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Posts Tagged ‘Norton Simon Museum

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.


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


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


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.


¹John Mason, interview with Frank Lloyd, July 2010, unpublished transcript, archives, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College.


Translucence and Beyond Brancusi

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FKN211 copyAs we start to install our next exhibition, titled Translucence, at the gallery, I am struck by its parallels with the Beyond Brancusi show currently on view at the Norton Simon Museum. I visited the NSM’s show in July, and really enjoyed its perspective on the influence of Constantin Brancusi on the following generations of 20th century sculptors.

I particularly remember the third room of the exhibit, which featured “a grouping of works by Southern California artists who introduced experimental materials and expanded the relationship between sculptural object and space even further.”1 This space features four of the five artists included in the gallery’s Translucence exhibition: Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Helen Pashgian, and DeWain Valentine. A large cube by Larry Bell (our fifth artist) rests just beyond the doorway.

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The works on display at the NSM, like those that will soon be up at the gallery, explore the qualities of light, color, reflection, and translucency. They play with our perception of sculptural space, complicating the subject/object relationship as they dissolve into the surrounding environment. Spatial relationships and perceptual phenomena are the primary focus of these works, and of Translucence as a show.

1 Beyond Brancusi: The Space of Sculpture, Press Release, The Norton Simon Museum, January 2013,

Beyond Brancusi

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FBL022_view2I recently viewed the superb show “Beyond Brancusi” at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It’s a very carefully selected show (just twenty works plus “Bird in Space” upstairs), entirely from the NSM holdings of modern art. There are three sections of the exhibit, demonstrating “…the transformative notion of space, and, secondarily, materials, that Brancusi presents.”

Entering the Norton Simon, one descends the center staircase to the basement, into the Special Exhibitions area. Part one includes nine works; Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and Isamu Noguchi (all marble) as well as Louise Nevelson, Gabriel Kohn, Charles Mattox and Guy Dill (wood and other materials). These sculptures set up the relationship to Brancusi in ways both direct (Hepworth and Moore) and tangential.

Relationship to sculptural volume and the use of larger masses in Untitled_Purple-Blue _1969 copyspace abounds in the second room. The scale and industrial materials of Minimalism expand the exhibit in works by Donald Judd (two from Judd), Robert Morris (a felt piece), and John McCracken as well as Carl Andre’s modular floor piece and Larry Bell’s big dark cube. This is a compact view of the major power of the Minimal era.

It’s in room three where the show gets really interesting, as far as sculptural space is concerned. That’s because the work of Helen Pashgian, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman and DeWain Valentine present ways in which our perception of space is heightened or altered. The Robert Irwin disc—in aluminum sprayed with a luminous, magical shifting aura of pale color—is installed at the far end wall, framed by the room openings of the previous sections.

Back upstairs in the permanent collection, Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” is highly polished bronze, and the progenitor is “reflecting life itself” according to the artist. That might be a good way to view the whole show. Certainly, the emphasis on spatial relationships dominates, and the significance of materials or process is secondary in the show. It’s the work of Norton Simon Museum curator Leah Lehmbeck, and definitely something to see.



Written by Frank Lloyd

July 6, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Looking Forward to Beyond Brancusi

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Kauffman_Pace_Portrait_cropped copyI’m often asked by visitors for recommendations to local gallery and museum shows. Although it hasn’t opened yet, I’m betting that the upcoming Norton Simon Museum exhibition, Beyond Brancusi: The Space of Sculpture, is going to be one to remember. Opening April 26th, the show will investigate how Constantin Brancusi influenced some of the great sculptors of the twentieth century through his innovative use of space and material.

I’ve always felt that the Norton Simon is a great local museum with an outstanding permanent collection, which they are drawing on exclusively for this show. Excitingly, they will be including two important works by gallery artists that were not previously on view at the museum. Larry Bell and Craig Kauffman will both have major pieces on display in the show, which will also include artists such as Henry Moore, Donald Judd, and Robert Irwin, among many other artists of note.

Larry Bell at Marcel Duchamp opening_1963_by Julian Wasser copyThe Larry Bell artwork that is featured in Beyond Brancusi is a 40 x 40 x 40 inch Untitled cube from 1969. As one of the largest cubes ever fabricated by the artist, this work is certainly deserving of more attention and I look forward to seeing how it will be installed. Craig Kauffman will be represented in the exhibition by an Untitled Loop, also from 1969. Constructed of a draped sheet of acrylic plastic and spray painted in contrasting blue and red, the work will cast reflections of colored light on its surrounding walls.

I’m really looking forward to the opening of this show, which was organized by Norton Simon Associate Curator Leah Lehmbeck. It’s going to be a great opportunity to see works that are rarely on view, from the permanent collection of one of my favorite museums.

Peter Voulkos in Museums

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Gallas Rock_1960_Installation View 1 copyPeter 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 FVS005 copyplenty 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.”

Peter Voulkos_Pasadena Museum of Art_1958 copyWhen 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.