Don Reitz Retrospective

by Jody Clowes

Drawing on clay also means drawing in the clay, reaching in and penetrating the form with line. "I have never separated those pinches, lines, scratches from drawing. I think of them as drawing, not just on the surface but in the surface and with the surface." Don Reitz, "Drawing from the Heart," Studio Potter 14, no. 4 (December 1985): 40-41.
Don Reitz: Clay, Fire, Salt, and Wood will feature about 70 ceramic works Reitz created between 1960 and the present. The Elvehjem will present the exhibition from March 12 though June 5, 2005. It will then travel to The Mint Museum of Craft + Design in Charlotte, North Carolina. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue and educational programs geared toward general audiences.

Born in 1929, Don Reitz is recognized as one of the most important and influential ceramic artists of this century. Trained at Alfred University in the early 1960s, Reitz has pursued a life-long investigation of salt- and wood-firing of his ceramic pieces in order to preserve the energy and freshness of his artistic marks and gestures. Finding that the texture and unpredictability of salt-firing suited his work, Reitz almost single-handedly revived this neglected technique, and through long experimentation developed a range of colors and surface effects previously unknown in salt-firing. Juggling and manipulating the variables in each firing, Reitz is a virtuoso who relishes knowing what he can control and what he cannot, and his work maintains a fine balance between technical mastery and improvisation. Affectionately known within the ceramics community as “Mr. Salt,” his approach to firing has been widely influential.

Since the 1970s Reitz’s work has focused on full-bodied jars and teapot-like forms that he pushes, pulls, and swats into shape, etches boldly with knives and fingermarks, and glazes with brilliant nuance. In the 1980s, after a serious accident curtailed his physical activity, Reitz turned to low-fire slips and glazes, spilling his anguish into brightly drawn narratives on somber, unreflective black clay. More recently, Reitz has pursued wood-firing with the same passion he once reserved for salt, traveling around the country to fire his work in kilns that offer the particular effects he seeks. While his wood-fired surfaces can be complex and dense, with aggressive drips of glaze and textures that are often harsh, Reitz’s mature vessels demonstrate power, serenity, and balance. His work is currently featured in the collections of institutions such as the American Craft Museum, the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, the High Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in addition to the collections of many private individuals.

A skilled technician, a natural teacher, and a fearless improviser, Reitz has served as a mentor to thousands of ceramic artists through his role as a teacher at several institutions, including the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he taught from 1962–1988 before relocating to Arizona where he now resides. Reitz has continued to travel throughout the United States and the world to impart his personal approach to working with clay and fire. In 2002 he received one of the highest honors in his field, when the American Craft Council awarded him their Gold Medal.

The catalogue
In conjunction with Don Reitz: Clay, Fire, Salt, and Wood the Elvehjem Museum is producing a fully illustrated catalogue. To date, only small temporary exhibition catalogues have documented this artist’s work, although he has been profiled in numerous periodical articles over the years. The 128-page publication include an essay by exhibition curator Jody Clowes examining Reitz’s work, his contribution to the expansive, dynamic, and exploratory character of American studio ceramics since 1960, and his impact on the field as an innovator, teacher, and mentor. Interviews by Mark Leach and Clowes allow Reitz to tell his own colorful story. Seventy-two color plates feature information about the works of art, commentary by the curator, and anecdotes by the artist. The catalogue, sold through the Elvehjem Museum Shop and distributed by UW Press ($29.95), will provide scholars and ceramics collectors the research and documentation on this important American artist.

Independent curator Jody Clowes is curator of the exhibition that is organized by the Elvehjem Museum. Clowes received her bachelor’s in art and art history from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey and a master’s degree from the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. Clowes served as director of exhibitions for Pewabic Pottery in Detroit, Michigan. From 1994 to 2001, she worked as researcher and curator at the Milwaukee Museum of Art in the department of decorative arts.


Drawing on clay also means drawing in the clay, reaching in and penetrating the form with line. "I have never separated those pinches, lines, scratches from drawing. I think of them as drawing, not just on the surface but in the surface and with the surface." Don Reitz, "Drawing from the Heart," Studio Potter 14, no. 4 (December 1985): 40-41. Reitz didn't title this work until the mid-1980s, when he returned to the form with renewed interest. 'Stack' is a reference to Peter Voulkos' stack pots, and tea, of course, refers to the truncated teapot-like spout and handle. "The hard part to do when you're working in sections is to get the piece so its looks free and alive and not as if you made it from a numbers kit ... [the sections] all have to add up to a oneness somehow, sooner or later, or else you've lost the piece." Don Reitz, video interview with Cathy Brawer, "Expressions," Elvehjem Art Center, 1972.
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