PRINT November 1978

The Art of Peter Voulkos

FOR HIS SEMINAL ROLE in the West Coast Abstract Expressionist clay movement of the 1950s. Peter Voulkos is celebrated as cultural hero both in the ceramics field and in California art in general. His work, however, ranging from clay vessels to massive bronze sculpture, is disarmingly diverse in style, scale and sheer quantity. Criticism invariably concentrates on the Abstract Expressionist work and on Voulkos’ vibrant personality, propelling his personal aura and sustaining a legend of superhuman clay-throwing abilities. Nevertheless, since 1960 Voulkos’ primary concern has been metal sculpture, a development largely overlooked by both exhibitions and criticism. In part this is because sculptural monumentality often precludes exhibition possibilities; besides, since installation sites have all been in California, the works have been removed from New York critical concern.

As the subject of a 30-year retrospective organized by the American Crafts Council and a recently published monograph by Rose Slivka (editor of Craft Horizons), one would hope that the artist could rise. above recycled Abstract Expressionist myth and clay/guru mystique. So it is disappointing that exhibition and book both settle for restatement rather than full retrospective penetration or analysis. Only in viewing the work as a whole can one comprehend the combination of artistic eclecticism and play/demonstration bravura that forms the Voulkos sensibility and that ultimately gives credence to the legend.

Voulkos’ early clay works—the classical or functional ware—established the artist as a master pot-thrower and innovator in surface design. With his abilities immediately recognized, Voulkos left his native Montana in 1953 to teach a summer session at Black Mountain College, and to accept the chairmanship of the ceramics department at the Otis Art Institute in the following year. His arrival in Los Angeles occurred at a time when the craft movement itself was eclipsed by industrial pot forms, and technical information relating to the handcraft was at a minimum.1 With the gathering of a group of artists/students, including John Mason, Ken Price and Billy Al Bengston, experimentation in clay technology and form began. Intrigued by what he had seen on visits to New York, Voulkos’ incised surface designs imitated Picasso and Matisse drawings, while his applied cutouts and glaze work reiterated more contemporary Abstract Expressionist motifs.

The early pieces, many of which seem naive by current standards, illustrate certain attitudes fundamental to Voulkos’ working methods, most obviously a linkage developing between mainstream art and clay. Voulkos’ work is characterized by an eclecticism of style that generally culls from 20th-century painting and sculpture. He is equally concerned with creating objects that not only technically surpass what has been done before (the latter-day defection to bronze, for example, occurred because Voulkos had in fact reached a scale limitation with clay), but function in what might be considered a physically impossible manner. Besides his Los Angeles group, Voulkos, who seems always to have had a need or desire to center a community of artists around himself, established a circle at Berkeley in 1960; more recently, a new generation of artists frequents his studio. The competition instigated by pot-throwing contests in Los Angeles, and the collaboration made necessary by the large bronze works from Berkeley, are essential parts of his style and necessitate a core group of artists or “company.”

By the mid-1950s Voulkos was combining wheel forms with slab pieces, building up surfaces, cutting through pot forms—breaking with traditional ideas of symmetry and utility. Gradually his vessels merged the idea of the pot with a sculptural sensibility. Rocking Vase, a stoneware, wheel-thrown slab construction, exploits the vessel structure through cutout holes and through slabs in the shape of rockers inserted into the sides and attached to the bottom of the pot. Although lacking the painted surface design that often marks this period. Rocking Vase does, nevertheless, present Voulkos at his most humorous, and it is a fine example of his half pot / half sculpture stance. Another work from this period, Chicken Pot, merges animal form with a multiform cylindrical base, in a similar mode of construction. Most of the works, however, avoid broad anecdote or satire, concentrating instead on the development of volume and surface design.

=In transcending ultilitarian ceramics through the subversion of craft form, Voulkos exposes the clay tradition to the more temporal motifs of painting and sculpture. While the humor of Rocking Vase points toward the Funk and anecdotal qualities that would appear with Jim Melchert or Robert Arneson, the slab construction method alludes to component structures, and of subsequent monumentality, that John Mason and Voulkos would eventually pursue in depth. Unlike Voulkos’ later ceramic sculptures, which sacrifice utility completely, the clay vessels instigate a dialogue between nonfunctional (sculptural) and functional (craft) elements within the same object.

==An interest in monumentality came, apparently. in response to the challenge of a big new studio space and a kiln capable of taking larger works. Guided by the sculptures of Fritz Wortruba, Voulkos employed a cylindrical core armature, with stacked and cantilevered wheel forms attached in skeletal fashion. Figurative decoration gave way to nonobjective expressionism, and traditional earth tones were replaced with vibrant epoxy hues, parting with the tradition of surface decoration as an integral but secondary aspect of the object. Three stylistic directions based on this technology are pursued. Soleares, typical of this style, is covered with an iron slip/light glaze mixture, displaying the central armature from which potlike forms protrude. Similar in concept, Little Big Horn and Black Bulerias all have a balloon density caused by bulging, abrupt forms added to the core. The black surface reiterates the primitive, fecund nature inherent in the squatness, and one can imagine the rocklike forms (with a Venus of Willendorf sensibility) as products of some prehistoric culture.

For more tension between surface and volume, Voulkos painted a series of sculptures with epoxy. To a certain degree this is a logical continuation of his interest in surface design, with a rather bold twist. On Rondena’s bulbous forms Voulkos applies a combination of blue paint and ragged line in which rawness violently contradicts smooth forms. In sculptures such as USA 41, low-fired glazes and epoxy paints evidence a broader palette—and also more premeditation in the placement of color. With USA 41 Voulkos not only sacrifices anthropomorphic shapes for an elongated elegance, but he uses color to articulate, rather than contradict, volume.

The third direction, and probably the most important from a sculptural standpoint. explores the opening up, or gouging out, of forms, breaking up the massive space definitions that were an essential part of the other pieces. Gallas Rock, which at 84 inches is larger than Voulkos’ other works, combines 100 thrown and slab elements. Its components are more angular than before, and its squared-off parts have orifices and passages that yield a less synthetic appearance, alluding to the kind of spatial definitions that Voulkos would investigate in his early bronzes.

While in retrospect it is possible to define categories for Voulkos’ Abstract Expressionist works, the actual distinctions have no relation to any kind of chronological progression. The physical expressionism inherent in clay, plus the artist’s own distrust of conceptualizing, cause him to move in several directions simultaneously, arbitrarily summoning up antecedents and forms. In this regard, Voulkos’ admiration for Picasso transcends simple stylistic manifestation to the point of resembling that artist’s eclectic working methods as well. Voulkos could draw from the New York School for inspiration, yet feel no compunction to develop either a theoretical rationale or a sense of continuity. Clay is a quick and quantity-oriented medium that promotes, if desired, rapid stylistic change. Like photography, the scope of the work is often determined by an editing process, rather than by the act itself. Voulkos multiformity is, however, not only a response to the possibilities of material, but also evidence of the California conviction that stylistic eclecticism can be a positive rather than negative characteristic.

The maturation of ceramics to finest art status on the West Coast was, in part, assisted by its relative unimportance to mainstream New York concerns. While California painting asserts itself only sporadically, the ceramics movement created its own context—and for that reason it does not bring into play the ego insecurities of West Coast artists. Though termed “the most ingenious regional adaption of the spirit of Abstract Expressionism that has yet emerged,” the clay movement did not, at its inception, receive support in New York.2 Voulkos’ solo New Talent show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, featuring several ceramic sculptures, was greeted with a general lack of interest. Slivka surmises that New York was displaying snobbishness toward a material that was too simple for cosmopolitan taste.3 In all probability there was also a lack of enthusiasm for anything related to craft—as well as to California. On the other hand, Voulkos’ exhibition of the same pieces at the Pasadena Museum a year earlier had received accolades that did not depend on critical distinction between art and craft or “high” material versus “low” material.

Of course recognition eventually came in New York, but as a result of developments in the West and also of a unique educational support system. Artforum, then based in San Francisco, gave considerable coverage to West Coast sculpture in the early 1960s, acknowledging Voulkos’ pivotal role. But the artist’s position as educator and demonstrator did more to secure his reputation than actual exhibitions or critical essays. Traveling extensively, Voulkos gave demonstrations at universities and workshops around the country. A natural, this artist’s presentations are not only marked by the instinctual and technical skill that he brings to clay, but they incorporate a humorous mise-en-scene with the artist kidding the audience along and pulling objects out of pots. Voulkos, always the center of attention, loved the interaction, and for several years in the 1960s the presentation works also accounted for his major clay output.

With summer demonstrations in New York (1960–64) at Greenwich House and Teachers College, Columbia, Voulkos was able to remain in contact with New York developments, and also to promote his own work through grass-roots educational momentum. The presentations accounted for Voulkos’ connection with New York for several years. and. ultimately, for the forum through which his work reached a wider audience.4 By gaining recognition without direct New York exposure—in a sense getting results without playing the game—Voulkos made a major commitment to the esthetic freedom and lifestyle of California, as a progenitor of a sustaining West Coast art community.

Although Voulkos considered the possibility of working in bronze while still living in Los Angeles, it was not until he moved to Berkeley and collaborated with Don Haskin and Harold Paris that the Garbonzo Works Foundry was born and bronze became a reality. Through casting random shapes in bronze, the artist could weld various components together, assembling and reassembling them as he saw fit. In the early works—the “Remington” series and Vargas, Voulkos employed slab forms as modules in lateral extension. Working in formats that involve open space as well as horizontal structure, he avoided the vertical thrust intrinsic to the ceramic sculptures. And by using an assemblage technique, Voulkos created in a less premeditated and more instinctual fashion than bronze casting generally allows. As with his ceramic sculptures, the artist restructured the objects—in a sense “playing” with the material. Nowhere was this more evident than in his first exhibition of bronzes in Los Angeles in 1961. Voulkos brought cast metal sections to the gallery, welding the final sculptures together throughout the night.

While the early works released Voulkos from the physical limitations he had experienced with clay, they are not in themselves particularly infallible pieces. In comparison with the ceramic sculptures, with which they often share a slab-component similarity, the bronzes appear diffuse and indecisive. Out of a desire to be free of the armature convention, the welded components move choppily off into space. Measuring under ten feet in any single dimension, they neither aspire to monumentality nor work gracefully as small sculptures. And to mount them on wooden bases, with either casters or steel wheels, increases their insecurity and sense of impermanence.

Voulkos continued to work with cast bronze slabs, introducing a flat, platform element into his sculptures. This machinelike component was a precursor of the geometric forms that the artist would use in his later sculptures, and provides the element of tension lacking in the initial bronze works. In Honk a three-section platform alludes to a recliner or bed, and freeform bronze elements seem to hover on the surface. By involving a functional form (the platform), the expressive components emanate a naturalistic intensity: the synthetic pitted against the organic. In viewing the platforms as a practical component, with the cast bronze elements as free-form objects, one can see a functional/nonfunctional dialectic, a continuation of the contradiction integral to Voulkos’ Abstract-Expressionist clay pieces. In its naturalistic leanings. Honk becomes a kind of nonobjective anecdote, the nonliteral relative of Rocking Vase and Chicken Pot. Honk is also one of Voulkos’ last works in either metal or clay to employ an Abstract-Expressionist vocabulary of forms. Instead, the artist began to draw upon a more geometrically oriented system, using manufactured tubing and casting elbows, domes, and cylinders. While this transition was inspired by the industrial materials found in salvage lots, it also displays the influence of David Smith—and the phasing out of the Abstract Expressionist vocabulary from New York-style painting as well.

Still in a small format, Voulkos’ mid-1960s sculptures incorporated one or two platforms with domes and serpentine forms either resting on the surface or humorously defying gravity by hanging below the form. In both Big A and Firestone, Voulkos does not initiate tension between elements: platforms with cylindrical-tubing legs resemble stacked end tables, the domes and curved components functioning as esthetic bric-a-brac. Unlike the works in clay (which yield to instinct rather than conceptualization), Voulkos’ bronze sculptures demand premeditation, and the artist seems uncomfortable with this mode of operation. In Big A and Firestone the vertical thrust is a problem. Voulkos’ horizontal sculptures—except where we find the end-table look—appear more satisfying and natural, even though, considering the artist’s previous experience with vertical ceramic sculpture, one might expect the reverse to be true.

In the late 1960s Voulkos advanced his metal technology to the point where he could embark on some truly monumental sculptures by extending the metal tubing into long horizontal configurations and stacking platforms in multilevel tiers. The Hall of Justice sculpture for San Francisco rises 30 feet on four platforms, sending a horizontal tube into the air and back down again and punctuating itself in a dome shape positioned on a low platform. Although Voulkos’ most impressive feat from an engineering standpoint, this work does not integrate formal elements and location with any success. The Hall of Justice sculpture suffers from an uncomfortable fusion of contradictory forms. The serpentine components. which rest on the platforms. are magnificent: they exist almost weightlessly in space. Similarly, the tubing offshoot has an exuberance that in a rather Funk fashion lands in an exclamation point. But the vertical platform structure is oppressive, a system which traps the curvilinear elements in a cagelike setup as if in a coincidental metaphor for the way the wheels of justice turn inside the building.

Although massive, the sculpture is, nonetheless, dwarfed by the gray, six-story building that stands only a few feet behind it. Its plot is a small rectangle, and the sculpture’s best view is from a freeway ramp perpendicular to the building. However, its position does not allow for good viewer perspective either from the sidewalk in front of the building or across the street. Its too close proximity to the Hall of Justice provides the sculpture with an unfortunate grillwork background. and the landscaping seems to deliberately obscure the work. Placed in a large plaza, the Hall of Justice sculpture might provocatively mimic the structure of an office building; however, in the location for which it was executed, it suggests that Voulkos’ inclination to challenge the monumentality of the building was an impossible task.

More successful in their locations, and in their integrations of formal elements, are the University Art Museum’s (Berkeley) Return to Piraeus and the Oakland Museum’s Mr. Ishi. An interesting convention in all three sculptures is a placement in which they are “framed,” either by a building, a cement corner or a bank of trees. Although obviously three dimensional, Voulkos’ sculptures do not invite a 360-degree view. In fact, they exist almost as theatre pieces, defining a 280-degree perspective with an obvious sense of front and back. This is in contradiction to Voulkos’ ceramic sculptures, which are implicit in their roundness. In Return to Piraeus Voulkos relinquishes both the serpentine elements for a platform and vertical post architectonic construction. With its peaked horizontal tube and its placement in an amphitheatre-style garden, straddling three tiers, it alludes to a small Greek temple. Unlike the other works, its detached platforms (copper and monel nickel) are set slightly off the ground, and within the garden setting the entire sculpture forms a defined environment. While Return to Piraeus lacks the technical bravado of the Hall of Justice piece, it is a more enticing and more humanly proportioned work that invites habitation. As if Voulkos deliberately considered the university populace, its three platforms draw students for sunbathing and rendezvous. Return to Piraeus not only interacts with its environment in a positive manner, but becomes a utilitarian space as well, in another extension of the functional/nonfunctional dialogue.

In contrast, Mr. lshi departs from the platform motif.5 Like the Berkeley work, it includes a detached element—here a long vertical tube resting against the corner of a concrete wall. With Mr. Ishi Voulkos reverses the concept of the smaller sculptures by allowing a square, T-shaped form to rest on curvilinear and dome forms. Compared with the Hall of Justice sculpture, its serpentine shapes are less spontaneous, confined by the concrete floor and the apparent weight of the T-shape. Mr. Ishi literally pushes against its courtyard environment, thrusting in vertical and horizontal directions. Its ability to work both ways is its formal strength, and, in fact, it was designed to be extended if the museum should relocate it to a larger space in the future. Similar to Return to Piraeus in concept, if not form, Mr. Ishi also invites participation (here especially by children).

In the bronze works, which have grown steadily more monumental (Mis Nitro, 1972, is a 70-foot horizontal), Voulkos continues to employ an assemblage technique. With his crew, Voulkos can construct sculptures on location, altering the form if necessary, and one senses that the act or “play” of assembling is often as important as formal considerations. Such emphasis on the physical—an extension of the clay mentality—is less easily realized in metal, and Voulkos’ only sporadic triumphs are a good indication that there are difficulties in the conceptualizing process. The artist’s greater rate of success with horizontal, rather than vertical, sculpture, is due to the fact that in metal low-gravity, lateral movement minimizes structural difficulties and can therefore be approached more spontaneously.6 An important aspect of the bronze sculptures, from the standpoint of the artist’s development, is the outlet they provide for both Voulkos’ monumental inclinations and his apparent need for group activity or “play.” By finding these releases through sculpture, Voulkos could seriously pursue conventional wheel-thrown clay forms in the late 1960s.

Advancing beyond the expressionism of the late 1950s, West Coast ceramics became an eclectic investigation of Funk. Pop and monumental sculpture concerns during the period in which Voulkos pursued bronze. These explorations were quite often reactions to Voulkos’ initial influence. Under the sheer force of his personality, artists were either driven to imitation, or, in a more positive context, prompted to find their own forms and working methods, establishing new linkages with contemporary art. Of Voulkos’ original group, Ken Price’s ceramics offer the greatest contrast to the Voulkos oeuvre. Unlike Voulkos, Price favors small objets d’art—elegantly crafted cups and pod-shaped sculptures. His interest in rich surface glazes led him to the use of automobile lacquers for creating jewellike finishes. Prices biomorphic shaped sculptures convey a mysticism in both their scale and their surface design, while summoning up antecedents from Surrealism and Gorky to Pop in their often satiric design and finish. Biomorphism took him through a thematic stage (frogs, leaves, etc.) and to an early 1970s architectonic cup with a strong feeling of Deco. In these latter works a precision of surface and white-edge lines punctuates complex forms. Price’s most recent project, absorbing five years, is Happy’s Curios, a complex, multicomponent hommage to Mexican and American Indian pottery. Fabricated as a series of constructed cabinets, each unit or shrine incorporates pottery forms that describe folk traditions both in their naturalness of execution and their symbolic references. Happy’s Curios is Price’s own version of monumentality—diverse, ambiguous and multifaceted in its manipulation of tradition.

While Price’s work can be linked stylistically to the slick, technological art trends of 1960s Los Angeles, Robert Arneson reflects the Funk and avowedly self-conscious spirit of Northern California. Arneson’s pop-bottle six-pack from 1964 utilizes Pop iconography and pun with a casual technique that displays its expressionist influences. The objects he reproduces in clay—a typewriter, a toaster and eventually a series of tableaux on his suburban ranch house in Davis—exude the same temporal significance as Pop. But with Arneson’s handling and choice of medium, the pieces function as personal icons rather than the objectified cultural artifacts typical of Pop art. By accepting the influence of Pop, but altering its stylistic inclinations, Arneson emulates Voulkos style of recontextualizing New York attitudes to West Coast motifs—in this instance subverting mainstream trends. Eventually Arneson’s work moved beyond the individual iconic object to confront Western civilization humorously in a series of fragments and clay bricks stamped with identification words like “Brick,” “Water” and “Artwork.” Introducing his own image in a series of chef tableaux, Arneson also created self-portrait urns and busts, as well as glazed installation pieces of himself in his swimming pool. Like Voulkos, Arneson displays a strong eclectic sensibility, but instead of integrating his antecedents, as Voulkos does, or turning them into ambiguities, as Price might do, Arneson retains specificity, rejoicing in the mixed metaphors and puns that become the hallmark of Funk.

John Mason, perhaps. provides the most interesting comparison to Voulkos. The two artists have often shared similar concerns, but Mason, in contrast to Voulkos, works exclusively in clay. During the Los Angeles era, while Voulkos and Mason shared a studio, they both used the slab-unit method of construction. However, Mason’s ceramics display a plasticity whereby the component elements seem more integrated into the total form and, subsequently, less involved with the blatant physical breakup of volume pursued by Voulkos. Mason also embarked upon a period of monolithic vertical sculpture, but these pieces, which maximize form rather than surface manipulation, display a sense of balance and totem-like symmetry that is absent from Voulkos’ work. Mason’s sculptures are not ambitious in a contradictory manner, but vigorous, in the way in which individual elements complement one another, reemphasizing the vertical thrust. Through cracks, crevices and adhesions, Mason’s sculptures flow upward, building with a sensitivity to organic unity and subtlety. One sees the influence of Giacometti in the fragile balance and use of scale. In contrast, Voulkos’ sculptures—particularly Rondena—contradict the material and central armature, exploding laterally off the core. Mason’s sculptures cling to this core, defining space through tightly woven textures and with no interest in lateral massiveness. In latter works, Mason explores a cross form, a configuration that Voulkos used earlier in sporadic small pieces such as Cross (a vase), of 1959. However, in Mason’s oeuvre the cross—and also the challenging balance problem it offers—becomes a format for monumental sculptures, acrobatic pieces that stand upright despite what seems a difficult gravitational situation.

Mason also worked on a series of sectioned wall reliefs and free-standing geometric forms in which the expressive surface quality of clay contradicts the minimal and objective nature of the form itself. Overall glazes saturate the pieces so that hue supersedes surface treatment and instead seems to “breathe” from the sculpture. The technical problems implicit in these works, and Mason’s own questioning of physical manipulation, lead him away from the large geometric unit to the exploration of monumental sculpture based on modular, mass-manufactured firebrick. Employing mathematical calculations, the early arch sculptures evolved into the recent “Hudson River” series—installations formulated on the brick module which are altered to suit each location. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 16 square modules alternating between two, three, and four layers exist in the center expanse of a large gallery, with the corners touching the center points of the edges of 30-degree angles. The firebrick sculpture generates a sense of both horizontal and vertical movement, instigated by the height difference between modules and the assertive angle at which they are joined. The work elicits a multileveled response: it is conceptual in execution, sensual in its warm blond coloration, and quite mystical in its austere, monumental placement—a veritable Stonehenge in transition.

By transposing the expressionistic nature of clay into a geometric format and installation genre, Mason is the most temporal of the California ceramic sculptors. While he embraces Minimalism in both the large geometric sculptures and the “Hudson River” series, the material warmth of clay translates his work into a personal and spiritual mode. Although the “Hudson River” series elicits comparison to Sol LeWitt in its geometric precision (as well as to Andre’s flat brick stacks), it has the additional context of being an installation work currently in its fifth manifestation. In the selection of firebrick, the “Hudson River” series is in a sense an ultimate merger of the organic and the manufactured.

Voulkos own return to ceramics in the late 1960s was not characterized by the preoccupation with contemporary issues and style that one finds in the work of Mason. Nor did it yield the mystical conviction of Price’s work, or the autobiographic mode of Arneson. Instead. there was a commitment to more traditional wheel-thrown ceramics, with the nonfunctional/functional dialectic restated in what are Voulkos’ most subtle and precise works to date. Vases and plates with black glaze, and later clear glaze plates and vessels, utilize passthroughs, inlaid porcelain or cobalt, and slashes (the latter an influence from Lucio Fontana’s canvases). The selection of neutral coloration and an obvious deemphasis on painted decoration complements surface manipulations that have sensuality and formal elegance. In the black glaze works, color functions almost like skin, holding, but not distracting from, surface incisions. The plates with passthroughs, inlays, and repositioned edge fragments convey the essence of contradiction, with the very functional shape in conflict with a nonfunctional surface. Unlike the early expressionistic pieces that display technical bravado and premeditated contemporaneity, these works are more mature in their integration of form and surface, and less related to trend. Depending on an instinctual feel for the material rather than on artistic style. the later clay works are Voulkos’ most visually satisfying objects from the dual standpoints of craftsmanship and formal concern.

The current retrospective and the new monograph emphasize Voulkos’ ceramic work to an extreme. The exhibition has the aura of a clay blitzkrieg with 130 objects exhibited in a space incapable of comfortably supporting that quantity. While the retrospective documents in depth the Abstract Expressionist era, and even includes a few of Voulkos’ own paintings for context, the bronze sculptures and their 17-year development are represented by only ten photo-murals and a poor slide presentation. The inclusion of paintings is especially instructive because it clearly demonstrates how Voulkos’ innovations were the result of transposing abstract motifs to clay, and that his selection of forms as they exist on canvas is neither original nor spectacular.7

Organized by the American Crafts Council, “Peter Voulkos: A Retrospective” is a statement on craft, and by using Voulkos as a vehicle for that purpose, it throws the artist into an imbalanced perspective. By playing it safe with a concentration of Abstract Expressionist works, the exhibition avoids both the developmental importance and the questionable success of the bronze works. A comprehensive retrospective would have included fewer ceramic works and one or two of the smaller bronzes. Furthermore, the presentation of an inferior videotape of a Voulkos demonstration fails to capture the ambience of the artist at work.

Rose Slivka’s Peter Voulkos, A Dialogue With Clay is also uneven in its selection, and has numerous factual inaccuracies, as well as an excessive personalizing that elevates the Voulkos myth to new heights. Slivka, who was one of the first to support Voulkos in writing, represents the early years with clarity, but her interpretation of the bronze works is superficial and misconceived. In her “Berkeley and Bronze” chapter she substitutes a discussion of Voulkos’ Greek origins and family history for formal analysis and chronology. The book is disorganized and information often appears collated in an arbitrary manner. For example, the final chapters describe Voulkos’ craft techniques, but they also include information about specific works that is more pertinent to the early chapters. Although the monograph adds no new information to the critical literature on Voulkos, it is quite detailed in its explanation of material and technique. This information, coupled with excellent photographs, will possibly make the book valuable to craftspeople.

Voulkos’ oeuvre is an investigation of a nonfunctional/functional dialectic as seen in a continuing eclecticism of style. Even the bronze works, in their adherence to the platform and serpentine components, metaphorically suggest this duality. Similarly, the major portion of Voulkos’ work incorporates a kind of exploration and “play” which necessitates a “company”—fabricated familialism on the isolationist West Coast. But the artist’s reputation is based only in part on his work. The legend, originating in his technical prowess, was enhanced by his role as educator. Not only is Voulkos the champion of what was once an underdog medium, but he has come to symbolize success, in California terms. As Voulkos’ sphere of influence increases, distinctions between artist, educator and object diminish. In the end, the legend inseparably fuses the creative process or act of production with the object itself. Expressionistically instigated as it ultimately is, perhaps this lack of critical distinction between lifestyle and art object is the ultimate goal in Californian mythicism.

The Peter Voulkos retrospective opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on February 17, 1978. It will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York from October 21 to December 1; it will open at the Milwaukee Arts Center on February 23, 1979.

Hal Fischer



1. Rose Slivka, Peter Voulkos, A Dialogue with Clay, New York, 1978, p. 28.

2. John Coplans, Abstract Expressionist Ceramics (exhibition catalogue, University of California), Irvine, Calif., 1966, p. 7.

3. Slivka, p. 55.

4. In addition to demonstrations, Voulkos was frequently asked to Judge ceramic competitions. One craftsperson recently remarked that ceramists often made their work more sculptural if they knew Voulkos was the judge—an interesting manifestation of how his ideas gained a following.

5. Mr. Ishi is named for the last Yahi Indian.

6. Although Mr. Ishi is both vertical and horizontal, it does not utilize the platform structure. The vertical elements are duplicates of the horizontal tubes, with cement walls forming the support.

7. Voulkos considered himself a painter for several years and included six paintings in the “New Talent” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. However, he never received critical support for this work.