Art Review

Remembering abstract-expressionist ceramics pioneer Paul Soldner

Colorado has a rich history in ceramics going back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it was in the period from the 1950s to the 1990s that the ceramics scene here really hit its stride, with masters of the medium Nan and Jim McKinnell, Betty Woodman and Paul Soldner among those who came to work in the area.

Soldner earned a master's degree at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1954. While he was there, he took a class from Katie Horsman, who introduced him to ceramics. After throwing his first pot, he was hooked. Soldner went to California to continue his studies and wound up being the first student of Peter Voulkos, then teaching at what was called the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Voulkos quickly became Soldner's principal mentor.

As a result of this relationship, Soldner became a pioneer of abstract-expressionist ceramic sculpture (untitled example pictured). After he set off on his own, he invented a new process: American raku. Though the technique is based on Japanese traditions, Soldner made it his own. In Japanese raku, pots are pulled from the kiln and then immersed in water to suddenly stop the firing, producing interesting surface effects. Soldner plunged the hot pots into flammable materials such as paper or leaves instead. He stumbled on the approach accidentally in 1960 when he dropped a pot fresh from firing on the brush-covered ground while he was running to a nearby pond to immerse it. The pot set the plants ablaze, and when he extinguished it, the piece was iridescent. The method has become widely popular with potters ever since.

In addition to his stints as student and teacher in Boulder, Soldner had more substantial connections to Colorado. In the 1950s, he built a solar-powered studio near Aspen, where he worked almost every summer since; in the '60s, he founded the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, which is now world-famous.

On January 3, Soldner died at age 89 at his winter home in Claremont, California.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia