New York

Peter Voulkos

Braunstein/Quay Gallery

“I began to understand what art was all about through clay; I hadn’t even known what I was doing as a painter. Clay is an intimate thing—just beautiful! It’s a blob of nothing, then the minute you touch it, it moves.”

Peter Voulkos began as a painter and received his graduate degree in ceramics. But, through a combination of attending Black Mountain College in 1953 and meeting the Japanese master potter Hamada, he was intoxicated with the power and potential of ceramics as a high-art medium. Voulkos accepted the Japanese Tea Masters’ esthetic of the Zen idea of the embraced accident applied to the construction of pottery. This dovetailed certain of the gestural Abstract Expressionists’ ideas about painting composition, and Voulkos may be said to be the only person who combined the Tea Masters’ esthetic with Abstract Expressionism. Also, because he studied the classic ceramic works of the Chinese, Persian etc. cultures mainly in reproduction, he misinterpreted the size of the originals, imagining them larger than they are and consequently used a larger scale in his work than was normally thought possible. The use of an increased scale combined with an improvisational method of working (within certain established limits) permitted him to develop a highly personal sculptural style.

Voulkos’s recent show is of his large coiled stoneware “pots,” and “clay drawings”—nineteen-inch stoneware plates thrown on a potter’s wheel for a not yet completed edition of 200.

Voulkos’s drawing style (and on most levels the plates are truly clay drawings) is said to be Abstract Expressionist because of its gestural exuberance, but a different sensibility is operating. It seem to combine ornamental calligraphy such as the Chinese and Persian (though without any reference to a known alphabet), with a more primitive form of drawing. One feels the hand making the work and marking it. Voulkos does this in both the “pots” and plates by punctuating the linear slashes with circles or holes punched into the surface by digging his fingers into the clay. The holes fall at the outermost stretch of the fingers’ grasp of the contours of the “pots” and are slightly closer together on the plates, as if Voulkos were making more of a pinching gesture. There is a definite stroking/possession of the surface by the artist. The assertion of the hand mark as an act of ownership is similar to the hand prints common in Neolithic art.

Another type of structuring is evident in the plates, which relates to the use of sets, various types of gameboards and the intellectual game-playing in the glass bead game in Hesse’s Magister Ludi. Within a constant circular format two types of mark are possible—an incised line and a dot made either by gouging with his fingers or the insertion of porcelain lumps which, firing at a higher temperature than stoneware, remain an intact unit. These gestures are rearranged in sequences varying in complexity from a single dot and line to abacuslike lines strung with dots to various simple grid patterns. Throughout the edition of plates, the color of the glaze varies, but the drawing exists within the limits placed by the initial vocabulary of gestures.

Less elegant than the plates, the narrow, slightly bulbous, child-sized volumes of the “pots” look in a different direction. Like Gaudi’s mosaiced chimney pots of Casa Mi la and the spires of the Sagrada Familia, they borrow some of their impetus from a folk/craft tradition. But both go beyond the perimeters of folk art and contemporary “good” design to invent structures which, because of the organic imagery, exist independently of their tradition.

Ann-Sargent Wooster