Edmund de Waal, breathturn, I, 2013, installation. © Edmund de Waal. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo Mike Bruce.

Edmund de Waal, the British ceramist, opens "Atemwende," his first significant American exhibition, tonight at Gagosian Gallery's Madison Avenue branch (Sept.12-Oct. 19).

De Waal's modernist pots and large-scale ceramics commissions, including Signs and Wonders (2009), his permanent installation at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, have enjoyed critical acclaim in Europe. But he's principally known in the U.S. as the best-selling author of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. The celebrated 2011 memoir details his European family's history through the lens of its collection of netsuke, Japanese wood and ivory carvings, none larger than the palm of a hand. The netsuke were one small part of his prominent family's vast art trove, all of which was lost by the end of World War II and much of which now resides in the world's finest museums, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, among others.

"Atemwende" is translated from German as "breath turn," and it, like the other titles at Gagosian, is borrowed from poetry, in this case that of Paul Celan. The 48-year-old, soft-spoken de Waal is as inspired by literature, poetry and music as by visual art. He guided A.i.A. through a preview of the exhibition, which includes hundreds of wafer-thin thrown porcelain vessels, handmade in his London studio and grouped into minimalist families and pairs. They are spaced like musical notes, with rests in between, on custom-designed monochrome grids and cubes and on black bespoke shelves. 

TRACY ZWICK
This is your first major show in the U.S. and you're debuting at Gagosian. How does that feel?

EDMUND DE WAAL
Fucking brilliant. The spaces here are staggering, the support is incredible and the openness to new concepts is fantastic.

ZWICK
What in Paul Celan's poetry moves you? Why did you adopt some of his phrasings in your titling practice?

DE WAAL
There's been so much poetry in my life forever. This whole show was built around poetry, and Celan became more and more important because of the way he moves toward the fragment. There's more and more space in his poetry. There's more emptiness around what he did. This is how I began to think about my own work and how I put vessels together, and decided how much space for breathing there is or could be. When I read his incredible essay where he talks about breath-turns, "atemwende," these moments of transition where there's space around words and art, I just thought, Yes, that's it! That's what I've got to do. I've got to find different ways of bringing space into what I do and that's why all of this work has at its heart that kind of apprehension; that came from Celan.

ZWICK
You've grouped and composed these porcelains sculpturally, with lots of glyph-like references to the grid. Rosalind Krauss published her "Grids" essay in October in 1979, writing that the grid was "emblematic of the modernist ambition" and that it "lowered the barrier between the arts of vision and those of language." As an artist who works with both objects and words, do you find this structure helpful?

DE WAAL
Absolutely! It's a primary structure. For me the structure has historically been the structure of the page. It's about reading and re-reading and palimpsests and looking at the structure of thinking, and wondering how one approaches words, and how things become words.

ZWICK
Musicality pervades your practice, and in the show's promotional material your work is analogized with the "rhythmic pulses of Philip Glass." Yet it's John Cage who redefined the philosopher Gilles Deleuze's idea of repetition, a strategy you use, as the production of unintentional differences. Tell me about the place of music and the strategy of repetition in this work.

DE WAAL
When I'm in the studio I listen to a lot of Berg, actually. I also listen to Cage and Steve Reich, but Cage is absolutely with me all the way, partly because of his fearlessness about positioning. The idea of a sculpture as a score and performance is exactly what this is; you're absolutely right. Breathturn is music, and it's a series of breaths, and its just pots on shelves.

ZWICK  In The Hare with Amber Eyes, you wrote about your great-great-uncle Charles Ephrussi, a prominent European art collector and critic, and his "feeling for the disappearing moment." Do you think you've inherited that feeling?

DE WAAL
Yes, I do actually. This work is absolutely a kind of series of disappearing moments, and they are disappearing sounds. When you work with clay you are making these extraordinary movements in the world, which are breaths, out of something that is incredibly delicate. Then you are putting them together in installations and naming them and putting them out in the world. It is an extraordinary moment of just holding something in the world and letting it go. You put one thing down in the world and everything around it changes.

ZWICK
While they're anti-figurative and non-referential, these pots are grouped into families, couples and outlier singles. Adam Gopnik mentioned this in his catalogue essay, writing that like people, these vessels are fragile, they were made by someone, and they'll someday break. Does this resonate with you?

DE WAAL
That's something I'm entirely comfortable with. I've done this all my life, really, and I will do it until I can no longer do it, and that idea seems to me a completely sane approach to living a life. That's exactly what living your life is about—the presence of death and the idea that all you've said or done is fugitive. That makes the encounter you have or bring into being incredibly significant.