Review by Glenn Adamson
Rudy Autio

Louana M. Lackey. Rudy Autio. Foreword by Peter Voulkos. Westerville, Ohio: American Ceramic Society, 2002. 278 pp., approx. 150 color illus. $65 (hardbound).

I have never actually met Rudy Autio, so I felt like something of a party crasher when reading Louana M. Lackey’s new book on the well-known contemporary ceramist. On the dust jacket Lackey is described as a Research Scholar in Ceramics at the Maryland Institute College of Art, with previous experience in archaeology, anthropology, and art education. She seems to have had a colorful life, leaving college to be an art student at the Art Students League of New York, but her principal qualification to write this biography is that she is a friend of Autio.

Her volume is not a piece of scholarship nor is it meant to be. Rather, it is an affectionate account of Autio’s life, written in a style approximating that of a local newspaper (“Rudy also has had fun making woodblock prints” [p. 136]). It strikes me as written mainly for people who, like Louana Lackey, already know and like Rudy Autio and enjoy being reminded of him for a few fond moments. While the book provides a useful overview of his career, it offers little more information than a decent oral history interview would do. Photographs of Autio, his work, and his studio environment are numerous, but, apart from some old black-and-white images, are of uneven and often amateurish quality. It is certainly not a book that will persuade anyone of Autio’s significance as a potter or artist.

This would not be a cause for concern or even comment were it not for the fact that the jury is very much still out with regard to the importance of Autio’s work. Autio has both benefited and suffered from his inextricable link with Peter Voulkos, who until his recent death had loomed over American ceramics like that other well-known, larger-than-life Greek, the Colossus of Rhodes. Autio and Voulkos became friends before either one knew a thing about pottery, when both were enrolled in an art class at Montana State College, Bozeman, on the G.I. Bill. The two men had more or less fallen into studying painting, and with an equal degree of casualness took up ceramics under the guidance of a woman named Frances Senska, who had studied with the Finnish immigrant potter Maija Grotell at Cranbrook. Autio and Voulkos were among a group of students who became interested in the medium and went on to help build a pottery in Helena, Montana, on the grounds of a brickyard. (The owner of the facility, Archie Bray, hoped to build a multifaceted artistic community at his factory. Although he passed away in 1953, his vision has been more or less fulfilled, and the Archie Bray Foundation remains a vital force in American ceramics.) 

It seems that Voulkos committed to clay more readily and more fully than his friend. Autio, who for years dabbled in various artistic media, arguably did not hit his stride as a potter until two decades later. For the ceramic historian, what really captures the imagination about Autio in these early years is the company he kept: Voulkos, first and foremost, but also the triumvirate of Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and Soetsu Yanagi, who visited Bray’s manufactory in 1952 as part of their mission to expose Americans to the Japanese pottery tradition.

In a perfect universe, Autio would have become the Henri Matisse to Voulkos’s Pablo Picasso—two giants with opposing aesthetic sensibilities who challenged one another to scale ever-greater heights of artistic achievement. Stylistically, the analogy holds true. Autio is a colorist who creates large, emphatically decorative pots festooned with cartoons of naked women and horses. His debt to late-period Matisse is almost total. Voulkos (who used to pin images of Picasso’s own willfully clumsy ceramics to his studio wall) was deeply moved by the experience of meeting Leach and his colleagues and almost immediately entered a phase of wildly inventive construction—a freeform combination of Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and Japanese aesthetics. He soon moved to California to teach at the Otis Art Institute. There he was able to play the Picasso role to the hilt, spawning a generation of followers, scandalizing his detractors, and abruptly adopting new styles when it suited his purposes. 

Autio, by contrast, seems to have dithered. In 1957 he began teaching at the University of Montana, Missoula, and founded a ceramics program there; but his own work in the medium during the 1950s and 1960s took the form of architectural reliefs in a conservative W.P.A. style. He frittered away time and energy on outside projects such as a pair of bronze grizzly bears that serve as the mascots for the university. His tentative stabs at Voulkos’s pioneering style (“bentware,” as Autio amusingly calls it) were interesting but hardly the equal of work by other Voulkos acolytes such as Jim Leedy, John Mason, and Paul Soldner. Even when Autio finally found his signature style he remained a frankly derivative artist. Whereas Voulkos channeled Picasso, Autio merely imitated Matisse. His pots of the 1980s, with their whirling figural compositions, are impressive for their novel handbuilt construction and their freedom of drawing and color, but they are hardly revolutionary. They are also unbelievably repetitive. Autio’s mature style calcified almost as soon as it appeared—a fact that Lackey clearly recognizes at some level, given that the last sentence in her book is a defensive one: “[J]ust as he would not ‘always make the same picture’ if he were a painter, Rudy does not always make the same pot” (p. 150). Actually he does, and though it is a nice pot, it would have seemed more artistically relevant in 1950, or even 1920, than it does today.

A photo in Lackey’s book of Autio and Voulkos playing the guitar in 1953 tells the story with almost heartbreaking concision: the handsome Voulkos, a blur of energy and movement and clearly transported by the music, is turned away from Autio, who looks on with the appreciative, slightly befuddled expression of a faithful hound (p. 25). The photo is the most telling image in the book, because it shows Autio as a shy outsider even in a group of two. As an artist, he simply was not interested in rising to the historical circumstances that were thrust upon him. In Lackey’s biography he perhaps gets what he deserves: not a good book, but a loving, nonjudgmental treatment in which he is celebrated simply for being himself. From a sentimental point of view this is unobjectionable; everyone should be so lucky. From a historical point of view, the book only confirms the impression that Autio is like most people—a good guy, doing his best—while Voulkos was a larger-than-life figure bent on transforming the course of ceramic history. The comparison is not fair, but, unfortunately, it is inevitable.

Glenn Adamson
The Chipstone Foundation and Milwaukee Art Museum

Ceramics in America 2004