In a career spanning more than six decades, Philadelphia artist Rudolf Staffel (born 1911) has earned an international reputation for his revolutionary work in porcelain. This strong, white ceramic material can be made thin and translucent, and is perfectly suited to the artist's quest for luminous, freely-shaped forms. Rudolf Staffel: Searching for Light; Ceramics, 1936-1996, an exhibition on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from May 3 through August 7, 1997, will present a comprehensive overview of the the master ceramicist's work from 1936 to 1996. Searching for Light, which was previously shown at the Museum of Applied Arts in Helsinki, Finland, will include approximately 80 works, including 40 of the signature pieces that Staffel calls "Light Gatherers." These relatively small, elegant vessels have been shaped by Staffel with expertly-handled pinching, scoring and denting--seemingly casual methods which reveal the crystalline luminescence of the porcelain while denying any sense of preciousness.
Staffel's early artistic interests included painting, watercolor, and the Zen brush paintings of China and Japan. He entered the School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1932, where he specialized in painting, drawing and design. An exhibition of German studio glass sparked Staffel's interest, prompting Staffel's hopes to attend the Wiener Werkstatte in Vienna, Austria. His plans for European study were thwarted by the Great Depression, however, and Staffel became acquainted with the artistic possibilities of ceramics during a year-long stay in Mexico.
As evidenced by his interest in watercolor and glass, Staffel was intrigued by the properties of light, and transparency in particular. Switching to porcelain in the 1950s, Staffel continued to express these concerns in works that featured sweeping gestures and overlapping forms, offering viewers the opportunity to experience a variety of light effects. The intensity of Staffel's ongoing fascination with porcelain is apparent in his handling of its essential characteristics--plasticity, strength, whiteness and translucency. Staffel's creations emphasize the medium's ability to gather, hold and diffuse light.
Staffel was a professor of ceramics at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, from 1940 until his retirement in 1978. His work has been featured in numerous exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad, including: Curator's Choice Exhibition, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1964; Ceramic Arts U.S.A., Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1966; Porcelain by Rudolf Staffel, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, 1967; Thirty Ceramics, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1973; Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976; American Porcelain: New Expression in American Art, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1980; Directions in Contemporary American Ceramics, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1983; Contemporary Potters, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1986; Crafts Today: Poetry of the Physical, American Craft Museum, New York, 1986; and Transparency in Clay: The Work of Rudolf Staffel, Museum voor Het Kruithuis/Museum for Contemporary Art, s'Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, 1990.
In 1985, Staffel was chosen to receive the first Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show Award for Distinguished Achievement in American Craft Art. In 1995, the American Crafts Council presented him with its Gold Medal, the most prestigious award in his field. Staffel was a recipient of a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 1996.
Rudolf Staffel: Searching for Light; Ceramics, 1936-1996 is made possible by the Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Additional support was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts and a generous contribution from Dr. Andrea M. Baldeck and William M. Hollis, Jr. The exhibition was organized by Marianne Aav, Curator, Museum of Applied Arts, Helsinki, Finland. Ms. Aav was assisted by craft-historian Helen W. Drutt English whose gallery, Helen Drutt: Philadelphia, has represented him since 1974. Darrel Sewell, the Robert L. McNeil Curator of American Art, will oversee the installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition will be accompanied by a 48-page catalogue with color illustrations of selected works, an essay by Marianne Aav, a statement by the artist, and a chronology and bibliography.