Peter Voulkos in Museums
Peter Voulkos’s artwork is represented in almost 100 museum collections worldwide, and if you find yourself in a major city, it isn’t hard to locate a work in a public place. Here in Los Angeles, one can see major works at LACMA (5,000 Feet, 1958), the UCLA Sculpture Garden (Gallas Rock, 1960 and Soleares, c. 1959), and the Norton Simon (Black Divide-Butte, 1958). At the Norton Simon, Black Divide-Butte is installed outside, to the right of the entrance—you don’t even have to go into the museum, though it’s got the best collection of art in the Western United States. The wise educational staff at the Norton Simon recently used the piece as an example of sculptural expression with clay for a children’s class. I find it especially interesting to note that, even when teaching children, the museum staff emphasized that “participants are encouraged to use symbols and abstract elements to create their own works of art in clay.”
Throughout California, there are many more examples of Voulkos’s artwork. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art regularly displays Tientos, 1959 in their second floor gallery. And across the bay at the Oakland Museum, the collection includes Little Big Horn, 1959, the piece that knocked people out in the first room of last year’s Pacific Standard Time show, “Crosscurrents” and set the stage for the artists that followed.
Lest you get the idea his work is concentrated in the West, there’s plenty of Voulkos on the East Coast, too. His work is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Hirschhorn, as well as the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Or take, for instance, the MFA Boston, which boasts four works in their permanent collection. The awesome and monumental Camelback Mountain, 1959 is clearly the most important Voulkos work in the MFA Boston collection, and it’s prominently placed in the Saundra and William H. Lane Galleries. The interesting thing to me is this: the MFA Boston curators agree with me that Camelback Mountain is an example of American abstract sculpture. The work is placed in the “Abstraction” section of the galleries and its neighbors are some of the greatest painters of the 20th century: Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell. Pictured here is Sevillanas, also from 1959 and in the same style as Camelback Mountain.
The MFA Boston wall text reads: “This gallery features works from the decades between 1940 and 1970, when art in the United States captured the attention of the world. Many styles flourished, but even at the time the growth of abstract art seemed the most important story. For decades, artists had explored the idea that art need not represent the physical world— that it could also be non-representational, or abstract.”
When I read these words, I am proud to have brought this kind of abstract sculpture to audiences in Southern California. And I am especially proud of the work that I did when working with Kirk Delman and Mary MacNaughton for the Scripps College exhibition, “Clay’s Tectonic Shift.” Our collective effort was enormous, and our intention was clear: to do original scholarly research leading to an exhibition, sponsored by a research foundation, at an educational institution. We did exactly that, and assembled an unprecedented exhibition that lives on in a highly informative publication. It was about abstract sculpture, and it was a success.