Kamoda Shōji, One of Japan’s Most Celebrated Ceramic Artists

Photo of Kamoda at home in Mashiko from 1974 with pots featuring his trademark red-green-white swirls set out before him, on p195 of Aoki Hiroshi, ed., Kamoda Shōji (Inshōsha, 2004).

MINNEAPOLIS — Kamoda Shōji is one of Japan’s most celebrated ceramic artists, but he is little known outside of his home country. This could be because of the artist’s early death from cancer at age 49 in 1983. Another factor could be that Kamoda’s hugely popular exhibitions in Tokyo sold out during his lifetime, keeping his consistently works mostly out of reach for international collectors.

But perhaps the main reason for Kamoda’s relative obscurity outside of Japan stems from his lack of a single signature style. Rather than repeating himself, Kamoda tirelessly experimented and innovated, producing a number of very different ceramic series during his brief but brilliant career. In the process, he left behind a richly varied body of work that continues to inspire artists today.

Kamoda Shōji: The Art of Change at the Minneapolis Institute of Art is the artist’s first museum retrospective outside of Japan. Curated by Matthew Welch, the exhibition features 49 pieces from across Kamoda’s lifetime drawn from private collections in the United States. The Minneapolis display presents US-based audiences with a rare opportunity to experience Kamoda’s exquisite but little-seen work in person, and to witness his unique approach to form and surface design, as well as his boundless creativity, up close.

Kamoda Shōji, “Vessel” (1980), glazed stoneware, 6 1/2 x 4 inches (collection of Frank H. Douglas)

Kamoda was born in 1933 in Kishiwada, Japan. An excellent student, he began drawing during the Second World War, when air raids over nearby Osaka and Kobe kept him indoors for long spans of time. He entered the prestigious Kyoto City University of the Arts in 1952, where he quickly turned to ceramics. Kamoda studied under the influential potter Tomimoto Kenkichi, whose emphasis on individuality and originality would stay with the young artist throughout his career.

After graduation, Kamoda expanded his technical skills and established his career working at mass-market ceramics manufacturers in Mashiko, a city known for its pottery production. But in 1969, he left his young family to move with an assistant to Tōno, a more isolated town some 250 miles north of Tokyo, to focus on his work in greater solitude. “Kamoda-sensei worked morning till night,” the artist’s assistant later recalled about his time in Tōno. “We had no television, and we didn’t even have a radio at first. It was all work all the time, and it was suffocating.”

Accordingly, Kamoda’s pieces are strikingly labor intensive. Tōno’s local clay, which was traditionally used for roof tiles, contained a unique roughness and mineral composition that challenged the artist to develop new directions in his practice. He abandoned the wheel in favor of the coiling method, and mastered a variety of surface treatments using slip, enamel, and glazes. Despite his works’ graceful appearance, Kamoda’s seemingly intuitive surfaces and flowing forms were not left up to chance. “Absolutely everything was planned out,” Welch told Hyperallergic on a recent tour of the exhibition. “He would spend days working out a design or pattern in his sketchbooks.”

Kamoda Shōji, “Vessel” (1972), glazed stoneware with marbleized decoration, 12 1/2 x 7 1/4 x 5 1/4 inches (collection Joan B. Mirviss and Robert J. Levine)

Hunkered down in Tōno’s rural, isolated setting, Kamoda came to define the cutting edge of his country’s ceramic art movement. “In Japan, ceramics are so lauded and the tradition itself is so respected that I think it’s hard for Japanese potters to break away from tradition,” Welch noted. “But Kamoda’s really looking forward and thinking about contemporary design, and what he can do with a vessel artistically, not just on a utilitarian basis.” However, even though his work pushed boundaries, Kamoda was also an avid student of his country’s ceramic history. For example, his works with earthy, pockmarked surfaces pay tribute to Japanese Sue ware pottery from centuries before.

Early on, Kamoda’s exhibitions were met with crowds who lined up around the block to see his elegant, elusive works, and collectors eager to invest in them. But success and stardom didn’t matter to the artist. “He doesn’t seem to have been driven by the monetary aspect of fame,” Welch explained. “There was a huge demand for his work, but throughout the ’70s, about every 18 to 24 months he would just shift and start making something completely new.”

Kamoda’s tendency to change is evident in his works’ impressive range of shapes, colors, and textures. With such a wide variety of treatments and forms, it’s difficult to trace a clear line between his series or pinpoint his unifying themes. So what pushed Kamoda to keep exploring and changing? “For me, there is no such thing as progress,” the artist once wrote. “It’s a desire to stay fresh that drives me.”

Kamoda Shōji, “Octagonal vessel” (1968), glazed stoneware, 10 x 9 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches (Carol and Jeffrey Horvitz Collection)
Kamoda Shōji, “Faceted vessel” (1968), glazed porcelain, 8 5/8 x 6 3/8 inches (collection of Joan B. Mirviss and Robert J. Levine)
Kamoda Shōji, “Vessel” (1976), glazed stoneware, 7 x 5 inches (collection of Tamara and Michael Root)
Kamoda Shōji, “Jar” (1971), stoneware with red and green painted glazes, 4 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches (collection of Joan B. Mirviss and Robert J. Levine)
Kamoda Shōji, “Tiered vessel” (1979), glazed stoneware with enamel decoration, 12 7/8 x 5 1/2 inches (Carol and Jeffrey Horvitz Collection)
Kamoda Shōji, “Vessel” (1974), glazed stoneware with slip inlady, 9 7/8 x 5 5/8 x 10 1/4 inches (collection of Pilar Conde)
Kamoda Shōji, “Vessel” (1977), stoneware with black slip-glaze and enamel decoration, 14 x 6 3/4 inches (collection of Robert and Lisa Kessler)

Kamoda Shōji: The Art of Change Continues at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 3rd Ave S, Minneapolis) through April 17. The exhibition was curated by Matthew Welch.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art funded the author’s travel and accommodations.

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