Sculpting a legend 

Remembering the life and influence of Rudy Autio

Internationally renowned ceramics artist Rudy Autio, a 28-year veteran professor at the University of Montana, passed away Wednesday, June 20, from leukemia. He was 80 years old. Memorial services will be held in Missoula Saturday, July 21, at 4 p.m. at the Montana Theatre on the University of Montana campus.

I met Rudy Autio in the summer of 1994 when I was a freshly minted art historian coming to Missoula to teach at the university. I had no idea that Missoula had an artist of national, let alone international, reputation. My ignorance changed when I met Rudy. In fact, he taught me what it means to be a great artist, and why some people deserve their place on Parnassus, the mythical sacred mountain where, as the ancients believed, the sun god Apollo and his muses reign.

That fall I returned to Chicago to defend my dissertation, and almost literally stumbled upon Rudy’s work. Disembarking from the “El” somewhere in Chicago’s gallery district, I stared blankly through the plate-glass windows of a high-brow establishment at three of Rudy’s colorful lobed pots, with their dancing female nudes and animated horses. I recognized this man was a force to be reckoned with, that he was single-handedly placing Missoula on the global artistic map and making a sophisticated argument for ceramics as significant contemporary art.

The following summer Rudy and my colleague Beth Lo convinced me to moderate the keynote panel at Woodstack ’95, a groundbreaking gathering of arguably the greatest minds in the field of ceramics. At the heart of this meeting were Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos, two pioneers and brothers in the development of modernist ceramics. One was a sweet, gnomish and grandfatherly presence; the other, Voulkos, a badass, chain-smoking trickster uncle. Together they constituted a confluence of Finland and Greece, saga and epic, Matisse and Pollock, Santa Claus and the Fonz.

I knew nothing about the world of contemporary ceramics, but it was clear I was fielding a conversation among giants, artists who had risked much in the name of modern art and who realized their artistic visions at all costs, teachers who had inspired generations of American students to create with no fear and to restore their dirty and crafty medium to its proper place in the world of fine art.

At the panel discussion, I asked Rudy a question I thought would be the conversation’s Achilles heel, my chance to poke this guy with my critical rapier. I noted that at least half of the audience members were women, some of them towering artists in their own right. Yet on the stage were a bunch of old white guys talking about the mysticism and power of wood-fired ceramics.

I asked Rudy where the women were. He looked over the packed room and smiled sheepishly, no doubt asking himself, “Where’s Lela?,” his devoted feminist wife who did not come to his rescue. But then he said, “The only reason all of us are here today is because of Frances Senska.” Senska had been Rudy and Peter’s teacher, and she was too ill to attend that gathering. I realized at that moment the depth of gratitude that spanned these generations, and that those countless artists and students in the audience, male or female, would not be there if Rudy and his friends had not opened up their studios and classrooms, their minds and hearts, to so many. That was greatness.

I’ve heard the argument that Rudy’s work has become comfortable and repetitive, that he was no longer pushing the boundaries of the medium as he had in younger days. Indeed, since the 1950s, he and Voulkos have pushed clay from the realm of craft and pottery into the high-fallootin’ and contentious arena of modern art. They bridged the chasm between ceramics and modern abstraction. In recent years, his work has commanded attention and record prices on the international market. Most of his new sculpture goes straight to the best museums and private collections in the world.

Whereas Voulkos and followers continued on the path of Japanese-inspired, abstract expressionist ceramics, Rudy seemed to take a step back. Sure, his voluminous, eared pots were modern sculptures, but they were covered with figurative painting, his trademark images of whimsical nudes and horses—not the most challenging subjects, perhaps the most delicious eye-candy in the art of the western world, and this at a time when minimalist abstraction and even postmodern meaninglessness were the names of the game in art. In fact, Autio’s drawings evoked the heavy outlines and sumptuous color of Matisse. And he persisted in it, drawing after drawing, platter after platter, pot after pot. He reminded us of Picasso’s constant return to the classical subjects and rigorous draftsmanship of his youth, even as the art world seemed to spin into ever more innovative and contradictory movements.

Rudy Autio’s art may reveal a formula, a penchant for the beautiful, but it was never formulaic. He was, after all, a humanist, a man who continued to explore while defying the most anarchical tenet of our age: that the value of modern art is directly proportional to its quotient of contemporary angst. Like Goya and Picasso, Rubens and Rembrandt, to the end Autio believed in the inherent force and beauty of creation. Those nudes and horses will forever affirm the raw power of sex, growth and spirit, of life and love. Above all, at his core, he believed in artistic creation as a necessary and redemptive act for humanity. To me, Rudy is now the new Apollo, tending his horses on Mount Parnassus and surrounded by his gorgeous muses, and his light will continue to shine.

H. Rafael Chacón, Ph.D., is a professor of art history and criticism in the Department of Art at the University of Montana.
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