Posts Tagged ‘Peter Voulkos artwork’
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.
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
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
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.
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.
I don’t know how many times I’ve made the drive from L.A. to the Bay Area. The number is well over 100, and spans a time period of over 50 years. Even as a child, I was irrationally obsessed with images of San Francisco, and begged my parents to take me there. My family traveled together on the train in August of 1960. We were tourists that first time, and I recorded the vacation in a short essay for my fourth grade class, with what was my very best effort at penmanship.
I’ve just returned from a road trip; this time it was part business and part pleasure. Stops in Oakland, Fairfax and Sebastopol were for gallery duties—picking up and dropping off artworks, and viewing a painting. During the long drive, I had a chance to reflect on my multiple trips, and my relationship to the oft-cited divide between the two regions of California. The divisions of geography, climate, politics, and culture are often the subjects of debate. The controversies and arguments can grow passionate—especially the rivalry between Dodger and Giant fans.
But what I was recalling—the people I know in the world of art—was a different story. It demonstrates how very much interrelated the lives of the artists and the two regions are. Let’s take, for example, the story of our artist Richard Shaw, who was born in Hollywood and lived in Newport Beach before becoming a resident of the quintessential Northern California town of Fairfax. Or consider the history of my friend, the late Henry Hopkins, a UCLA graduate who went on to become the Curator of Exhibitions and Publications at LACMA, before his tenure as Director at SFMOMA, and then his eventual return to the Hammer. Don’t forget about Richard Diebenkorn, whose first shows were in the Bay Area, but produced perhaps his most well-known series of paintings in a studio in Ocean Park, a neighborhood in Santa Monica. Peter Selz, who had a stay in Claremont before going to MOMA as the Chief Curator of Painting, eventually wound up in Berkeley. Peter Voulkos, a Montana native who attended California College of Arts and Crafts for his master’s degree, came to L.A. during the period of 1954 to 1959, then returned to Berkeley.
This list could go on, but the thought persists: Is there really such a division between the two Californias? I think not. Yes, the politics and culture may differ overall, but the people travel freely through some sort of permeable membrane. I have lived and worked in both the North and South, and so have many of my friends. Though I must be clear about one thing: I’m still a Dodger fan.
I know I’ve posted artists’ portraits before, but I can’t resist sharing these great photos of the artists in Los Gigantes: Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, John Mason, Ed Moses, and Peter Voulkos. These giants of the West Coast art scene were all photographed by Jim McHugh, who was kind enough to send us these images. McHugh is a noted chronicler of contemporary West Coast artists and has published several books including California Painters: New Work, 1989 and The Art of Light and Space, 1993. More recently, his work was exhibited by Timothy Yarger Fine Art, and was included in the Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. For over thirty years, McHugh has created compelling portraits of artists, capturing their individuality and offering unique views into their world. His respect and enthusiasm for his subjects and their work comes through in every image.
We had our opening reception for Los Gigantes at the gallery last Saturday, January 18th, and it was a great time. As you might expect, a show featuring the work of Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, John Mason, Ed Moses and Peter Voulkos draws a big crowd. These artists are giants within the history of West Coast art, and their work attracts writers, other artists, museum and gallery professionals, and lots of fans!
We were lucky enough to have Larry Bell, John Mason, and Ed Moses in attendance. In the week leading up to the reception, we fielded phone calls from excited visitors who wanted to know if they would have the chance to meet the artists, and I’m glad we didn’t disappoint them. The reception had the feel of a reunion, as Bell, Mason and Moses have known each other for many years, and they have a large circle of mutual friends. It was great to see so many members of the Los Angeles art world turn out to support these artists, who each have such strong histories in the city.
With a group like this, it was no surprise that visitors wanted to linger, spending time with both the artworks and the artists. It was a great opportunity to hear from the artists directly, in a relaxed atmosphere. In the end, we knew it was time to head home after a long night when Pinky, Larry Bell’s dog and constant companion, curled up and took a nap in the gallery.
Frank Lloyd Gallery artists have been very busy, so here’s a round-up of their latest activities. To begin, Jennifer Lee has been invited to participate in the International Ceramic Festival in Sasama, Shizuoka, Japan. During the festival, November 22 – November 24, 2013, Lee will present a slide lecture and practical demonstration. Gustavo Pérez will join her at the festival, as he is also scheduled to speak to participants. In 2014, Lee will return to Japan for a two-month artist’s residency at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park.
An important work by Craig Kauffman is now on display at the Barbican Art Centre, as part of their exhibition Pop Art Design, which opened on October 22 and will run through February 9, 2014. I was fortunate enough to preview this show during my recent trip to London. Pop Art Design investigates the “exciting exchange of ideas between the fields of design and art” during the Pop Art movement.
Peter Voulkos is currently the subject of a one-man exhibition at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery titled Peter Voulkos: Works, 1956 – 1997. On view through November 23, 2013, this show features ten ceramic artworks drawn from distinct periods within the artist’s long career.
I am also pleased to announce that the Hetjens Museum in Dusseldorf, Germany, has acquired a recent sculpture by Wouter Dam. Founded in 1909, the Hetjens Museum is home to a collection of ceramic works from all over the world, spanning 8,000 years of ceramics history. Finally, The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, recently announced a major gift of contemporary art by a private collector. The promised collection contains over 30 artworks by Larry Bell, including two examples of his most recent series, the “Light Knots.”