PRINT November 1966

Abstract Expressionism in Ceramics

QUITE NEGLECTED IN MOST ACCOUNTS of the devel­opment of recent West Coast art is the brief period during the middle-fifties (roughly from 1954, when Peter Voulkos arrived in Los Angeles, to 1958) when a group of some of the most tal­ented and inventive artists in California shared an intense involvement in ceramics. The brilliant body of work produced during this period has remained relatively little-known, although it con­tains the germinal elements of the mature styles of many well-known West Coast artists. It also produced a considerably far-reaching revolution in ceramics itself, and constituted the most ingeni­ous regional adaptation of the spirit of Abstract Expressionism that has yet emerged. Undoubtedly, what has prevented this work from receiving its proper due hitherto has been the hangover of an outmoded conception of ceramics as a minor art at best, a mere “craft” at least. That Voulkos, Price, Mason, Bengston and their associates should have fed into this medium some of their most original ideas, and should have, in the process, elevated the medium itself to a new stature, was a possibility simply too unlikely to be given seri­ous consideration.

Peter Voulkos’ reputation as a ceramicist of some importance preceded him to Los Angeles.1 His presence attracted several other ceramicists, notably John Mason, Billy Al Bengston and Ken­neth Price, all of whom linked up with him. Ma­son, the oldest, was a contemporary of Voulkos and already a skilled ceramicist. Bengston and Price, although younger, were also considerably skilled in the medium.2 Both were studying at Los Angeles City College and when Voulkos joined the faculty at Otis Art Institute to start a ceramic center, they decided to join him. In speaking of those days, Bengston has remarked, “. . . we stood in awe and admiration of Voulkos’ extraordinary capacity to handle clay. He was also technically superior to anyone at that time and probably still is today. He has a quite incredible touch. Some­thing that others have to work extremely hard to obtain, he had naturally.” Price adds, “. . . it was the revelation of their lives to see how Voulkos worked. He is capable of the most intense econ­omy of energy for the amount of time he spends on a work. Yet he does more work and spends more energy than anyone else. Voulkos is capable of an almost inhuman capacity––he made fifteen pieces to everyone else’s one.” As a consequence of Voulkos’ vitality, there developed an extremely competitive spirit. They began to regard them­selves not so much as a group with a common program, but as individual contestants. Ceramics, it should be remembered, are made in kiln loads and the production of quantities is common. But in those years, suffused with this new spirit (and reinforced by the ideal climate of southern Cali­fornia) they often worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, making as many as a hundred pots a day. Attracted by what was going on, other ceramicists of a kindred spirit soon filtered in; for example, Malcolm McClain, Michael Frimkess and later Henry Takemoto.

Despite Voulkos’ position on the faculty at Otis, he never placed any distance between himself and his younger colleagues. He continuously worked side by side with them and, as a conse­quence, there was always a considerable exchange of ideas. In a similar manner to the Club in New York, but without the same aura of self-conscious­ness, ceramics began to draw artists of a kindred spirit together in Los Angeles. Everyone was in­terested in what was going on, including many painters. Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin, for ex­ample, as a token of their interest, each entitled a painting “Black Raku” after the Japanese cere­monial tea bowls. Price made and began to give away his coffee cups as a token of camaraderie to sympathetic artists.3 Strictly utilitarian, each piece is highly individual; they are the prized posses­sions of many artists in California, who use them daily.

The task these ceramicists set themselves was to rediscover the essential characteristics of the medium. Obviously their first step was to free themselves of all dogma and convention. It is true that their earliest work was often extremely eclec­tic but they felt the need to know the past before they could break away from it. There were few ceramics of any importance to be seen in Los Angeles; reproductions from books served as their museum. The photograph is notorious for blurring and distorting scale, and as a result, very often a shape based on some prototype from the past was blown up to an enormous size. Although they ad­mired Bernard Leach they felt out of sympathy with his quasi-Oriental outlook and approach. They did not want to reconstruct Oriental ceram­ics but to create a viable approach of their own. It is true that the new and original was more ad­mired in Japanese art than in the Chinese or the Korean, and that from the seventeenth century onwards Japanese ceramics had continuously de­monstrated artistic daring, ingenuity and invention. But at the basis of the Japanese esthetic was the notion of utility as the first principle of beauty. The rejection of this tradition led to a major break­through.

Given the emergence of a distinctly American style of painting, the minds of these ceramicists were freed of anxiety about the future. They were aware of what was going on in the art world out­side Los Angeles, particularly in New York and San Francisco. What they needed was time to ma­ture as artists, to seek their own path, free of ex­ternal pressures. The pot, they felt, was no more than an idiom and could lead in any direction. They were uninterested in exhibiting and apart from Fred Marer (who very early on began to col­lect their work) and Rose Slivka of Craft Horizons,4 no one in the official art world (as distinct from the craft world) was either interested or quite knew what they were up to. This suited their pur­pose at the time. Given, however, the quite revo­lutionary ceramics produced over these years, the arbitrary consignment of the ceramic medium to what they considered to be a twilight world, that of the crafts, later caused them considerable mis­givings, and even anguish.5

The fact that a pot need no longer act as a vessel assumed great significance. Being wheel thrown, pottery is invariably symmetrical and al­though the Japanese Raku tea bowl, for example, is much admired for its imperfection of shape––its lack of perfect symmetry––nevertheless it is basically circular, and as such, symmetrical. Voul­kos and Mason began to punch and squash forms into shapes that minimized symmetry and equi­librium. One of Mason’s vases, for example, is triangular and by using a highly organic glaze and surface treatment, each facet when viewed from a different angle presents a totally dissimilar appear­ance. Clay is a highly fluid and malleable material with a life of its own. Sensing the form-expressed emotion that lay at the heart of Abstract Expres­sionism, they began to exploit shape and surface for its expressive potential. A free rein was al­lowed for imperfections arising from the natural limitations of the material. Inextricably inter­woven, shape, surface and coloration took on a highly organic quality.

The temperament of each artist soon began to play a more assertive role. Price began to explore deeply a limited range of forms and was always more concerned with the linear edge formed by the outside of a pot or plate. The relationship, for example, of a plate to the supporting edge of the surface was a matter of importance to him, par­ticularly the manner in which the negative space was formed. As a consequence of this approach, his work became increasingly considered and reductive. In contrast, Voulkos’ ceramics began to assume all the qualities of an explosive release and although completely abstract they began to reveal strong anthropomorphic overtones.

Mason’s work, however small, gave the impres­sion of massiveness and weight. Not only highly inventive, but extremely vigorous in conception and execution, the work of all these artists began to owe little to the past. Each step not only forti­fied their confidence but opened up, with increas­ing rapidity, new avenues to be explored. Probably the most decisive shift by Voulkos was in con­structing wares of multi-part form. Dependence on the repertoire of shapes inherited from func­tional vessels ceased, synthetic forms could hence­forth be created. Although it took time to exploit this idea, it nevertheless inevitably led towards a more sculptural concept. Another important move by Voulkos was the use of epoxies for joining parts together; this was followed by the employ­ment of epoxy paints side by side with glazes. In this manner the esthetic concept of “truth to ma­terials” was abandoned and by this use of paint the way opened for the development of poly­chrome sculpture on the West Coast.

In 1957 Bengston decided to abandon ceramics for painting. Voulkos, Mason and Price began to move into sculpture and in 1958 Mason gave up making pots altogether. Voulkos continued to make ceramics side by side with his sculpture (and does so to this day) while Price continues to make cups. Although McClain was basically in­terested in the pot form, he made a few ceramic sculptures, as did Frimkess, who is currently back­tracking in his involvement with classical and archaic thrown shapes. In 1959 Voulkos moved to the University of California at Berkeley; it was there that James Melchert and Ronald Nagle came under his influence. Melchert’s Legpot, with its low center of gravity, is probably his most impor­tant early ceramic work. Evolving from this piece were a number of mixed media sculptures, to be followed later by a series of polychrome ceramics with an iconography overtly derived from aspects of Pop art.

Manuel Neri, who is also from northern Cali­fornia, is better known as a sculptor. An old friend of Voulkos, he has long had an interest in ceramics, but worked in the medium only sporad­ically. Nagle’s pots are extremely small in scale and a reminder of his admiration for Morandi. He uses very simple and direct techniques in constructing all his works, with some of the parts being thrown. In contrast to the Japanese Raku tea bowls, which are dumpy and with a great weight of material compressed into the form, Na­gle’s look extremely delicate, light and sensuous.

In 1958 the shift into sculpture began. The faceted Cubist structure of Wotruba’s sculpture was to provide Voulkos with a clue to the manner in which he could maintain the highly spontane­ous character of his art, yet work at a massive scale. He began to pile thrown cylinders of clay in an extremely capricious and daring manner. Time after time these mountainous structures of clay would collapse, and very few works were produced despite prodigious labor on his part. By constantly repeated efforts he eventually ob­tained mastery over the material and produced a number of large sculptures that survived the even­tual firing process. Clay began to have emotional limitations for him and drawing upon his youthful experience as a foundryman, he switched to the use of bronze. Mason overcame the technical difficulties of making large sculptures of clay by collaging skins of clay one over the other. All of his sculpture aspires towards the monumental; as early as 1958 he made a number of large ceramic wall reliefs. The small clusters of seeds or pods that decorated Price’s pots led him into his later typical biomorphic polychrome sculptures.

The peak of the ceramic development was un­doubtedly between the years 1956 and 1958. Dur­ing this period grew the first radical movement to totally revolutionize the whole approach to ceramics. What was done in those days is now mainstream ceramics.

––John Coplans



The article above is adapted from the catalog essay for Abstract Expressionist Ceramics, an exhibition organized by Mr. Coplans for the University Art Gallery, University of California, Irvine.

1. Voulkos originated from Montana. He took his M.F.A. in ceramics at the California College of Arts and Crafts, returning thereafter to Montana to teach at the Archie Bray Foundation.

2. Bengston began making ceramics in 1945 as a student at the Manual Arts High School. The art department at the time taught painting and sculpture and had a life class, the students drawing from a nude female model. Included in the curriculum were ceramics, printing, bookbinding, metalworking, etc. Jackson Pollock and Phillip Guston both started their careers at this school.

3. Bengston was the first to use this form. Nagle’s cups, which derive from Price, are non-utilitarian.

4. Craft Horizons was one of the most adventurous magazines in the United States. It followed with great insight and knowl­edge the development of ceramics in California. A special issue in 1956 was devoted to California, and as early as 1961 It published a heavily illustrated article, written by Rose Slivka, on the new ceramic sculpture, linking the new ap­proach to Abstract Expressionism.

5. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an extremely influential institution, apart from showing painting and sculpture, also exhibits archi­tecture, photography and commercially designed objects. It will show a teapot as an example of fine design, but follow­ing earlier guidelines, nothing made that fits into the category of the crafts. This is left to the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Thus they perpetuate the distinction between art and craft, but allow commercial design into an institution devoted to high art.