By Sandra Percival, Founding Director and Curator, Zena Zezza

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.