Time has vindicated the pioneering efforts of contemporary clay sculptor, Peter Voulkos. In the ’50s, before the emergence of conceptual or process art, he stunned the art world with his finished sculptures of clay. For centuries clay had been associated with the refinements of craft. Granted, it had also been used as a temporary medium to formulate and pattern sculptures, but it was rarely regarded as worthy of a finished sculpture in its own right. Then, suddenly in the mid-20th century, the poor relation of that prestigious sculpting material, bronze, emerged as a powerful entity in its own right. Voulkos was a pivotal force behind those changes, regarded by many as the founding figure of what became known as the American “clay revolution.” Ironically, Voulkos’s works championed those very qualities in clay that had formerly been deemed its liabilities, such as clay’s humble relationship to the earth, its mutable, malleable essence, and its paradoxically durable yet fragile fired state—all of these became central themes of Voulkos’s clay sculptures. In emphasizing these qualities, he transformed clay into a medium that spoke to the contemporary human condition.
Like drawing, which in the last half century also emerged as an artistic medium in its own right, clay came into its own in part because of its long-standing and integral relationship to the artistic process. Associated with the immediacy of artistic thought, as manifest in fingered imprints or material compositional changes endemic to the construction of an object, clay in Voulkos’s hands came to express what Robert Rauschenberg once called the “gap” between art and life. Like the more heralded Abstract Expressionist painters of East Coast, whom he paralleled chronologically and thematically, Voulkos melded interests in Zen flux and change with the concern for self-expression inspired by psychoanalysis. By his own admission, he was particularly intrigued by Jackson Pollock’s challenge to academic tradition.1 Voulkos’s bold innovations in clay are provocative in a manner similar to Pollock’s handling of paint. Yet ironically, Voulkos was to garner a more immediate and sizable student following, having opened an artistic vein of discourse that subsequent generations of artists found rich and fertile. By contrast, Pollock’s accomplishments generated tremendous artistic debate concerning the relationship between gesture, process, and meaning in art, but he was to have few direct successors. Perhaps Voulkos’s reception differed from Pollock’s because of their chosen media, as well as the locales in which they worked. While Pollock’s paintings propelled discussions about the abject and elevated within art, Voulkos’s works argued convincingly for process as endemic to creativity, fostering dialogues that challenged traditional interpretations of what the artist does. Many of Voulkos’s students from the ’50s and early ’60s, who studied with him either in Los Angeles or subsequently further north in San Francisco (including Billy Al Bengston, John Mason, Ken Price, Paul Soldner, Robert Glover, Stephen De Staebler, James Melchert, and Ron Nagle), have emerged as significant artists in their own right. All began their careers touched by Voulkos’s primary wager of clay’s irrefutable significance to both art and life.
Prior to accepting a teaching post at Berkeley in 1959, which he held until he retired in 1985, Voulkos was chairman of the ceramics department at the L.A. County Art Institute, now Otis College of Art and Design. His years in Los Angeles from 1954 to 1959 were powerful and consequential ones, for the clay revolution, as it is called, emerged in this period. Some say the provocative and daring decisions Voulkos made in Los Angeles were catalyzed by his summer teaching stint in 1953 at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. There he met not only Josef Albers, but also the more transgressive artistic spirits John Cage and Merce Cunningham, whose concepts regarding artistic processes certainly bear parallels to Voulkos’s work with clay. At the end of the summer, he traveled to New York and visited such Abstract Expressionist gathering spots as the Eighth-Street Club, Cedar Street Tavern, and 5-Spot, associating with East Coast artists who would later become renowned, including Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Philip Guston, and Rauschenberg. Did Voulkos serve as a critical link between the emerging artistic scenes on the eastern and western seaboards in the ’50s? Or was Los Angeles an independent, emergent power in its own right, reflecting the tenor of the times in a manner similar to the consciousness of social change that has been documented as preeminent in New York? In musing about those early years, Voulkos recently said, “There was a certain energy around L.A. at that time, and I liked the whole milieu,” suggesting that the laissez-faire characteristic of the city, without the expectant pressures of gallery shows and sales, granted time, space, and an artistic permission that was intrinsic to the clay revolution.2
Strikingly, Voulkos, as well as such East Coast artists as Cage, Cunningham, and Pollock, valued the process of creating art more than the finished object. Or put another way, the finished work came to be assessed in terms of its capacity to evidence the creative working process. Voulkos and others were particularly intrigued by the manner in which the creative act parallels the decision-making moments of life. Building compelling connections between art and life, he and his contemporaries of the ’50s recast the artist’s role as that of a collaborator with physical materials, chance, and time. Rather than imposing predetermined ideas upon a selected material, they tempered the hubris of artistic intention with the acknowledgment that accident and chance are endemic to all human activities. In Voulkos’s works these emphases metaphorically manifest the human struggle for life against the phenomena of accident and chance. His newest sculptures permit viewers a proximity to the creative process that is memorable in its directness and immediacy. Allowing glimpses of the dynamics of what occurs in the studio, the works are filled with the residue of the creative act, metaphorical indexes to the artistic path trod between intention and chance.
Constructed with stoneware, Voulkos’s sculptural works unapologetically allude to the potter’s wheel as well as to the vessel forms traditionally associated with clay. What distinguishes them from their politely crafted predecessors is the manner in which Voulkos endows those familiar forms with significance. A recent exhibition at the Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica profiled 34 works, all but one created post-1995, the year in which Voulkos was feted in two separate solo museum exhibitions in Japan and the United States.3 The prodigious output present in the current show confirmed that despite his worldwide acclaim and advancing years, the 75-year-old artist is still creating vigorous and formidable work. His familiar leitmotifs, which first appeared over 20 years ago and which he calls plates, ice buckets, or stacks, reappear in these works, offering new and intriguing readings and interpretations of Voulkos’s ongoing dialogue with clay. Speaking with a critic in 1979 he explained, “I get down to very basic forms that I really love, but they’re still giving me information…like [the] stacked forms and plates. I made hundreds and hundreds of plates in the last years, but…they’re still exciting for me, and I’m still getting information out of them.”4
Trekking beyond, around, and beneath what has historically been differentiated as craft and fine art, Voulkos’s plates, ice buckets, and stacks reveal the superfluous nature of such distinctions. Under his scrutinizing eye, the traditional boundaries between ceramics and sculpture are blurred, obscured, or sometimes just plain ignored. Conflating usefulness and uselessness, he constructs works that underscore the inseparable relationship between the two. His works emphasize that art cannot exist without its corollary of life, and that both are linked to various primal necessities of existence.
Sevillanas, (1959), the only early piece in the Santa Monica show, is a totemic mass of compacted and compounded pots fused into a rhythmically dense, upright whole. Almost five feet tall and regarded as one of three major breakthrough pieces, the sculpture projects a visceral presence. As with many of his early works, the title reflects Voulkos’s knowledge and love of classical guitar music. Sevillanas is a lively and pulsating flamenco music indigenous to Spain. Like flamenco music, Voulkos’s sculpture of the same name resonates with allusions to violence and beauty, destruction and life. The disgraced and deformed pots, smashed, crushed, and fused together, forcefully challenge both the traditional canons of craft and, inversely, of sculpture. Wildly, passionately combining the two, its abstract form as a whole is both powerfully rudimentary and surprisingly refined. Built with an accretion method, much like David Smith’s sculpture of the ’50s but more rustic, while structured with a conviction that recalls Franz Kline’s paintings but that feels more dense and compact, Voulkos’s work remarkably foreshadowed the artistic interest in nature that emerged in the ’70s with Earth and Process art. Like Smithson, Goldsworthy, and others, Voulkos works with a medium intrinsic to the earth, transforming it into metaphors that probe the very meaning of human existence. Although originally built of clay, the exhibited Sevillanas is a cast bronze, which the artist created after the original fell and broke during a recent California earthquake. While the dense and totemic structure of Sevillanas converses with the half-dozen or so stack works, its details of pottery viewed upside down, inside out, and backwards relate it to the ice bucket sculptures.
The stacks, which are the largest body of work in the exhibition, suggest simultaneously human-sized amphorae, kilns, and prehistoric cave dwellings. Their external circular forms, which certainly allude from afar to vessels, reveal deeper complexities as one steps near. Up close their interior spaces become visible, glimpsed through an array of chance tears, fractures, and geometrically cut openings. Twining chance and intention, these works profile dusty and deserted interiors, illuminated by bright sunlight that seeps in through the various body fissures, as well as through the chimney-like pinnacles that top each stack. Misshapen and naturalistic in their appearance, they conjure the caves of nature, although spun back to a remote and distant past. Amidst the cracks, the sunlight, and the wind, these works speak to the life-long human search for shelter, even down to evoking the all-too-frequent reality of finding a leaking roof over one’s head. Vast in their conceptual sweep, these pieces allude not only to the ancient amphorae of the Minoans and to the fire pits that transform stoneware, but also to the primal human need for shelter. Generously exploring the relationship and tensions between internal and external space, these works both define and contain a deserted and empty space, while articulating a sense of rugged mass and presence. Metaphorically, the dichotomy between interior and exterior alludes to distinctions between art world outsiders and insiders, between craft and fine art, or between alleged artistic peripheries and centers.
The new ice bucket sculptures, which are smaller than the stacks and more broadly open on top, are unrelentingly squat and thick. Made of coil, slab, and accretion methods of construction, they relate in part to Voulkos’s study and appreciation of Japanese tea bowls. In particular, the emphasis on both the foot and the lip of the ice buckets, which are incredibly rough and unfinished in the new work, explores traditional understandings of both a vessel and a sculpture as intrinsically defined by base and finial as much as by body. Here, the three elements are balanced with an equilibrium that is unnerving and raw. In flaunting both traditional Japanese values and traditional Western sculptural wisdom, these works turn away from rationality and logic, probing and elevating the Zen-like realms of immediacy, spontaneity, and intuition.
The over-sized, rough-hewn plates, 13 of which are in the exhibition, spin such emphases in other directions. Unbelievably thick and weighty, these works retain their references to serving platters while also functioning as modern and/or ancient pictographs or bas-reliefs. Approximating circular shapes, the plates frequently present surfaces scrawled with various painted, carved, or constructed notations. Some of the most memorable works allude to landscapes, or, better, volcanic earthscapes. So visceral and physical are these works in their thick, tactile, and earthen brown color that they seem to be relics from some unknown prehistoric civilization. Alluding to the inseparability of basic human physical and metaphysical longings and needs, the plates successfully shift the craft dialogues of clay into very different plateaus. While these works trek back in time to the ancient age of the earth, they simultaneously astound with their perspicacious connection to the present. For the brutal, primal, rough-edged humanity Voulkos portrays is our own, with references that seem particularly moored and bound to the rugged and unpredictable California landscape. Forever in upheaval, forever asserting its inherent power over the best laid of human plans, the California landscape, despite endless attempts to cultivate its rugged terrain, can be as unpredictably savage as any concept of the primal. Both the massive slab-like quality of the plates and their bold and vigorously wrought landscape images allude to the immutable power and change inherent to both nature and clay. The grandeur of California mountain bluffs meeting the sea, of immovable mass melding with flow and change, is powerfully manifest in these plates. Clay’s inherent age, formed through millennia, is made manifest with all its primal and ancient ruggedness in Voulkos’s works. Sometimes the plates are encrusted with the chalky pigmentations of burnt orange, burnt sienna, or ashen black. Even the carbon soot of Voulkos’s woodfiring process has left its mark, speaking to the processes of transformation and time. On another level, the plates also allude to the omnipresent human need for food. Whether enjoyed as our ancestors once did around a simple firepit or consumed in the most elegant of settings, the continual need for physical nourishment is unapologetically underscored in these works. Celebrating both the metaphysical and the physical, the past and present, sculptural and craft paradigms, these works, like the artistic process itself, are inherently bound to primal physical reality in a manner that echoes the primal physical derivation of stoneware.
The viability of a method that emphasizes process over finished object is intimately bound to the vibrant longevity of Voulkos’s artistic career. While other artists working with the premises of process have reportedly run into creative blocks that have stymied their careers, Voulkos has continued to extend his dialogues with clay, probably because he functions as much as a listener as a speaker in the ongoing process of creation. Unlike Pollock, for example, who according to the critic Clement Greenberg, “lost his stuff” in 1952 and was allegedly unable to propel the discourses of his process-oriented art beyond the climactic works of 1949, Voulkos has continued to locate meaning within the working process.5 The concept that art can emerge as much from the material essence of its medium, as from the mind of the artist, has proved to be particularly fecund in Voulkos’s oeuvre. Exploring clay not just in terms of its functional or nonfunctional use, but in relation to its inherent potential to be simultaneously both, Voulkos has succeeded in shifting the horizons of clay. In challenging traditional assumptions, his works propose that clay as a medium inherently possesses and can be made to divulge cultural, historical, and metaphysical mysteries. Validating such concepts with a lifetime of work, Voulkos continues to cut, position, model, spin, slash, build, fire, and wait, permitting us to eavesdrop on his conversations, inviting us to cherish through his art the earth under our feet.
Collette Chattopadhyay is a critic and lecturer in the Los Angeles basin. She contributes regularly to Sculpture and other publications.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philip, “Breaking ground still fires him up,” Los Angeles
Times, November 14, 1999, Calendar, p. 62, quotes an interview comment made
by Voulkos in 1981. He said, “I was terribly impressed with Jackson Pollock
and with the mythical aspect of breaking through the old traditions of art…I
felt my work in clay had its parallel in paintings.”