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Peter Voulkos: Two Sculptures

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This is the second in a series of posts about Peter Voulkos, focused on individual artworks. All images used are copyright of The Estate of Peter Voulkos.

For anyone interested in the sculpture that Peter Voulkos made during his biggest breakthrough years of 1957 to 1960, several works are on view right now. In this post, we’ll take a look at just two of those. I recently went to the new SFMOMA galleries, where the curators have done a marvelous job of contextualizing his work titled Tientos, from 1959. It is wisely placed in a room with works by Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Jay DeFeo, and Philip Guston, and the sculpture more than holds its own in that company. The room is about expressive abstraction, and Voulkos is the sculptor among the painters. Taking wheel-thrown parts, which were sliced, joined, and rearranged as the sculpture was built, Voulkos formed this tall vertical piece.

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Tientos, 1959 clay with iron glazes 55 x 19 x 30 inches San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

For Voulkos, who was artistically a builder of form, this meant throwing a series of smaller vessel shapes, and then grafting those together to construct a massive sculpture. Formed by stacking and joining, these sculptures had a raw, primal power. In an interview I did with John Mason in July of 2010, (his studio mate during the late 1950s), his technique was succinctly described:

“Peter’s method of construction, he had already pretty much established when he was at Otis, which was to throw a number of units and let them set up into the leather state. And then begin to construct from those units using traditional methods of construction, which would be cutting, scraping, making a liquid slip, and softening those areas that were scored, and assembling the pieces.”¹

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Peter Voulkos photographed by Henry Takemoto at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1958.

Other elements of the large sculptures were made with a kind of slab building. My best source, again, is John Mason:

“He also would make slabs by putting clay on the concrete floor, first sprinkling a little grog or maybe some clay, and smoothing it out so that the clay would release from the concrete and then stamp it out…that became then for him a slab. As it set up, it was leather hard. While he was constructing with his other elements, he would use material from those floor slabs.”²

It’s important to see these sculptures in person, and encounter the human scale and raw detail of the surface. It’s also necessary to set the record straight about the materials used. In our 2010 interview, Mason made this clear, stating that: “This might be one place to clarify what I sometimes read, by people who should know better, that Peter assembled his pieces with epoxy resins. That’s totally false.”³

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Black Butte Divide, 1958, fired clay, 47 ½ x 41 x 32 inches, Norton Simon Museum

One place to see Voulkos’ sculpture in the Los Angeles area (near Pasadena, to be more precise) is at the Norton Simon. Before you enter the museum, to the right of the large Rodin bronzes, sits a 1958 work titled Black Butte Divide. The piece was added to the Pasadena Art Museum collection in 1958, as a purchase from the Voulkos survey show of paintings and sculpture.

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¹John Mason, interview with Frank Lloyd, July 2010, unpublished transcript, archives, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College.
²Ibid.
³Ibid.

Peter Voulkos: Untitled, 1961

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This is the first in a series of posts about Peter Voulkos, focused on individual artworks. All images used are copyright of The Estate of Peter Voulkos, by photographer Gabriel Seri.

What is it about the presence of a stunning piece of pottery? What makes us sense the rhythm of relationships, and what communicates the tactile nature of the medium of ceramics? I’ve wondered why, out of the thousands of pots I’ve had the chance to view and to hold, some stand out. At the very top of my list is a 1961 vase by Peter Voulkos. Let’s take a deeper look at one pot.

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Untitled, 1961 is a superb example of the strong, quickly thrown, and sparsely glazed vase form—modified by sgraffito and loosely brushed glazes. First of all, it’s large: a little over 13 inches high, by 7 inches wide. It’s also important to feel the weight of the piece (12 pounds), to understand the mass of clay that was used; this is not a dainty flower vase, but one that has a rustic, raw heft.  When handling this thrown cylindrical vessel, I noticed how throwing marks remain on the white glazed interior. Large, and almost conforming to the size of fingers, those marks are interrupted on the inside by four long vertical creases, evidence of the fingers pulling up and pushing out—creating a four-sided vase, with a slight bulge at the mid-point. While other potters might have paddled the thrown cylinder into such a shape, Voulkos cut the outer shape four times with a taut wire to make this form’s sides. He rapidly and intuitively set up the structure, ready for his next step.

By changing the tapered cylindrical form into a four-sided open vessel, Voulkos gave himself the chance to place four simple, but deeply incised marks: a circle, an “X”, a vertical slash and a horizontal slash. These are evidently cut into the surface with a knife: an incision for the “O” and the “X”, and a deeper knife cut for the horizontal and the vertical slashes. The latter two are pushed out from the interior, opening the wounds and widening the cuts, but never altering those gestures after making them. In this way, the pot reveals the synergy of Voulkos’ hand and his effortless mastery of the properties of the medium. Take a look at the four sides here:

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Color is reduced to a familiar palette of simple glazes, common to Voulkos’ work during this period. As he once described, there was a bucket of black glaze, a bucket of white glaze, and a bucket brown, sometimes one of blue. That was all.  But it’s the loose, painterly way they are handled that makes them contribute to the improvisational nature of the piece. In fact, the glaze treatment is perfectly in tune with the incisions made into the surface, some of which remain on the sand-colored, groggy clay body—left totally raw. As for spontaneity: just let the drips fall where they may.

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What does this all mean? First of all, we see the skilled physicality of his dance with the material. Voulkos worked deliberately, with improvisation and without preconception. His previous experience (during the years 1949 to 1954 he won 29 prizes, medals and competitions for his technical skills) gave him the fluid and confident gestures within material and form, as if he were a musician improvising on a theme. The second thing to notice is the presence of the hand, and the trace it leaves. Ceramics are the most tactile of mediums: haptic communication, the most basic, is everywhere in this piece. Holding the piece gives me a direct understanding of its form, and my hands can trace the movement of his.

What do the marks mean? Probably nothing. It’s ludicrous to say that we know. They are an expression that is simple and probably void. Voulkos may have just been saying that: nothingness, as shown in the zero; a crossing of lines, as shown in the X, and two basic properties of horizontality and verticality. An aesthetic can be understood, though, by the striking simplicity and placement of the marks.  There is a rightness to those gestures, not laden with references or meaning—just a record of the interaction of an individual with his medium, with effortless perfection.

Is that Zen? Some may claim that it is, but as it turns out, that’s a pretty dubious and probably false idea. There’s very little hard evidence that artists of his circle had a deep understanding of Zen Buddhism. Yes, Shoji Hamada had famously done pottery demonstrations in his tours of the U.S. with Yanagi Sōetsu, but their message was about the preservation of Japanese folk handicraft (Mingei). And in 1954, it is possible that Voulkos saw works by Rosanjin, a well-known Japanese ceramicist, on exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in Exposition Park.  While a few potters (like Paul Soldner and Mac McClain) report that they passed around thin paperbacks about Zen (possibly by authors D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts) or listened to lectures, none had formally committed to the life of a Zen Buddhist monk. And, for that matter, none had traveled to Asian countries to see monasteries or kiln sites, until Ken Price went to Japan in 1962. Later, Paul Soldner traveled and met the Raku family, finally learning that his version of American Raku had misunderstood the centuries-old tradition.

There were joking references in the air, which loosely interpreted the rustic simplicity of works reproduced in books, but a deeper understanding of the rigorous discipline eluded most of the ceramic artists. Los Angeles painter John McLaughlin was a true student of Buddhism (and an authority on Japanese prints); McLaughlin had first hand experience. Later, one of the original artists in the Ferus gallery, Alan Lynch, became a Zen monk, in a Zen community in Paris and then in North Carolina. But Voulkos was much more known to be a heavy drinker, and preferred to play Flamenco music.

On the other hand, perhaps Voulkos was a master, in a different dimension: that of a no-rules consciousness, where the mind is free of concepts, and open to the void.  He embodied pure skill and simple but marvelous intuition. So, indeed, does this vase.

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Kauffman in Paris

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ckc0078I was talking to a Los Angeles dealer last week, and we recalled the European history for West Coast artists. So much has been forgotten, but the first wave of the West Coast to hit Europe was much stronger than you might imagine. It’s amazing to recall that artist Larry Bell had, very early in his career, one-man shows in London, (at the Robert Fraser Gallery in 1966); in Paris at the legendary Ileana Sonnabend (1967) and the following year (1968) Larry was included in Documenta IV at the Museum Fridericianum, Kassel.

For Craig Kauffman, a remarkable series of shows is recorded. The first time Kauffman showed in Paris was at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, with a group that represented the United States for the Cinquième Biennale de Paris. Organized by James Demetrion (who would eventually become the Director of the Hirschhorn museum), it was a selection of just four artists: Llyn Foulkes, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken and Ed Ruscha. It’s easy to see just how prescient those choices were, as each artist had a distinctive voice then, and each has become more significant in the present. Kauffman was represented by a series of 1967 vacuum-formed acrylic wall paintings, with a rounded double-lip protrusion in the center of a transparent colored relief.

Kauffman also had one-man shows with kauffman_galerie-darthea-speyer_announcement_1973Galerie Darthea Speyer,
in 1973 and 1976. Darthea Speyer (the sister of legendary Art Institute of Chicago Director James Speyer) was an established dealer in Paris, and someone who Kauffman had met on his second trip to Paris in 1959 to 1961 (Kauffman also lived in Paris, on Rue Git le Couer, in an apartment near the famed Beat Hotel). Darthea Speyer was very supportive and responsive to Kauffman’s work, and maintained an interest throughout her career. Works were placed in Parisian collections.

In 1977, Craig also showed at Fondation Nationale des Arts Graphiques et Plastiques, for the Biennale de Paris, Une Anthologie 1957-67. We’re researching this show, and will soon be including works exhibited in 1977 in our catalogue raisonne.

The more recent exhibits for Kauffman have both been at the Centre Pompidou. First, in 2006, was Los Angeles: 1955-1985, Birth of an Art Capital. Curated by Catherine Grenier, this was a large survey of the groundbreaking developments in Los Angeles during those 30 years, and the Pompidou reported that attendance broke all previous exhibition records. Kauffman attended the opening, along with many of the L. A. artists.

This year, Kauffman’s work was included in the Pompidou’s Beat Generation exhibit. Fittingly, the curators selected a 1962 painting on paper (and mounted on board) titled Git le Couer #3, bringing Kauffman’s past history with the City of Lights to a full circle. When Craig and his second wife lived on that Parisian street, I wonder if he could have imagined that his work would hang in a Parisian museum?

It’s in my blood

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William E. Lloyd, Sr. at CSULA, c. 1965
William E. Lloyd, Sr. at CSULA, c. 1965

Lately I’ve been reflecting quite a bit. It’s something that’s probably due to age, but could also be related to my final review of an interview for the Archives of American Art (my interviewer was the marvelous Paul Karlstrom). One thing in that conversation really stands out: I have good reason for being passionate about arts education, verifiable research and educational publications. Those who follow this blog are well aware—maybe even weary—of those subjects.

Now, I think I’ve identified the sources: my mother and father. Back when I was growing up in South Pasadena, my father was the Publications Manager and Public Relations Director for California State University Los Angeles. It was in his office and in printing shops that I learned about editing, page layouts, typefaces and binding. He showed me how the annual college catalogue was produced, as well as how to write and distribute a press release.

My mother opened the door to another world, that of scientific research. She worked as a Research Librarian for the Stanford Research Institute, the world-class research organization (based in Menlo Park) with a branch in South Pasadena. I got to know scientists who were working on economic studies, agricultural experiments, and even (hush-hush) top-secret Defense Department-funded studies. I had special privileges, as my mother had great skills as a research librarian, but also phenomenal people skills.

My early exposure to the worlds of professional research and publication instilled high standards in me. I really believe in the importance of “setting the record straight,” because I’ve seen how easily incorrect information spreads across the internet and print media. It’s my responsibility as an arts professional to provide the public with well-researched and historically accurate materials that guide them to greater understanding of artists and their work.

Formal Themes

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Looking back through the gallery’s exhibition history, I am struck by how many shows have been organized around formal themes. Group shows including artists working with different materials have the potential to help viewers make connections between works that they might not have noticed otherwise. These kinds of shows can add context to individual artist’s works, and illustrate how related ideas have been explored by other artists.

Black and White, from 2007, was a group exhibition of paintings and ceramic sculpture. Working within a limited color palette, the artists emphasized composition and form. This led to the creation of bold, dramatic, and spare artworks that related strongly to each other.

Sensuality in the Abstract, also from 2007, included the work of three painters and three sculptors. Lacking a figurative focus, the paintings alluded to eroticism and sexuality through sumptuous color relationships and suggestive forms. The sculptors addressed sensuality in a similar manner, through rich surfaces and evocative shapes.

3 Abstract Painters, from 2011, focused on the planes and surfaces of geometric abstraction in the work of John McLaughlin, James Hayward, and Scot Heywood. Featuring the work of McLaughlin alongside two contemporary painters, the show demonstrated part of the evolution of abstract painting in Southern California.

Recently, the gallery presented Polyform (2013), a group show of four artists that placed contemporary ceramic sculpture alongside painting. This show illustrated the shared principles of sequencing, spatial and geometric relationships, and repetition. Consisting of multiple elements or engaging with the concept of multiplicity, the works heightened viewers’ awareness of the space they occupy.

100,000

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The blog reached an important milestone this week – it has now been viewed over 100,000 times since I began writing it in 2008!  I started this blog with the intention to write about art, architecture, and the people that I know. In the five years I’ve been writing, it has served as a platform for me to share my thoughts on contemporary art.

Robert Hudson and Richard Shaw_Stinson Beach Studio_1971 copyI like to use the blog to provide behind-the scenes access to the gallery, as well as talk about my relationships with artists, critics and other gallerists. My gallery has a substantial collection of archival images – including historical photographs of artists, installations, and other art ephemera – which many art enthusiasts don’t have access to. It’s fun to share these images with the public, who might not have a chance to see them otherwise. The picture you see at left is of Richard Shaw and Robert Hudson in their Stinson Beach studio, which they shared during the early 1970s.

Part of the mission of my gallery is to provide free arts programming and educational resources to visitors, and I see this blog as an important part of that. It’s not always possible for everyone to come to our gallery walk-throughs, artist conversations, and classes in person, so it’s important to me that I do my best to make this content available online. I hope that this blog serves as another link to the larger arts community in Los Angeles. After all, my passion for the world of art is what got me started in this business, and I want to share that passion with others.

Written by Frank Lloyd

June 7, 2013 at 9:08 pm

More Sky

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A friend was recently discussing her writing in front of a large audience. She let the crowd know that some of the best advice she got from other authors was simply: “More blue sky.”

Written by Frank Lloyd

September 20, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized