A ceramicist — with typical puckish pragmatism he preferred to describe his chosen medium as dirt instead of clay — Mr. Reitz was one of a small cadre of midcentury artisans who expanded the medium to include immense, intellectually provocative works of abstract art.
At his death, he was an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he taught for a quarter-century before his retirement in 1988. His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and elsewhere.
When Mr. Reitz began his craft in the early 1960s, ceramics more or less equaled pots, plates and pitchers. Influenced by the prevailing cultural winds, which were sweeping away figurative approaches from other areas of art, he and a few colleagues — notably Peter Voulkos, who died in 2002, and Rudy Autio — wrestled clay off the dinner table.
Where Mr. Reitz had been trained to make pots on a wheel, glaze them delicately and fire them to a genteel finish, his work soon assumed a muscular anarchy. No longer content to rely on the wheel alone, he pushed, pulled, prodded, punched, pinched and poked mountains of clay into vast abstract forms, often incising them with markings that were as essential to the finished piece as the construction itself.
He was known in particular for reviving the centuries-old technique of salt firing, in which salt added to a hot kiln yields textured surfaces far different from those made with conventional glazes.
Mr. Reitz’s style was characterized by “a kind of tension between a respect for classical pottery form and a really kind of brash, impetuous approach to working with wet clay,” Jody Clowes, the curator of “Don Reitz: Clay, Fire, Salt and Wood,” a touring exhibition of 2005, said in an interview on Friday.
“He would work with forms that you can take back to Chinese or Egyptian ceramics and see similar proportions,” Ms. Clowes said. “He really was a classicist in that sense. And yet, he really was part of this 1960s ‘Let’s dig deep in the mud and see what happens’ approach.”
If dirt led Mr. Reitz to salt, then meat led him to dirt.
Donald Lester Reitz was born on Nov. 7, 1929, in Sunbury, Pa., and reared in Belvidere, N.J. Dyslexic, he preferred working with his hands to schoolwork.
Enlisting in the Navy in 1948, he spent five years as a salvage diver and afterward plied a series of trades — truck driver, sign painter — before settling into a career as a butcher.
“In a way, it is an art,” Mr. Reitz wrote in a 1991 autobiographical essay in the magazine Ceramics Monthly. “You have to know how to cut and display your product, everything from putting bootees on lamb chops to arranging a crown roast. I could cut rosettes on a ham so that when it was baked, they opened up in beautiful patterns.”
But with time, he began to chafe among the meat. Enrolling at Kutztown State Teacher’s College in Pennsylvania, he studied painting; after earning a bachelor’s degree in art education there in 1957, he taught in the Dover, N.J., public schools.
Mr. Reitz had discovered ceramics in his last semester of college, and that, he soon realized, was his true calling. Installing a wheel in his house and a kiln outside it, he began making pots, which he attempted to sell at a roadside stand.
No one stopped until he also began offering homegrown vegetables. People bought the vegetables, and he gave them the pots at no charge.
From the New York State College of Ceramics, part of Alfred University in western New York, Mr. Reitz earned a master of fine arts degree in 1962. He joined the Wisconsin faculty that year.
At Alfred, he had happened upon salt firing by chance, when he saw a professor sitting near a kiln, interrupting contented puffs on a corncob pipe long enough to open the kiln door and toss in salt. Burning off, the salt formed sodium vapor, which reacted with the silica in the clay to make a pebbled brownish glaze.
“I will never forget the rush I felt when I threw in my first handful of salt,” Mr. Reitz wrote. “It started to snap, crackle and pop, and burned little holes in my shirt.”
At the time, salt firing, conceived in the Middle Ages and still used in Europe, was little known in the United States. More than anyone else, Mr. Reitz is credited with helping revive the technique in American ceramics.
Unlike traditional glazing — done by applying a paintlike substance to unfired clay — salt firing, Mr. Reitz realized, would not obscure his incised marks. He enhanced salt’s alchemy further by coating pieces with a range of metal oxides before firing them, which let him achieve blues, greens and ochers.
He enhanced it still further by flinging into the kiln almost anything that came to hand.
“He was a really fearless experimenter,” Ms. Clowes said. “He would throw all kinds of stuff in there — anything from copperplate to banana peels — and see what happened.”
Mr. Reitz’s later work was born of adversity. In 1982, he was seriously injured in a car crash; at the same time, his 5-year-old niece, Sara, began treatment for cancer.
Convalescing, Mr. Reitz began exchanging drawings with his niece. The simplicity of her work informed his own: in his art from this period, he used clay as a canvas, painting flat, platterlike pieces with vivid colors and deceptively childlike designs.
“I couldn’t work the clay as much,” Mr. Reitz told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992. “So I had to rely on color. Working with color helped me to heal.” He recovered sufficiently to resume large-scale projects.
Mr. Reitz’s first marriage, to Johanna Denker, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Paula Rice. Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Brent and Donna, and his niece, now grown.
Among his honors are a gold medal from the American Craft Council, the organization’s highest award.
To the end of his life, Mr. Reitz spoke with awe at the primitive abandon his profession afforded.
“Here I am, 78 years old, working in mud,” he said in a 2008 interview. “And people pay me for it.”
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Bio Courtesy NY Times