J.B. Blunk

Blum & Poe, Tokyo, Japan

The late J.B. Blunk is best known as a mid-twentieth century US West Coast furniture maker, sculptor and self-styled architect. Along with earlier woodworker artisans including Wharton Esherick and Espenet Carpenter, he forms part of what has come retrospectively and somewhat loosely, to be considered a Californian modernist arts and crafts movement. Like Esherick and Carpenter, Blunk directed his woodworking skills toward the construction of his own home, between 1958 and 1962, in the woods in Marin County, California. From the mid-1960s to the mid-90s, he mainly produced furniture and sculptures from salvaged wood: large hulking forms in which surface that have been buffed and smoothed alternate with gnarled and knotty sections, left exposed as serendipitously occurring natural forms.

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1985, ceramic candleholder, 19 x 28 x 7 cm. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Daniel Dent

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1985, ceramic candleholder, 19 x 28 x 7 cm. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Daniel Dent

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1985, ceramic candleholder, 19 x 28 x 7 cm. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Daniel Dent

Less well known is the fact that Blunk was also a ceramicist. While studying the craft at UCLA in the late 1940s, he saw an international exhibition of ceramics that included traditional Japanese mingei (folk) pottery, which firmed his resolve to visit Japan. Stationed in Tokyo during the Korean War, in 1952, by chance, Blunk met Isamu Noguchi who introduced him to the acclaimed Japanese ceramicist Rosanjin Kitaoji, with whom he studied for several months alongside further tutelage with the Japanese master Toyo Kaneshige. The imprint of these accomplished potters is apparent in the ceramic objects that Blunk produced from the 1950s to the 1990s, which form a body of work currently on display at Blum & Poe in Toyko: Blunk’s first exhibition in Japan since 1954.

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1980, ceramic, 36 x 24 x 6 cm

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1980, ceramic, 36 x 24 x 6 cm

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1980, ceramic, 36 x 24 x 6 cm. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Daniel Dent

The objects are both utilitarian and decorative: ceramic plates, raised discs and tiny vessels that could equally act as serving dishes, trays and tea cups – or objects d’art, simply to view. The scale of the works, as mostly small, coax a sprightliness and lightness of touch that is missing in Blunk’s better-known hewn wood sculptures. Those pieces have a wilful boldness and monumentality and – akin to works by British sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth – an imposing drama of positive and negative forms. This play of void and solid recurs his ceramics but, owing in part to the malleability of the clay, appears both more effortless and adroit. In (Untitled, c.1950) the edge of a circular ceramic tray has been sliced into, leaving nine irregularly shaped arms that splay from its centre, curling upwards at the tips like fallen autumn leaves. More playful asymmetry occurs in Untitled (c.1990), where three simple shapes have been excised from a freeform rectangle and a circle has been jauntily appended to one edge, exaggerating the object’s lopsidedness.

J.B. Blunk, 2016, exhibition view, Blum & Poe, Tokyo. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Keizo Kioku

J.B. Blunk, 2016, exhibition view, Blum & Poe, Tokyo. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Keizo Kioku

J.B. Blunk, 2016, exhibition view, Blum & Poe, Tokyo. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Keizo Kioku

Japanese raked rock gardens (karesansui) are implicitly referred to in Untitled (c.1990) – a ceramic plate depicting the juncture between two sets of repeating concentric and horizontal lines. Like most of Blunk’s ceramics, this piece could alternately function as a small platter and a sculptural object, amenable to both horizontal and vertical placement.

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1950, ceramic tray, 7 x 37 cm. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Daniel Dent

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1950, ceramic tray, 7 x 37 cm. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Daniel Dent

J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c.1950, ceramic tray, 7 x 37 cm. Courtesy: the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo © J.B. Blunk Estate; photograph: Daniel Dent

Much of the delight of Blunk’s ceramics derives from the way in which he is able to draw from the elegant traditions of Bizen ware, Iga ware and raku and adapt these into something more ludic. An unglazed tube stretches between two circular bases to form an arc dotted with miniature roundels in Untitled (c.1985). Designed as a candleholder, the form is an object of whimsy: a childlike, bendy curve that exudes a comic air. Rosanjin once remarked, ‘What sublimities can be learned from even one superb teabowl! It is a great blessing indeed.’ Blunk’s ceramics attest to the truth of his teacher’s pronouncement, if we allow for a certain levity in our definition of the sublime.

Lead image: J.B. Blunk, Untitled, c. 1980, ceramic, 33 x 27 cm

Sophie Knezic is a visual artist, writer and lecturer based in Melbourne.

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018