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The power of ceramics

Art collector Kimiko Powers discusses her late husband’s legacy and love for Japanese pottery. By Claire Wrathall

A tan ceramic pot.
A pot by Takashi Nakazato Photo: © Ryobi Foundation, exhibited at the Powers Art Center

Nearly 30 miles outside Aspen in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley lies the Powers Art Center, a foundation housed in a strikingly beautiful building by the Japanese architect Hiroshi Nanamori and “dedicated to the study, display, and dissemination of work by Jasper Johns.”

A tan caramic vessel with a wide bottom and narrow top.
The Powers Art Center houses Pop art and a collection of Japanese ceramics. © Ryobi Foundation, exhibited at the Powers Art Center

In reality it exhibits a whole lot more. Its founder Kimiko Powers—who established the center in memory of her husband, the late American publisher John Powers—commissioned it not just to display works from the extensive collection of Pop art the couple amassed, but also to house their collection of contemporary Japanese ceramics, especially the work of Takashi Nakazato.

“My husband’s love for art inspired me to build it,” she tells me from Tokyo, where she lives when she is not on the 460-acre cattle ranch where the museum is located. “He loved art and devoted the latter part of his life to it. I wanted to make something for his descendants, to help all the people who come after him to look back on their ancestor.”

Works by Jasper Johns were those that “John loved the best. But I found Takashi’s works complimented them very well. Takashi investigates color and texture, developing new surfaces for his pots,” she notes, much as Johns created almost sculptural textures with paint on canvas. And shown alongside one another, the works speak of the Powers’ partnership, both in life and as collectors.

A large bookshelf displaying ceramics and books.
The Powers Art Center houses Pop art and a collection of Japanese ceramics. © Ryobi Foundation

Kimiko grew up in post-war Tokyo, enjoying a liberal arts education and determined to follow the example set by her mother, who was a doctor, and pursue a career. “Women in Japan did not work very much at that time,” she says. “But I wanted to do more than run a household and raise children. I wanted to be someone and to see the world. But the Japanese government would not allow anyone to travel abroad then, and there were a lot of restrictions on changing yen to dollars.” So having perfected her English, she applied to the British Overseas Airways Corporation (now British Airways), joining the airline as a stewardess. She met her husband on a flight, marrying him in 1963, and settling in New York.

John was already collecting “in a small way” when they met, having met Leo Castelli, the dealer credited with discovering Jasper Johns. “Leo became a very good friend,” she recalls. “He introduced us to a lot of artists and, as the years went by, we became friends with some of the ones we collected.” Among them were Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol. “We were very good friends with Andy,” for whom she sat four times. “Every time I changed my hair or my clothes, he’d say: ‘I’ll have to make another portrait.’”

But both John and Kimiko had an interest in Japanese art, especially antique decorative arts. And having first acquired a pair of six-panel landscape screens by the 17th-century Edo period painter Kusumi Morikage and a scroll by Shiba Kōkan, they went on to amass what Christine Starkman, now the consulting curator of Asian art at the Toledo Museum of Art (and previously of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cleveland Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), has called “one of the three most important collections of Japanese art in the United States,” up there with those at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

As Kimiko points out, however, the Colorado climate and humidity “isn’t very friendly” to such fragile works. Ceramics, though, are resistant to fluctuations in temperature, hence her decision to include vessels by, in particular, Nakazato, alongside a rotating display of works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, and of course, Johns, to whom all four galleries on the building’s upper floor are dedicated.

To broaden their knowledge of contemporary Japanese studio ceramics, the Powers began to visit “a great many” potters. “John and I traveled all over Japan with my mother,” she recalls. “And when we visited [the Nakazato] family kiln on the island of Kyushu in the Saga Prefecture, John just fell in love with his work,” and a lifelong friendship was born.

As aficionados of the genre will know, the name Nakazato is all but synonymous with the understated style known as Karatsu, after the port city it comes from. The family has been making ceramics since the 16th century, an unbroken line of 13 generations of potters, and Takashi is the fifth son of Muan Nakazato (1895–1985), who was designated a Preserver of Important Intangible Cultural Property, popularly known as Living National Treasures.

A gallery with Jasper Johns paintings on view.
Limited edition works on paper by Jasper Johns. Photo: © Jasper Johns and ULAE / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Published by Universal Limited Art Editions

“But Takashi is very much his own person,” she stresses. Unlike his brothers, “he did not follow the traditional family style.” Rather, he developed his own distinctive forms and textures, forging an esthetic that is rooted in traditional techniques, but that incorporates influences from other styles. (He was the first Japanese potter to have a residency at the renowned porcelain manufacturer Royal Copenhagen in Denmark.) In working with the grainy, unrefined Tanegashima clay, which gets its distinctive red color from its high iron content, Takashi became a master of yakishime, a style that is fired at high temperatures and left unglazed. He has also experimented with terra sigillata, another form of red pottery that first became popular in ancient Rome. As Masaaki Arakawa, professor of Japanese art history at Gakushuin University, Tokyo, has written, “One of the characteristics of this ware is the metallic texture created by polishing the surface, which has been coated with slip made from diluted clay consisting of extremely fine particles that lend the final surface a glossy finish.”

If Takashi makes works that merit museum display, he also makes tableware intended for use, for as Arakawa says, Takashi is a “highly accomplished culinary artist as well.”

Kimiko agrees. “It seems potters like to cook,” she observes. Both art forms after all are based on the transformative—almost alchemical—application of heat. As with his pots, Takashi favors simplicity, purity of form, and a focus on materials in his cooking, “using fresh organic vegetables and mainly fish. But his dishes are very delicious. And his ceramics add aesthetic value” to the way he serves them. For his vessels are meant to be used. “When John passed away,” she tells me, “Takashi came from Japan. And John’s ashes now sleep in the beautiful pot he brought with him.”

1 Comment

Feb 11

Pericles Ragouzis was very grateful of all the help john and kimiko provided. The building of the CSU art school would not have been possible without this help. Edgar Ragouzis 513-535-5700. I would love to hear from Kimiko!

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