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Art & Architecture

A Remarkable Alliance of Form

Otto Natzler recalls the days when he and his late wife, Gertrud, used his glazes to bring life to her simple-shaped pottery.

May 14, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

A 50-year survey of ceramics by Otto and Gertrud Natzler is more than an opportunity to admire impossibly beautiful pottery. It's a chance to remember the lives and the accomplishments of the Los Angeles-based couple who became world-famous for marrying elegantly simple clay forms with spectacular glazes. And no one knows the story better than Otto Natzler, who lost his wife 29 years ago but is still going strong.

"How many other 92-year-olds have you interviewed?" he asked, strolling into Couturier Gallery on La Brea Avenue. His easy gait, bright eyes, quick wit and near-perfect recall make it difficult to believe that he's a day over 70, but he can account for that. Taking a hike every morning, followed by an hour and a half of yoga--during which he stands on his head--keeps him fit and remarkably young. Even as he frets about lapses in his short-term memory and the failing eyes and fingers that have prevented him from working for the past couple of years, he tells one anecdote after another, detailing the evolution of a remarkable artistic partnership.

One favorite story takes him back to 1939, a year after the Nazis annexed Austria and the newlywed Natzlers fled Vienna for Los Angeles, with the help of a cousin who had emigrated from Germany and settled here. Otto and Gertrud could only take $12 apiece out of Austria, and they each spent $1 of that when their ship docked in Guatemala. "We couldn't resist buying a snakeskin belt and a crocodile belt," Natzler said.

They were allowed to bring Gertrud's pottery wheel, a small electric kiln and some furniture to America, but their early days in Los Angeles were a struggle. The Natzlers had achieved early success in Europe and even won a silver medal at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, but they were starting over here. Finding commercial outlets for their pottery was a slow process, so they accepted a few students to provide them with a steady--if decidedly meager--income, Natzler said.

At the insistence of one of their students, they sent five of their pieces to a prestigious competitive national exhibition at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts in New York (now the Everson Museum of Fine Arts). "We had to pay a $3 entry fee and shipping charges. We couldn't afford that and we thought the pieces would be broken, so we didn't want to do it. But this student said we had to, so we did--and then forgot all about it," Natzler said.

"Then one day in November of 1939, when we were both at work, the doorbell rang. It was Western Union, delivering a telegram. We still had parents in Vienna, so our hearts stopped beating. We didn't want to open the telegram."

*

The opening word, "Congratulations," was a huge relief and the message was "the greatest surprise," he said. They had won a $100 purchase prize from the museum, which would add their work to its collection. "It was a fortune at the time," Natzler said. "It would be worth $1,000 today." Actually, a bit more than that: $1,230.22.

America was indeed "the promised land," he said. And the artists' arrival did not go unnoticed for long. They gained increasing appreciation for their work even as they took classes in English at a local high school and studied American history in preparation for citizenship examinations, which they passed in 1944.

On March 10, 1939, nine months before the telegram from Syracuse arrived, The Times published a front-page article with five photographs of the Natzlers, announcing "Artist-potters busy here after flight from Vienna."

"We had rented half a house at 1835 St. Andrews Place," Natzler recalled. "At 7:15 in the morning the day that article came out, our landlord knocked on the door and said, 'If you had committed murder, you wouldn't have had more publicity.' "

*

The Natzlers became known as a team, but it was Gertrud who introduced Otto to ceramics. They met in 1933, after he had lost his job as a textile designer and she was working as a secretary but learning to use a potter's wheel. As Otto tells the story--in an autobiographical essay in the catalog of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 1968 exhibition of Natzler ceramics--he was far more interested in Gertrud than in ceramics. But he accompanied her to a ceramics class and began making clay sculpture.

Essentially self-taught, they soon began working on their own, with Gertrud at the wheel and Otto at the kiln. She perfected her extraordinary talent for throwing paper-thin pots while he pursued his interest in chemistry by experimenting with glazes and developing more than 2,000 formulas for a wide variety of surface effects ranging from iridescent lusters to crystalline patterns to bubbly eruptions.

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