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

Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden
From a short history of plagiarism to Trisha Brown's walk: what to read this weekend
Q. What is art for? A. To tell us where we are.
The work of filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film...
Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017