New York

Peter Voulkos, Iron Head, 1990, ceramic, 35 1/2 x 19 x 19".

Peter Voulkos, Iron Head, 1990, ceramic, 35 1/2 x 19 x 19".

Peter Voulkos

Franklin Parrasch Gallery | 22nd Street

Peter Voulkos, Iron Head, 1990, ceramic, 35 1/2 x 19 x 19".

This concise exhibition of ten ceramic pieces formed a rare survey of the work of Peter Voulkos, an artist whose production merits far broader examination. This signal potter/sculptor drastically ruptured the tropes that assign craftworks to a lesser status than art. There are, of course, many preconceptions that play into this conventional demotion—mostly, the association of clay-based crafts with utilitarian vessels and the belief that clay itself is of lesser status than paint (or wood or marble or bronze). Of course, other notables aspired to break this prejudice, but few did so as credibly as Voulkos, first among peers who include Ken Price (once his student) and Andrew Lord.

Following a wartime stint in the Pacific Theater, Voulkos (1924–2002) earned an MFA in ceramics from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1952. The following summer, while teaching ceramics at Black Mountain College, he fell in with Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham; these encounters convinced him to come to New York, thus occasioning fateful meetings with Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Voulkos swallowed whole the Abstract Expressionist dispensation—at least the Harold Rosenberg side of it, which viewed artmaking as a theater of the unconscious. In 1954 in Los Angeles, Voulkos founded the ceramics department at what became the Otis College of Art and Design. The rest—the Californian ceramic renaissance—is history.

In Voulkos’s classroom, the mantra was “No rules.” At the turn of the 1960s, this carried the force of sacred decree. Voulkos taught his students to forgo—to overthrow, really—the traditions of the centered vessel, either coil-built or turned on the wheel, encouraging such counterintuitive moves as puncturing a receptacle’s walls. Take, for instance, his parasculptural Iron Head, 1990, a simple vase with violent slices rupturing its rust-colored surface. Ceramics majors took Voulkos not solely at his word but as the beau ideal.

A Cubist scaffolding lies behind Voulkos’s structures, as it does behind so much Abstract Expressionist practice. Vase/Jar, 1956, for example, is a stoneware work built of muscular, planar slabs. Think Hans Hofmann, if you will, but sans the untrammeled color. In a similar mode, Blue and Gray, 1959—also notably constructivist—features outcroppings of triangles and flange-like spines. Voulkos’s choice of a dark-blue salt glaze in this work is connotative of old New England crockery.

With near-bardic force, Voulkos became anew our Shoji Hamada, our Bernard Leach. Both Hamada and Leach were long-acknowledged master potters who, in teaching at Black Mountain College, also contributed to that school’s undying legend. “The minute you begin to feel you understand what you are doing, it loses that searching quality,” Voulkos maintained. “You finally reach a point where you’re no longer concerned about keeping the blob of clay centered on the wheel and up in the air. Your emotions take over and what happens just happens. Usually you don’t know it’s happened until after it’s done.”

Voulkos’s work, thrown or built of rough, thick walls, comprised plates, platters, and vessels of virtually phallic virility, especially his distorted spherical bottles with thick necks. Untitled Pot (Black), 1969–70, is typical. The artist achieved burst effects, as seen, for example, in Untitled Plate, 1973, by placing combustible material in the clay and burning it away in the kiln. This process often yielded aggressive discontinuities and craterish breaks. Now and then, he introduced stones, pebbles, or—as was the case in many works here—small pieces of porcelain into the work’s body, producing surfaces cut, scored, or punctured as if by a violent thumb. Voulkos obdurately rejected extensive painted or sgraffito decoration, at times allowing no more than a wide band of nondescript glaze around a bulbous body, as evidenced by Untitled Vase, 1957.

The puncturing and scoring one often encounters in Voulkos’s plates and platters leads one to associate his work, rather unexpectedly, with the supremely antithetical, reductivist elegances of Lucio Fontana. The Italian artist began his career as a ceramic sculptor of Catholic iconography, but, like Voulkos, he evolved into an abstractionist of the first water. His paintings, mostly early on, were also perforated by pebbles pressed into their surfaces.

Robert Pincus-Witten