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The exhibition of recent stoneware vessels by Peter Voulkos at Frank Lloyd
Gallery featured the sort of work on which the artist established reputation in
the 1950s. The work was greeted with stunned amazement. However now it is too,
but it's amazement of a different order -- the kind that comes from being in the
presence of effortless artistic mastery. These astonishing vessels are truly amazing.
Every ceramic artist knows that what goes into a kiln looks very different from
what comes out, and although what comes out can be controlled to varying
degrees, it's never certain. Uncertainty feels actively courted in Voulkos'
vessels, and this embrace of chance gives them a surprisingly contradictory
sense of ease. Critical to the emergence of a significant art scene in Los
Angeles in the second half of the 1950s, the 75-year-old artist has lived in
Northern California since 1959 and this was his only second solo show in an L.A
gallery in 30 years. ”These days, L.A. is recognized as a center for the
production of contemporary art. But in the 1950s, the scene was slim -- few
galleries and fewer museums. Despite the obscurity, a handful of solitary and
determined artists broke ground here, stretching the inflexible definitions of
what constitutes painting, sculpture and other media. Among these avant-gardists
was Peter Voulkos.” In 1954, Voulkos was hired as chairman of the fledgling
ceramics department at the L.A. County Art Institute, now Otis College of Art
and Design, and during the five years that followed, he led what came to be
known as the "Clay Revolution." Students like John Mason, Paul Soldner,
Ken Price and Billy Al Bengston, all of whom went on to become respected
artists, were among his foot soldiers in the battle to free clay from its
handicraft associations. By the late 1950s, Voulkos had established an
international reputation for his muscular fired-clay sculptures, which melded
Zen attitudes toward chance with the emotional fervor of Abstract Expressionist
painting. Some 20 works -- including five "Stacks" (4-foot-tall
sculptures) as well as giant slashed-and-gouged plates and works on paper --
recently went on view at the Frank Lloyd Gallery. This non single show is his
first at a Los Angeles gallery in 13 years, although a survey of his work was
seen at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (presently carries a different name) in
1995. Voulkos, 75, has lived in Oakland since 1959, “having left after a
fallout with the then-director of the Art Institute, Millard Sheets, who is best
known for mosaic murals on local bank facades.” Although Voulkos has been
absent from L.A. for 40 years, he remains something of an icon for artists here.
Price, known for his candy-colored ovoid clay sculptures, puts it simply:
"In one way or another, he influenced everyone who makes art out of clay,
since he was the main force in liberating the material. He broke down all the
rules -- form follows function, truth in materials -- because he wanted to make
art that had something to do with his own time and place. He had virtuoso
technique, so he was able to do it fairly directly, and he worked in a really
forceful way. In the opinion of many artists he is the most important person in
clay of the 20th century, not for what he did himself, but for the ground that
he broke." In his interview with US art critics Voulkos said: “I never
intended on being revolutionary, there was a certain energy around L.A. at that
time, and I liked the whole milieu.” “Wielding clay is magic,” he says.
“The minute you touch it, it moves, so you've got to move with it. It's like a
ritual. I always work standing up, so I can move my body around. I don't sit and
make dainty little things.” As a child, Voulkos did not imagine a future as an
internationally influential artist. The third of five children born to Greek
immigrant parents in Bozeman, Mont., he could not afford a college education and
anticipated a career constructing floor molds for engine castings at a foundry
in Portland, Ore., where he went to work in 1942, after high school. But in
1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps and was stationed in the
central Pacific as an airplane armorer and gunner. After the war, the G.I. Bill
offered him a college education, so he studied painting at Montana State
College, now Montana State University, and took ceramics courses during his
junior year, graduating in 1951. Voulkos had a natural aptitude for clay and
soon was winning awards, including top honors at the 1950 National Ceramic
Exhibition at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, in New York. Encouraged, he
chose ceramics as a course of study in graduate school at the California College
of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, from which he graduated with a master's degree in
1952. Around the same time, he married Margaret Cone and had a daughter, Pier.
His work also was gaining attention, and he was invited to teach at the
experimental Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C., in 1953. Once again,
timing was in his favor, as other artists on hand included John Cage, Merce
Cunningham and David Tudor, with whom he later stayed in New York, where he met
Abstract Expressionist painters Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Philip Guston and
Robert Rauschenberg. That fall, he returned to Helena, and was resigned to
selling his ceramics to make a living until the fateful call came from Sheets.
"I was just a hick from Montana, so coming to L.A was a big thing for
me," Voulkos remembers. "When I got that job, it was my big break. I
didn't have to do dinner plates anymore. I got paid for teaching and didn't have
to worry about selling. Being able to teach helped expand my vocabulary. I
learned from my students. Ceramics in those days was quite boring," he
says. "Scandinavian design. I fell for them for a while, but it was
short-lived. It didn't move fast enough for me." But soon Voulkos gained a
supporter, sculptor David Smith, known for his balanced cubes of steel . Voulkos
shared a studio on Glendale Boulevard with his former student John Mason (his
neighbor was architect Richard Neutra), and in the evenings, he and his
students, who were also his friends, would listen to jazz at the Tiffany Club.
“L.A. Conceptual artist John Baldessari recalls that Voulkos, who at that time
was painting in an Abstract Expressionist style as well as building massive
abstract clay sculptures, seemed the very embodiment of the advanced New York
art world. Baldessari, who was studying painting, remembers, “I soon
discovered that he was more of an inspiration and a goad than any of my painting
instructors, who were relatively academic. He psychically gave me permission,
because the teachers I had always seemed delimiting.” ” Just before
Christmas 1958, Voulkos opened a solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the
Norton Simon Museum). Soon after, he was fired from L.A. County Art Institute
and hired by UC Berkeley, where his students included Ron Nagle, James Melchert
and Ann Adair, who later became his second wife and by whom he has a son, Aris.
Voulkos' career continued to escalate with a 1960 show at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York, favorably reviewed by Dore Ashton in the New York Times.
Yearning to work on a larger scale than is possible in clay, he began producing
monumental bronze sculptures for corporate clients, such as an 18-foot-tall
sculpture in the lobby of the San Francisco office of Tishman Realty. Despite
this two-decade foray into bronze, Voulkos remained committed to pushing the
boundaries of possibility in ceramics. From 1979 to 1984, he concentrated on
firing plates and then the vessel-shaped "stacks" in an anagama, a
Japanese wood-burning kiln. Inspired by the Haniwa figures and Momoyama period
ceramics of Japan, Voulkos let the ash and soot from the firing process in the
kiln decorate the irregular surface of the clay. "There was a certain kind
of casualness about some of the Japanese ceramics that I liked. There can be a
big crack in the pot caused by the kiln, and the piece becomes a national
treasure," he says. The 1980s brought about a serious personal challenge,
however. By mid-decade, he was forced to confront his addiction to cocaine and
enter a rehabilitation facility. In 1989, he returned to his ceramic sculpture
with a sense of renewed purpose and a more incisive and controlled sense of
composition. During the '90s, he has regained the confidence in the process.
Although retired from UC Berkeley, Voulkos still thrives as a teacher, spending
about four months of each year on the road doing seminars.

Levin, Elaine, “Peter Voulkos: A Ceramics Monthly Portfolio,” Ceramics
Monthly, June, 1978, pp. 60-68, ill.Albright, Thomas, Art in the San Francisco
Bay Area, 1945-1980, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985, ill.Baker,
Kenneth, “Strong New Work by Voulkos,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 2,
1991, p. C5, ill.Baker, Kenneth, “Voulkos Elevates Ceramics to Art,” San
Francisco Examiner Chronicle, Datebook, July 30, 1995, pp. 35, 39, ill.Kuspit,
Donald, “The Trouble With The Body: Peter Voulkos’s ‘Stacks’,”
American Ceramics, 12/2, 1996, pp. 14-21, ill., cover ill.

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