By 1960, it looked as if Peter Voulkos was going to have a stellar career. That was the year Voulkos, who was based in the San Francisco Bay Area, exhibited six sculptures and six paintings in a “New Talent” show curated by the inestimable Peter Selz at the Museum of Modern Art. These displays, held in the penthouse gallery of MoMA’s original building, were designed to call attention to artists not represented by a gallery in New York.
Already much admired, Voulkos worked in clay and had taught ceramics at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), and the University of Montana, before recently joining the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. At the Pasadena Art Museum in 1958–59, when he was 34, he’d had a solo show of sculptures and paintings. And, since 1950, he’d been winning all sorts of medals and purchase awards, capped by the Rodin Museum prize at the first Paris Biennale, held at the Musee d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1959.
However, instead of taking off, Peter Voulkos’s reputation stalled. On the basis of almost three dozen works featured in “Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years,” on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., this seems surprising. At first, you might suspect that his failure to achieve fame was because of the medium he’d mastered. But, back in the day, the field of ceramics was not marginalized in the way it would be later. As it was, the checklist for the three-dimensional objects on view in 1960 at MoMA, three of which are included in the current show, were labeled as sculpture, and that was the term used in the review published in Arts magazine.
Writing a few years ago about the large-scaled, full-bodied works in Voulkos’s late ’50s solo exhibition in Pasadena, ceramics specialist Frank Lloyd noted, “The structured, volumetric pieces seemed at once raw and primitive, yet forged with a modern sensibility. These works were clearly a new use of the material, and pushed the possibilities for fired clay.”
There’s the rub. Peter Voulkos was indisputably a pioneer who changed the dynamic of ceramics: both its look as well as its time honored techniques. He achieved this twofold feat, however, during a period of transition. Like his colleagues Mark di Suvero and John Chamberlain on the East Coast, Voulkos had one foot resting in the Abstract Expressionist period and his other poised on the threshold of the times-they-are-a-changin’ ’60s. While his tall, brash works took his field of expertise in a new direction, a cooler, more hip aesthetic was about to envelop the art world.
Though it was clear from the outset that Voulkos was immensely talented, his career began somewhat conventionally. The earliest works in “The Breakthrough Years” are functional jars and vases from the early 1950s. On their textured—or, in ceramics parlance, speckled—surfaces, the artist skillfully applied linear motifs with innovative procedures. Some of his themes evoke cave paintings crossed with the contemporaneous imagery of Pablo Picasso. He also was inspired by the newfangled cut-outs of Henri Matisse to attach to his vases heavy blotting paper he’d shaped into heraldic forms, wet them, apply several layers of white slip over them, and then peel them off, leaving recessed areas he would decorate.
By 1956, Voulkos, who’d been living in Los Angeles for two years, still was making vases that were not yet wholly unorthodox. When you take a close look, though, you notice he’d begun adding small slabs he’d constructed by hand to his wheel-thrown vessels. And he’d adopted a topsy-turvy attitude. At the Renwick show, which was organized by Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute, and Glenn Adamson, there’s a work where the artist turned both a base—or, as the jargon has it, a foot—that resembles a soup bowl, as well as the vase it supports, upside down.
At this point, Voulkos was also stacking elements. He’d put one vase on top of another on top of another. He punched holes into the surfaces of his vessels. And, he toyed with issues of balance. He even stopped working before he was sure he was finished (just the way Helen Frankenthaler once said that she didn’t want to dot the i’s, figuratively speaking, in her paintings).
Meanwhile, using innovative practices he pioneered, Voulkos accrued valuable time to make changes and additions that had previously not been possible. Increasing the size of his sculptures, which entailed keeping them wet longer, went hand-in-hand with his ability to work more slowly. As he once explained, “I was trying to learn to throw big chunks of clay—one hundred pounds or so to make continuous two-foot cylinders with thick bottoms.” Before this, ceramicists had thrown a maximum of ten pounds of clay. And since they were working small, they ably formed their vessels and such with their hands. Voulkos had to exert more pressure from his entire body. Additionally, he had to tinker with the kilns, which were typically too small for the massive—in some cases, person-sized works—he was making. Once he figured out this step, he was set. It’s said that the sculpture on the announcement for his solo show held in L.A. in 1959 took five days to fire.
Then, for a brief period, Voulkos’s ceramic sculptures were “carved and pounded out of shape,” as exhibition catalogue contributor Barbara Paris Gifford has put it. There are sections that bulge and protrude as well as areas that have been gouged out and covered with slash marks. For a while, his work became asymmetrical and was no longer graceful. The artist applied his colors haphazardly. Still, with their alternately lumpy and ragged treatments, it’s exciting to be able to walk around these sculptures and consistently discover totally new aspects.
Ever restless, Voulkos began making bronze abstractions during the mid-1960s. He even participated in “American Sculpture of the Sixties,” the landmark show held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1967. If nothing else, Pirelli (1967), which later entered the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, makes it clear that Voulkos was indeed a bona fide sculptor taking cues from the masters of his time, both American welders as well as European modelers and carvers. A number of works he initially made in clay and then cast in bronze are on the grounds of LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton.
The show at the Renwick closes with a group of 1968 works from Voulkos’s “Blackwares” series. Named for their iron-like coloration, the display comprises 14 pots and 5 plates. In various combinations, the artist stacked cylinders, bowls, plates, and spouts, his innate classicism coming through once again.