Pair of coffee cups and saucers

Yamada Hikaru (1924–2001) was one of the three founding members of the postwar avant-garde ceramics group Sōdeisha. The goal of those impatient young Kyoto-based artists was to distance themselves from the conventions of Kyoto ceramics and forge connections instead with international visual and sculptural arts. The 2003 Sackler Gallery exhibition Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics introduced Yamada’s early work, as he experimented first with “cubist” vessel forms and then gradually moved to sculptural shapes in clay. The spare and elegant Black Pottery Windows (Kokuto no mado), another gift of Halsey and Alice North, represents that latter, well-known aspect of Yamada’s repertory in the Sackler collection.

The 2003 exhibition also presented another dimension of Yamada’s activities. He and fellow Sōdeisha founder Yagi Kazuo (1918–1979) collaborated in the 1960s on producing modern and affordable ceramic tableware in the genre known in Japan as “craft” (industrial design). This duality of production—sculpture for periodic solo or group exhibitions; tableware and other small, domestic pieces for regular income—was not unique to Yamada and Yagi; rather, it was typical of the Kyoto ceramics world. As American potters tend to identify themselves as makers of either “sculpture” or “functional ceramics,” it is valuable to represent that Japan’s ceramic artists find no contradiction in engaging in both modes.

This pair of coffee cups was part of a larger group commissioned as gifts to be presented at a corporate meeting in Kyoto. For some reason, the meeting never took place, and the cups were not removed from their storage box until recently. The matte, slightly grainy yellow glaze flecked with black is the perfect complement to the creamy brown hue of coffee with milk. Details of shaping and glazing—the slightly beyond-hemispherical form that invites the user to rest it in the palm; the deftly trimmed foot with the impressed seal “Hikaru”—show that Yamada paid no less attention to a cup than he did to a sculpture. For their acute anticipation of how the user will interact with them, these coffee cups might as well be teabowls.

Pair of coffee cups and saucers
Yamada Hikaru (1924–2001)
Japan, Kyoto, 1960s
Stoneware with yellow and clear glazes
6 × 14.6 cm
Gift of Halsey and Alice North
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S2017.15.1–2