Frank Lloyd’s blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Watts

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.


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:





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.


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.