PRINT March 2017


Peter Voulkos

View of “Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years,” 2016–17, Museum of Arts and Design, New York. On plinths, from left: Little Big Horn, 1959; Tientos, 1959; Sitting Bull, 1959; USA 41, 1960; Red River, ca. 1960. On wall: Falling Red, 1958. Photo: Butcher Walsh.

“VOULKOS: THE BREAKTHROUGH YEARS,” currently on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, seeks to do more than simply insist on the reputation of its subject, the renowned ceramist Peter Voulkos, as an exponent of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, the exhibition recontextualizes the significance of this revolutionary artist, presenting him as an agent of the mid-twentieth century’s radical transformation of the very categories of sculpture, pottery, and painting. Focusing specifically on the period from 1954 through 1968, the show illuminates Voulkos’s profound rethinking of the craft tradition, reenvisioning that tradition as a direct and active engagement of the human imagination with materiality itself.

As “The Breakthrough Years” clearly demonstrates, the trajectory of the Montana-born, California-based artist’s work would be forever altered when, in the summer of 1953, Voulkos traveled first to North Carolina, to teach a course at Black Mountain College, that intellectual and aesthetic kiln of the American avant-garde of the 1940s and ’50s, and then to New York, where he frequented the Cedar Tavern and befriended Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston. Voulkos’s early work, represented in the show by two covered jars from circa 1953, had earned him numerous national awards. His remarkable gifts as a potter using relatively conventional methods are undeniable. Ornamented with gestural renderings of bulls that call to mind Picasso’s ceramics, Voulkos’s elegantly crafted jars and pots also offer traces of influences of both pre-Columbian and Japanese pottery. Had he remained invested in traditional conceptions of ceramics as functional craft, it is doubtful that his work would have had a lasting impact. But at Black Mountain, Voulkos met John Cage, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, and other key figures, many of whom would impress on him the understanding that art’s essence lies in the making, not in the made thing. This seismic change in Voulkos’s aesthetic values would propel him to methodically interrogate—and dismantle—the boundaries and expectations of his medium.

Beginning in the mid-’50s, his thrown-and-slab-constructed assemblages eschewed unity, functionality, and balance in order to subvert traditional expectations attached to pottery. Such works as Rasgeado and Rocking Pot, both 1956, violated the understanding that the primary role of the potter was to create vessels meant to contain and protect volume. But he did not stop there. In the late ’50s and ’60s he began working at an enormous scale—building, in order to do so, the largest nonindustrial kiln in the US at that time—and the unprecedentedly massive sculptures he assembled from thrown elements and slabs, works such as Little Big Horn and Sitting Bull, both 1959, pushed the medium to its structural limits.

The exhibition at MAD features more than thirty pieces displaying the development of Voulkos’s divergent approaches and experiments. The show’s six sections encompass everything from pots and plates to sculptural assemblages and paintings to a selection of the revelatory “blackware” pieces Voulkos produced in the late ’60s. One sees how he at first treated the stoneware as three-dimensional surfaces for abstraction, but soon after his thinking became even more ambitious, and the sculptural assemblages, from the looming Tientos to the vividly painted Cross, both 1959, became themselves solidified gestures in space. The larger sculptures show just how the artist’s own physicality, his own body, forced, sometimes violently, the works’ coming into being. He stabbed, splattered, pushed, punched, and tore at the material, rendering spontaneity and accident as forms of action that ceramics could formally stage. Voulkos amplified the possibilities of a painterly Abstract Expressionism, not only by extending it into a third dimension but by drawing out the importance of process over object: Here the pure opticality of the flat canvas gives way to an aesthetic experience of the object requiring multiple perceptions and perspectives over time.

If those painters Voulkos met in New York negotiated the material aspects of paint and canvas, he contended with a substance that was, by its very nature, even more resistant to manipulation. In considering Voulkos’s sculpture, it seems impossible to overlook the hypermasculinity evident in its rawness, its size, and its aggressive antipathy to any of the traditional elegance of ceramics. Within Voulkos’s vision of art, the struggle with clay’s materiality renders palpable and enduring one individual’s energy and imagination acting on the world. Despite his unremitting, muscular agon with the medium, the material’s vulnerability is never fully lost. Surveying the work of Voulkos’s pivotal period, one gets the sense of watching a mind catch fire as it realizes that many of the previously held conceptions of what constitutes a medium are merely arbitrary, and that form itself can be wholly reimagined—not just once, but each time an artist begins to create.

“Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years,” organized by Andrew Perchuk and Glenn Adamson with Barbara Paris Gifford, is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, through Mar. 15; travels to the Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC, Apr. 7–Aug. 20.

Richard Deming is senior lecturer in English and director of creative writing at Yale University.