Improvisation and displacement: the ceramics of Hans Coper

Craft returns to the Park Blocks with Less is More at the Oregon Jewish Museum


By DANIEL DUFORD


Hans Coper’s vessels use silence like gravity. Coper, the British ceramicist who died in 1981, is having a resurgence. He is often associated with his mentor and friend British artist Lucie Rie but an exquisite new exhibition of Coper’s work at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, organized by guest curator Sandra Percival, seeks to reveal Coper’s influence on contemporary makers and to allow viewers to see his work independently of his collaborations with Rie. Chosen from the vast collection of the York Art Gallery in England and Portland collector John Shipley with additions from other West Coast collections, Less Means More teases out the connective tissue within Coper’s work. Percival chose to show Coper’s work as a gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. This allows sympathies and formal rhythms to weave throughout the display. This is the first collection of this scale to be displayed on the West Coast.

Hans Coper, Disc form with cylindrical base and neck, stoneware, 1959. Courtesy of York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery), York, England.

Coper, like Rie, fled Nazi occupation to eventually settle in Britain. Rie left Austria in 1938 and Coper left Germany in 1939. Coper arrived in England as a Jewish refugee only to be sent to an enemy alien camp in Canada; after joining the Pioneer Corps of the British Army he returned to England in 1941. It was there he met Rie in 1946 and the two worked side by side making ceramic buttons and tableware. This experience led Coper to develop an ethos of a whole work, one that braids art, craft and life and is central to Coper’s staying power and enduring freshness. The contemporary art and craft worlds have caught up with his blurred lines between functional ware and sculpture. Coper has always been associated with the modernist wing of studio pottery, but his presence in the Oregon Jewish Museum allows for a more nuanced reading of his work. 

Displacement haunts Coper’s pots. The sculpturalness of Coper’s work is often privileged over the vesselness. He allowed his work to exist in between. Large spade form with vertical grooves from 1968 can be seen as being in dialogue with minimalist sculpture. One can stick to formalist terminology to describe its flattened uplifted disc or remark that its surface suggests metal or stone. But the spade has a void and the void is the soul of a vessel rather than a sculpture. The space within the spade’s walls could hold flowers, or equally, a metaphor. 

Hans Coper Large Spade
Hans Coper, Large spade form with vertical grooves, 1968. Courtesy American Muse-um of Ceramic Art, Gift of Bill Burke

As a teacher Coper was known for his stressing of improvisation and humor. He would just as soon take his students to a jazz club than lecture about form. He didn’t have the luxury of American post-war counterparts who used improvisation wildly and with abandon. On the West Coast, artists like Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner used jazz to express wildness and machismo but Coper tapped into jazz’s improvization to explore classical forms. For American ceramic artists the war scarred them but they returned to a booming, spacious country in which victory was an adventure and the homeland was restored and triumphant. Coper never returned to Germany leaving a permanent rupture with his homeland. He remained a British citizen his entire life. His was a discipline, a full-life fling in which improvisation was tender and guarded fiercely. As a result if you give them the time, Coper’s pots pulse with an unyielding joy — the kind tinged by melancholy. He was not averse to a bright, impermanent flower to poke out of one of his austere bottle forms. 

The reticent surfaces and the singular focus on a handful of forms throughout his career can sometimes seem funereal. One of the centerpieces, Disc-shaped bottle on foot with indented front neck from 1959 can at one moment seem like a grave marker, but “with a certain slant of light,” to quote Emily Dickinson, the object becomes a neolithic gear or a rotund figure. I don’t mention Emily Dickinson lightly. There is a formal corollary between Dickinson’s spry, evergreen poems birthed from isolation and Coper’s abraded black, gray and white surfaces. Both ask patience and attention from the viewer and reader. Both also continue to yield illumination long after the hot light of more frantic and showy works have passed into obsolescence. The energy is under the surface. 

Hans Coper Cycladic
Hans Coper, Footed vase, Cycladic form, ca. 1975. Courtesy Crocker Art Museum

Percival does a wonderful job grouping of objects to show how form could be both archetype and brand new being. Coper visited the British Museum frequently. His love for Cycladic art is evident in his Cycladic vase forms. He dialogues with Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti, all artists who also dug deep into the archeological record for inspiration. What we call modernism is often a reassessment of the Neolithic. But Coper had his own names for his stable of forms. Bottoms looked like, well, bottoms, there are spades and a diablo hourglass. These forms dance through influences of various times and cultures. 

The installation of the pots reminds me of a quote that the American sculptor Charles Ray once said of Giacometti, “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. It’s never big or small, it’s always simply the right scale.” There is a photo included in the exhibition of a small, egg-shaped, Egyptian vessel in Coper’s studio. Coper kept the pot as a lodestar. It fit perfectly in his hands. It was in that very human humility of form and material across time that motivates the vessels on view.

Percival added what would seem to be a wild card into the exhibition. The Minimalist artist Dan Flavin is represented by a fluorescent light sculpture titled Untitled for Robert Ryman It is one artist’s homage to a compatriot. Flavin was an avid collector of both Coper and Rie’s work. He created two florescent sculptures Untitled for Lucie Rie, Master Potter and Untitled for Hans Coper Master Potter. We tend to think of influence within boxes, but clearly a minimalist sculptor who uses fluorescent tubes found something  enduring in the warmth of another artist’s use of wheel thrown clay. Coper’s influence only spreads to new generations of artists and makers. 

Collection is part of the story for this exhibition. The bulk of the exhibition comes from the vast collection of W.A. Ismay which is now part of the York Museum in the UK. Ismay was an early and ardent enthusiast for Coper’s work. Like the American collectors the Vogels, he did not collect from deep pockets and assumed prestige but instead because of an abiding respect and love for the work. The collecting that is represented here in Less Means More reflects a generosity of spirit. 

Hans Coper Hourglass
Hans Coper, Hourglass pot, stoneware, 1970. Courtesy of York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery), York, England.

One of the standout pieces of the show Large ovoid form with vertical grooves from 1975 is from the Shipley collection in Portland. I have brought students to visit the collection at their home and the Coper pot is always a favorite. I remember the delight on the face of a student who was allowed to cradle the vessel in his arms. The ovoid with its cleft down the shoulder and dark void of a mouth shares a pedestal with Digswell composite form from 1964, also from the Shipley collection. One is large, broad, and sensually round, while the other is small with a disc shaped belly and beaker shaped neck. One is black and one is white. The confréres are joined by the collector’s eye and the artist’s studio practice.


Earlier I mentioned the context of the Oregon Jewish Museum as significant. OJMCME moved into this new space on NW Davis two years ago. The programming has been dynamic and it has become a bright spot in the cultural scene of Portland. The space, however, is not without baggage; it was formerly occupied by the Museum of Contemporary Craft which closed its doors in 2016, a devastating loss for craft-centered spaces in the Pacific Northwest. The May 2019 closure of Oregon College of Art and Craft was yet another blow. This exhibition is a sort of homecoming then, and a regeneration of some of the ideals of MoCC. In Less Means More, Coper’s very human studio practice is seen through its quiet influence on collectors and contemporary artists alike. The stories these vessels have to tell, of minimalism, of displacement and a very human studio practice is there for you. You just need to listen closely.

Daniel Duford is an artist, writer and teacher. His work tells stories drawn from North American history and mythology. He is a 2019 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, a 2010 Hallie Ford Fellow and a recipient of a 2012 Art Matters Grant. His murals and public art can be found throughout Portland.

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