Hans Coper - Design New York Tuesday, December 16, 2008 | Phillips

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  • Literature

    Tony Birks, Hans Coper, London, 2005, illustrated p. 218

  • Catalogue Essay

    Unlike other star ceramists, Hans Coper wrote next to nothing about pottery. The exception, regretted by its author, is a now famous statement published on the occasion of his 1969 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He began: “A pre-dynastic Egyptian pot, roughly egg-shaped, the size of my hand: made thousands of years ago, possibly by a slave, it has survived in more than one sense.” His sentence reads like a fragment, rough and cracked, but persists as intact as the pot.
    Coper held that relic literally and figuratively: “This is the only pot which has really fascinated me.” His praise admitted a long preoccupation with ancient wares. During the lean post-war years, as Tony Birks has noted, Coper kept warm in the British Museum, where he haunted the vast collection of antiquities. Many of Coper’s pots stand on tall, cylindrical feet. The outline of Lot 48 resembles a 6th-century B.C. Attic psykter, a bulbous footed vessel used for cooling wine. Others, similar to Lot 47, bear sgrafitto spirals that seem ancient and primal, like Hohokam petroglyphs scratched in stone.
    Albion Mews, just north of Hyde Park, is an axis mundi of 20th century ceramics: Lucie Rie lived and worked there. She also shared her studio with Coper, who arrived in 1946 desperate for work. Untrained, he began molding buttons from clay. When he left in 1959, he had won a Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale and had achieved his signature style: abstract component pots thrown on a Continental kick wheel, their surfaces heavily worked. Coper built up his clay bodies with matt slips and manganese then rubbed and abraded them with a pot scrubber. When fired in an electric kiln, they appeared flaked and worn as if passed hand-to-hand across generations.
    Early in his career Coper longed to be a sculptor—he was. His pots are always pots (Rie kept flowers in them) but never just. For example, his "Cycladic" forms bear obvious relation to those Bronze Age idols of the same name, both the abstract Keros-Syros heads with protruding noses and the standing female figurines of the same phase. Coper’s versions of the latter are like birds in flight—it’s no coincidence he once knocked at Brancusi’s door. Whereas the latter’s constructions preside like totems over now lost civilizations, Coper’s pots might have been the ritual objects of those civilizations: the products of hot fires in dim caves.

  • Artist Biography

    Hans Coper

    German • 1920 - 1981

    Hans Coper learned his craft in the London studio of Lucie Rie, having emigrated from Germany as a young Jewish engineering student in 1939. He initially assisted Rie in the studio with the ceramic buttons she made for the fashion industry, as well as ceramic tableware, but soon Coper was producing his own work. By 1951 he had received considerable recognition exhibiting his pots in the "Festival of Britain." 


    Coper favored compound shapes that, while simple in appearance, were in fact complex in construction. Similar to the making of Joseon Dynasty Moon Jars (Rie in fact displayed a Moon Jar in the studio), he would build his vessels by bringing several thrown forms together, for example joining bowls rim to rim. Coper eschewed glazes and preferred the textured surfaces achieved through the application of white and black slips, evoking the abraded texture of excavated vessels. This interest in ancient objects was very much in step with other modernists of his time—Coper admired Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti and his textured markings have been compared to sculptors such as William Turnbull.


    In the last phase of his career, Coper reduced the scale of his work creating small "Cycladic" pots that stood on pedestals or drums, recalling the clay figures of Bronze Age Greece. 

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Early vase with painted foot and angled lip

Stoneware, textured body rubbed with dry manganese glaze and cream slips, the foot with a painted design.
12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm.) high
Impressed with artist's seal.

$10,000 - 14,000 

Sold for $10,000


17 Dec 2008 2pm
New York