Rudolf Staffel is best known for his groundbreaking work with unglazed porcelain and is often credited with inspiring the wider use of porcelain among studio potters. He called the vessels Light Gatherers, a title that highlights Staffel’s interest in light as a primary artistic subject. The exploration of methods to manipulate and display light drove his artistic journey. It was this dedication to light that led him to work with porcelain in a new way, opening the possibilities of the material to all those who would come after him. As gallery owner and scholar Garth Clark noted, “One cannot reference porcelain in the history of American ceramic art without taking into account Staffel’s contribution as the master of the white medium in its purest artistic form.”1
Staffel was born in 1911 in San Antonio, Texas, where his desire to be an artist was sparked in childhood when his first forays into artistic creation occurred in self-study of Chinese brush painting and experiments with watercolor. This early work foreshadowed his later exploration of the quality of light and its properties in his use of watercolor and loose brushwork. He went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1930s taking classes in painting, drawing and design, and then in New York where he took classes with Hans Hofmann, one of the leading lights of the Abstract Expressionist movement.2
During his student years, an exhibition of glass from the Weiner Werkstatte was a revelation; he was fascinated by the potential of glass as an artistic medium where light was a major feature. He became passionate about learning glassmaking and traveled to Mexico City for an apprenticeship in a glass workshop. During his time there he spent long hours in the archeological museum and was struck by the variety of ceramics representing cultures throughout time and across the world. The glassmaking apprenticeship did not go as planned and he instead sought mentorship in pottery. Staffel spent three months apprenticed to a Mexican potter, his only formal training in ceramics.3
He returned to his parents’ home in San Antonio, set up a studio and began teaching at museums and art clubs in the area. His time studying pottery in Mexico influenced his early work. He said, “Mexican ceramics were very pictorial, and my pre-porcelain pots were too.”4 Initially he worked with stoneware, a material seemingly opposed to the idea of capturing the essence of light. But even with this most opaque material Staffel’s interest can be perceived. He employed sgraffito decoration, using the light clay body and dark slip to simulate light emanating from within the piece.
He lived and taught in New Orleans for a few years and then in 1940 was hired by Boris Blai, the founding dean of Tyler School of Art near Philadelphia. Having been established only five years earlier, Staffel was among the first and most influential faculty members at the school. His 38-year tenure at Tyler had an indelible impact on the city and the hundreds of students he taught there.
Soon after his arrival in Philadelphia the United States entered World War II and he served in the Army Air Force where he trained as a glider pilot, worked as a camouflage instructor and radio operator.5
After the war Staffel returned to teaching and making art, settling with his wife and two daughters in northwestern Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood. Soon after, in the 1950s he discovered a way to incorporate his interest in light and translucency into his ceramic work through what he called a “fortunate happening:”6 A bit of porcelain slip cracked off a plate in the kiln and caught the light as he removed it.
Active in the art community in Philadelphia, Staffel was represented by the Helen Drutt Gallery and was a member of an organization she helped found, the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsman. Along with friends and fellow craft artists Olaf Skookfors, Daniel Jackson and Stanley Lechtzin, PCPC put up exhibitions and worked to raise the profile and prestige of craft art in the region.
From his first discovery of porcelain as a light conductor, he experimented for the rest of his life, pushing the medium in a quest for the perfect texture and malleability. Searching for a clay body that was easy to manipulate led him to mix odd things into the porcelain like oatmeal, instant potatoes and flour. Even late in his life he was still looking for the right formula. In 1996 he said, “I keep thinking there’s always a magical, illogical conglomeration of materials that will do it, so I keep trying.”7
The primary interest in the play of light through the material determined the shapes of the pieces. His desire to allow light to permeate the translucent areas of the forms determined their wide-open rims. The vessels could be thrown on the wheel or hand built with supporting forms as varied as balloons and bowls. The rather zany image of Staffel using a balloon to build up his porcelain that might be mixed with oatmeal is quite contradictory to the quiet transcendent quality of his finished works.
Working with the same material for four decades resulted not in repetition, but in continued experimentation, forms that are endlessly surprising, nuanced and varied. White is the chief color of his oeuvre, but mineral washes lent pale blues and greens, and a number of the works have stripes and sectors of rich color achieved through staining the clay with pigment. Even the pure white pieces reveal great variation of whiteness through differential thickness and surface treatments.
“Even when I was a painter, I was always interested in light,” he said, “Something about light coming through glass, wax, or snow. I wanted to achieve a passage of light.”8 Rudolf Staffel was named a member of the American Craft Council College of Fellows in 1978, the year he retired from teaching at Tyler School of Art, Temple University. In 1992 he was awarded the Craft Council’s highest honor in recognition of a lifetime of artistic achievement, the Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship. After his retirement Staffel continued to make work in his Manayunk home and studio until the year before he passed away in 2002.
2 Suzanne Ramljak, Crafting a Legacy: Contemporary American Crafts in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2002), p. 58.
3 Edward J. Sozanski, Rudolf Staffel, 90, famous ceramic artist, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 2002.
4 Edward J. Sozanski, Rudolf Staffel Has Made a Career in Translucency, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 21, 1996.
5 Edward J. Sozanski, Rudolf Staffel, 90, famous ceramic artist, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 2002.
6 Edward J. Sozanski, Rudolf Staffel Has Made a Career in Translucency, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 21, 1996.
8 Suzanne Ramljak, Crafting a Legacy: Contemporary American Crafts in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2002), p. 58.