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Otto Natzler, 99; master glazer of daring ceramic objects made with wife Gertrud

April 18, 2007|Claudia Luther | Special to The Times

Otto Natzler, a master glazer and wizard of the kiln who with his wife, Gertrud, created some of the most admired ceramic objects of the 20th century, has died. He was 99.

Natzler, who was vital and active into his 90s through a regimen of yoga and physical exercise, died of cancer April 7 at his Los Angeles home, his art dealer, Darrel Couturier, said Tuesday.

The Natzlers' elegant and daring works -- she was the potter -- helped elevate ceramics from a "decorative art" to a fine art. Their works were featured in innumerable gallery shows over seven decades and are housed in dozens of museum collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York's Metropolitan and Modern Art museums, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Natzler himself developed more than 1,000 different glazes for pottery. "Many were shimmering glazes that gave a glossy, silken look," Catherine Benkaim, a collector who owns a number of pieces by Natzler, told The Times.

Undaunted by the fragility of his wife's exquisite simple vessels, Natzler invented ever bolder glazes to enhance them.

Kenneth Donahue, former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wrote of the Natzlers that their works "seemed to have been born and to have grown as if they were natural things." Gertrud, he said, was like "a musical virtuoso who lets the form flow intuitively from her fingers," while Otto complemented them with glazes "as fine as insect wings and rough as cratered lava."

Lisa Hammel, writing in the New York Times in 1986, said the couple's work "seems always in equilibrium."

"Even the most violent glazes are held in a state of restraint by Gertrud's thin, gently curving shapes," Hammel said. "Deep, crusty pocking, for example, forms the surface of a slender slice of bowl."

The death of Gertrud in 1971 of cancer ended the Natzlers' unique artistic partnership, although she left behind about 200 pots for Otto to glaze. He did so one by one over many years, carefully matching the glaze to the pot as he had done throughout their 37-year relationship.

Eventually, Natzler moved on to his own works, including menorahs and slab sculptures, which brought him new admirers.

Sarah Booth Conroy, writing in the Washington Post in 1981, said the glazes on these very different Natzler pieces provide the link with the earlier work done by the couple.

They are "like new worlds in creation -- craters, volcanoes, ocean bottoms, mountain fissures, molten pools, atomic crystals exploding into star shapes," Conroy said. She described one glaze as looking "rather like a sunset reflected in blue water," while another "looks like snowflakes landing on the mountains of the moon."

But it was the "O&G" works, as they sometimes were called, that secured the Natzler name in art history.

"The Natzlers are to vessels as [ceramist] Peter Voulkos is to sculpture -- renowned for their handling of materials, for their ability to create the perfect object by coaxing soulfulness -- anima -- out of inert, inchoate and meaningless clay," said Jo Lauria, an independent curator and specialist in contemporary decorative arts in Los Angeles.

Otto Natzler was born Jan. 31, 1908, in Vienna to a dentist and a housewife. As a child, Natzler discovered art through his uncle's "artist-a-day" wall calendar featuring Rembrandt, Titian, Durer, Tintoretto and other great artists.

At 15, his parents enrolled him in a textile design course. He began his work life designing and thinking up color schemes for neckties at a local firm. But in 1933, after Adolf Hitler took over Germany, the firm was blacklisted by German retailers because the owner of the firm was Jewish. Natzler lost his job.

During the summer of that year, Otto met a secretary named Gertrud Amon. By then, his first marriage was failing (it ended in divorce in 1934) and Natzler was "very stricken by Trude," her nickname at the time. When she told him of her budding interest in clay, he feigned a similar interest, although he detested the preciousness of the Chinese, Swedish and other ceramics he had seen in museums and shops.

But, as he soon discovered, such objects never were the intention of Gertrud.

"Gertrud had a feeling for form right from the very beginning," Natzler said in an interview for "Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000," a video made to go with LACMA's similarly named exhibition in 2000.

The two soon had rented a studio together. Otto at first did sculptures but, recognizing Gertrud's talent, began glazing her objects. Neither of them knew how to fire the pieces. Of the first batch, Natzler said in a July 1980 oral history with Ruth Bowman for the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution, "Everything was ruined."

Natzler eventually learned how to make a traditional glaze, but he became fascinated with his "mistakes," trying for "more blisters, larger pockmarks!"

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