California College of Arts and Crafts
Oliver Art Center/Tecoah Bruce Gallery
November 20-December 29, 1991




The three and a half decades of Paul Soldner's career as a teacher, artist and innovator coincides with the emergence of clay as a medium for contemporary art in the United States. He is often cited as the most influential member of the talented group who gathered at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles to study with Peter Voulkos in the mid-50s - one that included such luminaries as Ken Price, John Mason, and Billy Al Bengston. Through countless workshops and classes, a substantial oeuvre and even an equipment company, Soldner has enlarged the technical and the aesthetic boundaries of his field. His experiements with raku firing in the 60s led not only to the legitimation of low-fire techniques but to the development of a more intuitive, spontaneous way of looking at and thinking about clay.

The chronological presentation of this retrospective provides an opportunity to examine the evolution of Soldner's ideas. Although the earliest piecve dates from 1941 - a modest stoneware bottle made while he was an undergraduate at Bluffton College, Ohio - this beginning is somewhat deceptive. The majority of the early pieces were done either at Otis, between 1954 and 1956, or at Scripps College, Claremont, between 1956 and 1959 during Soldner's first years of teaching there. Several decades and a ceramics revolution later, these stoneware containers and "floor pots" (tall sculptural pieces) are of little more than historical interest. While competent, they are not remarkable either in form or in surface. The emergence of Soldner's raku work in 1960 seems all the more powerful by comparison.

From the outset, the raku pieces had a lively, improvisatory quality, as he began to alter the symmetry of his thrown forms. His intense engagement with the possibilities opening up before him is clear. For a true bricoleur like Soldner, the opportunity to "make it up" as he went along - techniques, equipment, even materials - was obviously exhilarating and immensely stimulating.

In the 60s Soldner's development of a vocabulary of forms and surface treatments led him to work with figurative imagery. Some of it, borrowed from magazines and record album covers, dates these works as belonging to a more innocent and optimistic time. In a 1969 wall piece subtitled Black is Beautiful, for example, the bare-breasted silhouettes of three women with Afros or tribal 'dos have been impressed into the warm brown slab of unglazed clay. In another work of the same year, a reclining Playboy nude faces a psychedelic John Lennon. The uncomfortable disjunction here - between the Pop image and the earthy, smoke-tinged material he used - anticipates postmodernist strategies of appropriation

and recontextualization. In these pieces Soldner calls our attention to the fact that the media landscape is as much a part of our lives as the more "natural" environment we associate wtih the organic appearance of his fire-marked clay. Despite their intelligence, however, they fall short of their ambitions.

Other figurative works, from the 70s, are far more successful. The delicacy and elegance of the women pictured on Vessel, c. 1972, suggests a thorough knowledge of classical antecedents, as well as the work of modern masters like Matisse or Picasso.

Some pieces from the 80s invoke not only the metaphorical relationship between the female body and the vessel, but the body itself. The extraordinary Pedestal Piece (83-19), 1983, suggests the upper part of a headless torso, simultaneously recalling a fragment of an ancient statue and an expressionistic abstraction of the figure. Here, as in every part of this exhibition, Soldner's enduring belief in the vaidity of traditional ceramic forms as a vehicle for the expression of contemporary themes is reiterated.

Although the "pedestal pieces" of the last decade are increasingly abstract, each begins with a thrown foundation. This form acts as a base for a dynamically asymmetrical composition of slabs which often suggest wings. In Pedestal Piece (90-12), 1990, the evocation of flight is so strong that the sculpture looks as though its base is the only thing keeping it from taking off. That something as substantial and ponderous as clay could seem almost weightless is remarkable. But then, for more than 35 years Soldner has demonstrated through word and deed that by engaging intelligence and intuition, each seeker can find his or her unique way. That so many have come to love serendipitous accidents - and learned how to grow beyond them - is proof of Soldner's enduring pedagogy.                       -MARIA PORGES

"Paul Soldner: A Retrospective" opened at Scripps College, Claremont, California (September 1-October 13, 1991), and is currently at the Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, Massachusetts (January 26-March 15). It will tour the United States through January 1994. A 128-page catalog, published by the Lang Gallery, Scripps College, in association with the University of Washington Press, Seattle, with essays by Elaine Levin, Mac McClain, and Mary Davis MacNaughton, 35 color and 57 black-and-white photographs, is available for $24.95.