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WHITEWALL PRESENTS WITH Fondation d’entreprise Martell
JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell
WHITEWALL PRESENTS

JB Blunk at Fondation d’entreprise Martell

JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell
Fondation Martell

JB Blunk at Fondation d’entreprise Martell

Opening this June is “CONTINUUM,” an exhibition of the work and life of the late JB Blunk (1926–2002). On view, thanks to the curation of Anne-Claire Duprat, director of Fondation d’entreprise Martell, and Mariah Nielson, director of the JB Blunk Estate and daughter of Blunk, are more than 150 works including sculpture, ceramics, furniture, models, paintings, sketches, photographs, and video.

The American artist is well known for his sculptures in wood, created from carving found materials with a chainsaw. Those examples are on view in Cognac, France (through December 29, 2024), of course, but what is revealed in this immersive show is how Blunk’s entire way of life was part of his artistic practice. After a formative visit to Japan, he came back to the United States and built his home and studio by hand in Inverness, California, in a forest near the Pacific Coast. There, every piece of his environment served as inspiration and artistic potential—including his life with his family.

JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell Photo by Thomas Weir, courtesy of JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d’entreprise Martell.

Whitewall spoke with Mariah Nielson and Anne-Claire Duprat, director of the Martell Foundation and co-curator of the exhibition, to learn more about the legacy of JB Blunk.

WHITEWALL: How did the JB Blunk Estate and Fondation Martell first connect and begin to put this show together?

MARIAH NIELSON: I met Anne-Claire several years ago when she visited the Blunk House, and we kept in touch. When Anne-Claire became the director of the Martell Foundation, she reached out and asked if they could host the first European retrospective of JB’s work. I was thrilled! 

ANNE-CLAIRE DUPRAT: I first encountered JB Blunk’s work through the monograph published by Dent-De-Leone, when visiting two bookstores, one in France (After Eight in Paris) and the other in New York City (Mast Books). I was at the time working at the French Embassy in New York City. At the end of my mission (2021), I planned a last road trip to discover Northern California, and I contacted Mariah to visit JB’s house. I felt so blessed when she accepted to give me a tour. I strongly remember the steep road you need to drive through to access to the house hidden in the woods. There, I was stunned by the uniqueness of the place, in this site of wild nature and quiet beauty. 

JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell The Blunk House, Inverness, CA, © Leslie Williamson, courtesy JB Blunk Estate.
JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell The Blunk House, Inverness, CA, © Leslie Williamson, courtesy JB Blunk Estate.

Back in France, I always kept in mind this hidden gem, willing to give it more visibility in Europe where his work remains largely unknown. When I arrived at the Fondation d’entreprise Martell in Cognac two years ago, in a region where the relationship to nature is very strong, I thought it was the perfect place and moment to show his work. When Mariah agreed on doing this project together, I felt extremely lucky.

JB Blunk’s First Retrospective in Europe on view at Fondation d’entreprise Martell

WW: This exhibition brings together over 100 works, and is the first European retrospective of the artist. How did you begin to think about the story you wanted to tell through the objects on view?

MN: Anne-Claire and I spoke at length about how to share JB’s work with an audience in France. We were especially interested in how to organize and display JB’s work in the gallery and how to share the Blunk House and the public seating installations with an audience in Europe . . . how could we effectively bring these spaces and artworks into the gallery that are impossible to move? Still photos didn’t seem dynamic enough, so we decided to commission two new films: one about the house and one about JB’s public works. Because JB worked across so many different mediums throughout his life, we organized the artworks by theme and time: Japan, landscape, archetypes, process, home, and public works. There are a lot of crossovers and that’s okay because JB disregarded any distinction between life and art, craft and art, functional and decorative. 

“JB disregarded any distinction between life and art, craft and art, functional and decorative,”

— Mariah Nielson
JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell Photo by Geoffrey Fulton, courtesy of JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d’entreprise Martell.

ACD: Another challenge for us was to manage to bring this sense of warmth that you can feel in the house into a large space (nine hundred square meters) that used to be a former bottling factory: Martino Gamper’s scenography built with panels of Alpi wood dyed in many colors are revisiting this atmosphere, with his unique hand. We were also willing to present items that would let us understand better his way of working, such as the tiny models of seating sculptures or sketches. We wanted to show his inspiration, from natural elements to ancient art, and to share how JB Blunk’s practice is an inspiration today: bonding closely with nature in his everyday life, living and working as an artist. 

Because we wanted to develop more historical research, we hired Anne Dressen, curator at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, to join the project and deep-dive into the archival material. The last section dedicated to his public artworks is a new step to understand how his artistic practice was expanding in the urban scale, offering sensory and immersive artworks for everyone to experience.

JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell Photo by Howard Waite, courtesy of JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d’entreprise Martell.

The Impact of JB Blunk’s Visit to Japan

WW: The show is both chronological and thematic. It begins with Blunk’s time in Japan. Can you tell us about those four years there and the ceramic work we’ll see from around that time in the show?

MN: My father said that the qualities of Japanese work that most appealed to him were directness and honesty. I think his reverence for nature stemmed from his years in Bizen and his time working as an apprentice for Japanese National Treasure Toyo Kaneshige. The potters in Bizen source clay from the surrounding hills and allow the inherent qualities of the clay to affect the final form. Stones that are embedded in the clay body are left and the lack of glaze brings attention to the natural color and finish of the material. My father applied this way of working to all his creations. For example, when he carved redwood burls, he usually left naturally occurring imperfections and worked with the original form of the material. In the retrospective, we’ll be presenting several ceramics my father made while working with Kaneshige, along with photos of JB in Kaneshige’s workshop. We also have one of the earliest known works by my father! A ceramic vase he made in the late 1940s while studying under Laura Andreson at UCLA. 

WW: How was the artist’s time impactful to not just his artistic practice but the way he lived?

MN: My father was the first American to apprentice with Japanese National Treasures (Rosanjin Kitaoji and Toyo Kaneshige), in Japan in the 1950s. The techniques that he learned and the places he lived (Bizen) informed his art practice and eventually the home he built in multiple and profound ways. In an interview from 1973 my father described how Shinto influenced his life and work: “The potter that I lived with [Toyo Kaneshige] practiced Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. Of course he would talk about Zen, but by using an example, not in terms of Buddhism. The traditional Shinto religion was his way of relating to the world. Shinto has to do with reverence for what came before, not only in the animate and human form, but also in all of nature in a very complete way.”

He learned to speak Japanese in Bizen and lived in the five-hundred-year-old Kaneshige home that had been passed from eldest son to eldest son, all potters. The landscape and connection to nature, the Shinto religion and the very simple, sustainable life of the Kaneshige family had an enormous influence on JB. I visited the Kaneshige family in 2016. I felt like I was walking into my own home. I realized that JB had absorbed the space, the quality of the light, the scale and materials. 

JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell The Blunk House, Inverness, CA, © Leslie Williamson, courtesy JB Blunk Estate.

WW: JB Blunk famously built his own home in Inverness, where he then lived and worked with his family, where land, craft, home, family were all connected. Initially, how did he choose that location?

MN: My father returned to the U.S. in 1954—he felt that he was ready to apply the skills he had developed in Japan and wanted to make a life as an artist. He eventually moved to San Francisco with his first wife, Nancy Waite Harlow, and he wrote a letter to his friend Isamu Noguchi (he had met Noguchi in a mingei shop in Japan in 1951), asking him if he knew anyone who needed help with projects. At this point, he was working as a carpenter, doing whatever he could to make ends meet. Noguchi introduced JB to the British Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford and his wife, Jacqueline Johnson, who were building a home designed by Warren Callister in the town of Inverness. Onslow Ford and Johnson hired my father to construct the roof of their new home. During the construction process, the foursome bonded, and Onslow Ford and Johnson invited my father and Nancy to build a home and studio on an acre of their land.

JB Blunk Blends Art and Life in Inverness, CA

WW: Why was it important for him to build his own home?

MN: My father was desperate to build a studio and make art, to build a place for himself and his family where he could focus on his art practice, so when Gordon and Jacqueline offered the young couple an acre of land, it was a dream come true. The house my father and Nancy constructed is his masterpiece; it’s a total work of art. The young couple spent a year collecting only salvaged materials—wood, doors, windows, even hardware—and slowly assembled the home. 

“The house my father and Nancy constructed is his masterpiece; it’s a total work of art”

— Mariah Nielson
JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell Photo by Mike Conway, courtesy of JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d’entreprise Martell.
JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell The Blunk House, Inverness, CA, © Leslie Williamson, courtesy JB Blunk Estate.

WW: How do we see the role of place and home in the show in terms of works on view?

MN: JB worked constantly in his studio and was prolific. The diversity and interplay of my father’s work is something I really appreciate. For example, in one day he would work on a wood sculpture, carve a stool, paint, and make ceramics. Certain motifs, techniques, and forms cross over and can be seen in all mediums. The home was also a gallery, so we see the slippage between a public and a private space, between functional and sculptural work. 

ACD: Home is the central section of the show: There you discover photos from the archive of the house under construction, letters between Blunk and Oslow Ford, even a little sketch of the path to find the land . . . As a backdrop, a large projection is giving a vibrating sensation of the ambience of the house and its surroundings, with landscape stills or focusing on sculpted details inside the house. At the center, a large table is inviting the visitors to discover a selection of everyday objects he would make mostly for the kitchen use: plates, cups, trays, et cetera, next to a group of stools.

WW: How did the location impact his sculptural practice, and ultimately his technique he’s well known for with found wood and chainsaw?

MN: He sourced all his materials from around our home and the Northern California region and was deeply inspired by the surrounding landscapes of this place. Continuing the techniques he learned while apprenticing with Rosanjin and Kaneshige in Japan, he sourced raw materials from the surrounding landscapes and worked with them in such a way that some quality of the natural material—the knot of a burl, a stone in the clay—remained. 

JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell The Blunk House, Inverness, CA, © Leslie Williamson, courtesy JB Blunk Estate.

WW: How will we see JB Blunk’s connection to material and land in this show?

MN: I hope visitors will see the connection between material and land when watching the film of the Blunk House and reading about JB’s process of sourcing large-scale redwood from Northern California. The connection between and transition from raw material to sculpted form, whether a sculpture or stool, is visible.

ACD: In the second section, “Landcape,” we provide information on the Northern California context and the local history of logging. We also explain how Blunk’s artistic practice is directly connected to his environment: finding his material nearby and giving a second life to the “defective culls.” We present works made of natural materials that he would harvest while walking: driftwood or sea-polished stones he would find at the beach, sand paintings . . . In the fifth section, “Process,” we will present a series of photographs showing his tools: There is the home, the land, but one should not forget his studio nearby, even though he was mostly working outside, as one can guess. We present rare pictures showing Blunk building his very first ceramic kiln: It is a beautiful traditional wood-fire kiln made of earth with a vernacular shape. 

JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell Photo by Jan Watson, courtesy of JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d’entreprise Martell.

WW: Mariah, what was it like to grow up in this environment? How did you want to translate that feeling in this exhibition?

MN: It was a unique experience, but at the time it was what I was most familiar with, it was normal. When I was younger, I was embarrassed by our home and a lot of my father’s art, especially the phallic furniture and sculptures. Now I’m so grateful to have been raised in such a creative environment. Martino Gamper’s exhibition design suggests and creates a similar feeling of unity between life, art, design, and craft, which is what I grew up appreciating. 

The Legacy of JB Blunk

WW: How did the concept of family fit into JB Blunk’s practice?

MN: JB didn’t distinguish between life and art; it was all one experience and process. Our home was a domestic space, comfortable and welcoming, but it was also a space to display art and host events. His family was a part of his creative process. There was a reciprocal exchange and influence. 

WW: Can you tell us about the legacy and ongoing impact of the “Family Shows” you held?

MN: The concept of the Blunk Space “Family Shows” is inspired by the family shows that JB organized at our home in the 1980s. For several weeks each spring, our family would open the home to our community and present weavings made by my mother, Christine Nielson, sculptures and paintings made by my brothers, Bruno and Rufus Blunk, my drawings, and his own ceramics, sculptures, and paintings. During these shows, the Blunk house and studio transformed into a gallery, and the creative influence and exchange between all of us was celebrated.  

WW: What do you hope visitors to Fondation Martell take away from this exhibition?

MN: This is the first European retrospective of my father’s work, so it’s an introduction to JB and his world. The hope is that visitors both familiar and unacquainted with JB will be presented with and surprised by the breadth of his practice and the synthesis of nature, life, and art. 

ACD: The most inspiring thing for me looking at Blunk’s practice is how he managed to mingle art and life in such a harmonious relationship with nature. His life is a proof that it is possible to live a beautiful and creative life in a remote location, just by paying attention to your environment. It is a call for creativity: You don’t need much to transcend the ordinary.

JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d'entreprise Martell “His life is a proof that it is possible to live a beautiful and creative life,”
Courtesy of JB Blunk Estate and Fondation d’entreprise Martell.

“”His life is a proof that it is possible to live a beautiful and creative life,””

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