In the 1950s, when Southern California’s “revolution in clay” catapulted ceramics from hidebound utilitarian ware to wildly expressionistic sculpture, Harrison McIntosh quietly charted his own course to distinction.
While fellow artists Peter Voulkos and John Mason pushed clay to its limits by making massive walls and muscular abstractions, McIntosh gently nudged the boundaries of traditional studio pottery by elevating functional objects to a rarefied state of art. Over the next 50 years, he produced an internationally revered body of work that exemplifies a classical vein of the postwar crafts movement.
McIntosh died of natural causes Thursday in a retirement facility near his hometown of Claremont, said his daughter, Catherine McIntosh. He was 101, she said.
He lived long enough to see his work rediscovered by a younger generation. “As Midcentury Modern design came back in vogue, suddenly he became popular with a lot of young people,” Catherine McIntosh said. “I think he enjoyed that.”
A native of California, McIntosh was a fixture of the college town’s creative community. A sweet man with an easy smile, he was an artist of few words and no grand pronouncements. His inspiration came from natural forms, modern design and Asian aesthetics. A typical McIntosh pot is a smooth, symmetrical, gracefully patterned object that looks too close to perfection to have been made by hand but nonetheless retains the touch of the artist.
“His lifelong interest has been in how you make a vessel not only functional but also beautiful and pared down to its essence,” Jo Lauria, an independent curator of art and design, once said of him. “He has an ability to connect to everyday ordinariness but make it extraordinary.”
Still, he could not have been expected to make the simply elegant ceramic vases, bowls and jars that ended up in hundreds of collections, including those of such prestigious places as the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Born in Vallejo on Sept. 11, 1914, and raised in Stockton, McIntosh and his brother Robert discovered art at the Haggin Museum and were taken under the wing of its director, Harry Noyes Pratt, who advised the boys to get out of Stockton. At Pratt’s suggestion, Robert, who had a talent for drawing and painting, applied for a scholarship to Art Center College in Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena). When Robert received the financial support he needed, the entire family moved to Los Angeles.
Harrison McIntosh, who had an affinity for sculpture, took a few classes at Art Center and worked at various odd jobs. He found his medium in 1940 at a USC night class taught by ceramist Glen Lukens, but his education was interrupted in 1944, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Personal tragedy struck around the same time, when McIntosh’s first wife fell ill and died.
In 1948, hoping to make a new start, he decided to use funding from the G.I. Bill to study ceramics. He had no undergraduate degree, but gained admission as a special student to an experimental ceramics program at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) taught by Richard Petterson.
A world traveler who was smitten with Asian art, Petterson “invented the classes as he went along,” McIntosh said. But it was an ideal environment for a budding artist who was eager to try a variety of clays and firing temperatures and find his own direction. It was also where he met his future wife, Marguerite Loyau, a Fulbright fellow from France who taught French at nearby Pomona College and enrolled in one of Petterson’s classes. The McIntoshes were married in 1952 and their daughter, Catherine, was born two years later.
The couple spent the summer of 1953 at the Pond Farm workshop in Guerneville, Calif., where Harrison studied with Marguerite Wildenhain, a Bauhaus-trained ceramist. Back in Southern California in 1954, he spent about six months working with Voulkos, who had been hired to head the new department of ceramics at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design. Voulkos assembled an adventurous group of students, including Mason, Paul Soldner and Kenneth Price, but McIntosh soon discovered that teaching did not agree with him and that he had no interest in joining a revolution-in-the-making.
“When I tried to work more spontaneously, I found that I was not quite satisfied with the work until I had done more to refine it one way or another,” McIntosh told The Times in 2009. “I was fascinated with Voulkos’ work. He was one of the most creative people I had known. But I never wanted to be a fine artist. I was more interested in working with a medium I enjoyed and making things that other people enjoyed.”
In the end, he followed his own artistic sense, not that of Voulkos, his daughter said. “My father felt it didn’t suit his personality. His work evolved greatly, but in his own direction.”
Garth Clark, a leading scholar of ceramics who has operated galleries in Los Angeles and New York, has written that “it is characteristic of McIntosh’s strength of purpose that he could appreciate the energies of the Otis group without losing his own emerging style.” More in tune with “Europeans who settled in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s — Maija Grotell, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, and Marguerite Wildenhain,” as Clark has written, McIntosh “built on the refinement of their work with a commitment to a highly technical quality and a precise, clear sense of decoration.”
The McIntoshes settled in Claremont, where Harrison set up a studio with his friend Rupert Deese. Marguerite, who taught French at colleges in the area, became her husband’s business partner and worked with him on commercial design projects in Japan and Germany. She also provided assistance with many exhibitions, including “A Timeless Legacy,” a 2009 retrospective at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona.
McIntosh continued to work until 2002, when his loss of vision forced him into retirement. He stopped working in about 2006, said his daughter, Catherine McIntosh, of her father.
He is survived his daughter, his wife, Marguerite, and two grandsons.
Muchnic is a former Times staff writer.