are not images you can read or understand -- they are alive, breathing, waiting for you to come and meet them. Check out "The Palace at 4 A.M." Physically, this small work fits on the top of a pedestal, but later it grows and fills your mind. You can move through it and feel each and every bit of the urgency of its construction. It was made in 1932, but it feels as if it were made moments ago.
Giacometti shows us how to see from a sculptural point of view. A sculpture needs an armature the way a body needs its skeleton. Perhaps everything has an armature, thought being built around a kind of wire in the mind. Giacometti's use of armature was conventional until you understand that several bronzes were born from the clay on one twisted metal rod. After working for a day, a week or maybe a month, he would reach a point of satisfaction. Down the hall from his studio, his brother Diego worked as a furniture maker. Diego would take a plaster mold of the clay original and then use the mold to make a plaster duplicate while Giacometti returned to working on the clay original.
At a certain point, Diego would make another mold and later another and perhaps another and another. The sculpture was in flux, and the plasters became a way to see it in time. Giacometti wasn't interested in the fact that the plasters froze the form but in the way the play of light on the surface of the plaster gave him alternative positions from which to view his work. I think this process is beautiful and can serve as an entrance into the work itself. It's so physical yet ephemerally spread out in time, like a thought growing in the mind.
When Giacometti worked, he could never articulate only one section of a piece. It was the whole or nothing. If he lost control of an arm, head or some other part, he could never fix it or work from there. He had to start again, bring it up from the ground as one whole form, just as he saw the completeness of a human figure from across a vista of space.
He was once confronted with the fact that these figures across the street or on the far side of a cafe often come toward us, up to us and break down into their component parts of hands, noses, mouths and feet. Why didn't he deal with this more intimate aspect of figuration? His answer was something along these lines: "Yes, people do come across the street to say hi, but as they approach and get near, my perception of space begins to dissolve, and a new interest takes over that is primarily emotional, and with it comes a desire to touch, which may be a human interest, but not the interest of my work."
That's a powerful thought. Even the bust of Diego is Einsteinian, thin as a pancake when viewed from the front and squeezed out into space as you are drawn around it. The roughness of the surface never draws you in the way a blemish on your friend's face does. Look at the form and surface of all his mature figurative sculptures. They're stretched and pulled, rough but somehow never ragged or torn. In the end, all his figures, like the buildings on that dilapidated street he walked with Picasso, seem to stand by force of habit. Somehow with Giacometti, habit and other aspects of human psychology are embedded in his work the way the gravitational field is embedded in space.
New York Times October 7, 2001