Peter Voulkos

(American, 1924–2002)

Snowmass

, 1995
Stoneware, 48 x 28 x 27 in.
Purchased with Adler and Green Funds, 2005.14

 

“I was terribly impressed with Jackson Pollock and with the mythical aspect of breaking through the old traditions of art... It was a tactile period even in painting and I felt my work in clay had its parallel in paintings.”
          – Peter Voulkos

Peter Voulkos almost single-handedly changed the direction of contemporary American ceramics in the late 1950s. Voulkos freed clay from its traditional, historical, and technical limitations by expanding the aesthetic possibilities to include gesture and sculpturally expressive forms. The artist's influences included Zen philosophy, Asian ceramics, American jazz, Beat culture, and Abstract Expressionist painting. Snowmass is classic Peter Voulkos: the work is open at the top and has the vessel as a frame of reference; the artist's intent was clearly sculptural, not functional. Although clearly a bottle form at the most basic level, his forms were vigorously thrown, cut, altered, and stacked. The asymmetrical form, the fissures and cracks, the gestural strokes of the mark-making and the markings that occurred during the firing process serve to disrupt the viewer's concept of vessel and to reinforce the feeling of improvisation and spontaneity in the creative process. Like a sketch in clay, a jazz improvisation, or a Beat poet’s verbal song, this work is a visual metaphor and record of the primacy of the experience in the making of the work.

It is almost incomprehensible that Peter Voulkos’ Master of Fine Arts thesis was on the lidded jar when you consider the mythic status he now holds as a revolutionary artist and maverick, but even early in his career he was not completely bound to tradition: in series from the early 1950s, Voulkos applied surface decoration to plates and other works with oil paints, a clear violation of ceramic tradition. Pivotal years for Voulkos, 1952 through 1954, planted the seeds for his growth into the stature of legendary artist he was to become. From 19521954, while teaching at the Archie Bray Institute in Helena Montana, Voulkos met Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada; these artists provided Voulkos with a window into the world of Eastern ceramics and fostered a profound appreciation for Zen processes and mastery (for a more detailed understanding of these concepts, please read The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty, by Soetsu Yanagi). In the summer of 1953, Voulkos taught at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, where he came under the influence of Willem deKooning, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, who invited him to New York City and into the world of the Abstract Expressionists. Though Voulkos’ work did not immediately register these influences and he was still what you would consider a traditional potter for the most part, these encounters were to manifest themselves and have profound and far-reaching implications for the field of ceramics and the debate over craft media and its place in the world of fine art for decades to come.

The Form vs. Function Debate began in earnest in the late nineteenth century, when much discussion was given to the clear delineations between “high art” (painting, sculpture, and architecture) and “craft” (ceramics, textiles, furniture, and industrial design). Voulkos clearly understood the issues raised in this dialogue and was a primal force of advocacy for the inclusion of traditional craft media into the realm of Art (with a capital “A”).  While he made great strides in advancing the case for craft as fine art, he did abandon traditional ceramic forms for sculptural objects that happened to be made out of clay as a way of making progress in the advancement of the media. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Voulkos all but abandoned ceramics as a media in favor of casting his works in the more traditionally-recognized and revered media of bronze sculptural forms; as his stature as an artist and statesman became increasingly well-established, he returned to using clay as his primary media. This break with ceramics might have been a necessary means of artistic development for Voulkos or it might have been a pragmatic and calculated move to solidify his views on the whole matter of clay as a high art medium. As Suzanne Foley, Whitney Museum of American Art curator, stated in her Ceramic Sculpture: Six Artists exhibition catalogue (1962): “Physically and psychically removed from the New York art world, California artists felt restrained by the East Coast’s hierarchical and traditional definitions of fine art.” The artistic license Voulkos and his fellow California artists felt was the freedom of the outsider in the chauvinism of the art world of the post-war era, but there was also an inherent uncertainty in forging a new path.

Voulkos received his BS from Montana State College in 1951, and his MFA in 1952 from California College of Arts and Crafts. He taught at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana from 1952 to 1954, and then taught for a turbulent six years at Los Angeles County Art Institute (now, the Otis College of Art and Design) from 1954 through 1959, when, after years of arguing with the conservative director of the Institute over whether pottery should remain true to its traditions, he was fired by a director over a scorched ceiling in a kiln room. He taught at University of California-Berkeley, from 1959 through his retirement in 1985. From his retirement until his death in 2002, Voulkos remained a consummate showman, creating works at workshops and lectures worldwide, and always in front of an audience. Voulkos' contribution to world art has not gone unrecognized. His first gold medal was awarded him at the International Exposition of Ceramics at Cannes in 1955, and he was given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) in 1960. The American Crafts Council awarded him their Gold Medal in 1986, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse another in 1994. The New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University honored him with the Charles Fergus Binns Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Ceramic Art in 1998. He was made an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 2001. Other awards included fellowships: three from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976, 1978, and 1986), and one from the Guggenheim Foundation (1984). The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters presented him with the Louise Nevelson Award in 1992, the College Art Association of America with the Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997.