Los Angeles

Peter Voulkos

A petit-retrospective, this first open-air exhibit on the Simon Sculpture Plaza of the new Museum consists of ten isolate works by Voulkos, rugged sculptures which polemically resist being viewed as a group. Ranging over a seven year period (1958 to the present), the works are disconcerting in their broad span of at least three and possibly four separable, seemingly inimical sculptural manners. (Nor do the distractions of the setting help; the surrounding buildings seem to loom over the sculptures, immediately doubling the odds against “monumentality.”) If a larger selection might have had Voulkos appear less a paladin for Hofmannesque versatility, the nature of the changes themselves would demand attention under any circumstances; but so, too, does the high degree of competence Voulkos exhibits in his manipulation of such diverse styles.

The earliest pieces are four monolithic and massive works in fired clay, the medium of Voulkos’ first successes and large influence. “Rondena” (1958), a densely compacted, humanoidal relative of Henry Moore, bulges freely; improvisational brush strokes demarcate or exaggerate curves, exuberantly decorate innocent protuberances, and heighten a playful exchange of dark and light patterning. “Sitting Bull” (1959) retains possible human allusions, but exploits chunky mass, regular movements and sharply sliced planes to begin to suggest inorganic earth formations, a reference that is overt in the cragginess of “Little Big Horn” (1959) and central to the geomorphic “Gallas Rock” (1961). Of the four, “Little Big Horn,” in spite of its edged sharpness, is the most dangerously decorative; it has a high gloss glaze that drips and glitters, as well as much surface patterning in the form of punched holes and scratched lines. “Gallas Rock,” on the other hand, avoids arty graces and mimics the harsh, creviced effects of indifferent nature; again Voulkos builds up a tightly coherent form from separate bulky masses, but here the pallid, unglazed clay has torn edges, dark declivities, opened out hollows, and cryptic inner spaces which accentuate contrasts of light and shadow. The relation of part to part is often unexpected and adds an excited rhythm to the work.

The four dark “open form” bronze and wood construction-sculptures of 1961-64 document the complexity of steps and missteps involved in Voulkos’ shift from the clotted compression of his work in fired clay to the demands of a new medium. These are built by welding or fastening together precast bronze in various shaped slabs (some ragged, some bent) and metal sheets folded, curled into tubes, or otherwise eccentrically twisted. As constructions they are technically impressive, if too easily derivative in statement from the Abstract Expressionist esthetic and the objets trouvés-bent fender-junkyard school. More important, matter and manner are never quite co-ordinated; “Vargas II,” for example, in spite of its brave linear attempt to wing out into space (and one can appreciate here the extent of Voulkos’ reaction to the restrictions of clay) has a gravity-bound heaviness to its individual slabs and an awkwardly incoherent contour. “Big Remington Ill” is the strongest of the four, compensating by the boldness of its large, distraught sheets of steel at one end for the less convincing clutter of bronze detritus at the other. Perhaps most provocative in these intermediary works is Voulkos’ use of a heavy table or platform-like base for his scattering fragments. Whether, as in “Honk,” a hospital bed for modern mutilations or, in “Bad Day at Shattuck III,” an icy last resting place for a mangled mystery, they add an oddly calculated, stark, and weighty note to otherwise diffuse conceptions.

This notion of a platform setting has recently been clarified and dramatized. Voulkos now uses it for the on-stage geometry of his latest works, “Hiro” and “Big A” (both 1964·65); huge, spotless, shiny aluminum post and lintel arrangements, they support with symmetric balance the bright yellow glitter of polished bronze Brancusi· like forms which rest above and dangle below. These forms, once more monoliths, play different variations on angular ways to slice a sphere. (Does Voulkos refute Clement Greenberg’s statement: “To all intents and purposes, the Renaissance and monolithic tradition of sculpture was given its quietus by Brancusi”?) Not at all related to the art of subtle mathematical adjustments, the two new works deal brilliantly with high drama; their ten· sions have to do with weight, clean shadows, and brightness falling from the air.

The changes in style recorded in this exhibit are so extreme that one feels an exasperated necessity to search out unifying links, such as the rude and perhaps fractious strength throughout—an assertive power achieved partially through aggressive handling of materials and partially through grandiose scale (one sees it in the bunched masses of clay, in the thick slabs of torn, bent bronze, and, equally, in the heavy Leger columns of the recent work). Another constant is Voulkos’ rough, consonantal rhythm—a pervasive irregularity in the juxtaposition of forms. What seems surprising in the context of such ambitious strength is an apparently passive and weathercock sensitivity to the winds of artistic fashion. And what is most painfully absent is the electric and unifying pressure of a personal vision, which perhaps explains the curious lack of cumulative force in an exhibit that, after all, contains a fair number of strong individual pieces. The show is accompanied by a catalog admirably long on photographs, but, for a museum publication, disappointingly short on words.

Nancy Marmer