Poul Voulkos Ceramist

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The recent exhibition at Frank Lloyd Gallery showcased new stoneware vessels by Peter Voulkos. These pieces exemplify the type of work that initially brought the artist renown in the 1950s. The reaction to the artwork was one of astonishment, but it differed in nature from before. Now, the astonishment stems from witnessing the artist’s effortless artistic mastery. Undeniably, these extraordinary vessels are truly remarkable.

Ceramic artists understand that the outcome of their work after being kiln-fired can be unpredictable. While some control is possible, uncertainty remains. Voulkos’ vessels embrace this unpredictability and possess a distinct sense of ease. His art played a crucial role in the growth of the Los Angeles art scene during the 1950s when there were limited galleries and museums. A handful of innovative artists pushed boundaries by challenging traditional forms such as painting and sculpture.

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Peter Voulkos, a pioneer in the avant-garde movement, became the ceramics department chairman at L.A. County Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) in 1954. With artists like John Mason, Paul Soldner, Ken Price, and Billy Al Bengston, he led the “Clay Revolution,” liberating clay from traditional craft associations. By the late 1950s, Voulkos gained international recognition for his bold fired-clay sculptures that combined Zen ideals of chance with Abstract Expressionist painting’s passionate expression. Recently, around 20 of his works were exhibited at Frank Lloyd Gallery in Los Angeles after a 13-year absence from a local gallery since his retrospective at Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1995 (now named differently). The exhibition showcased large sculptures called “Stacks,” heavily textured plates, and works on paper.

Voulkos, who is now 75 years old, has been living in Oakland since 1959. He left Los Angeles due to a disagreement with Millard Sheets, the Art Institute’s former director, renowned for creating mosaic murals on local bank facades. Despite his four-decade absence from L.A., Voulkos remains an influential figure for artists in the city. Price, famous for his vibrant clay sculptures in the shape of ovoids, states it simply: “He influenced every clay artist in some way, as he was the driving force in freeing the material. He defied traditional rules like form following function and truth in materials, because he aimed to create art that was relevant to his own time and place.”

He possessed exceptional technique which allowed him to accomplish it directly, and he approached his work forcefully. Many artists consider him the most significant figure in clay during the 20th century because of the new territory he explored. In an interview with American art critics, Voulkos said: “I never intended to be a revolutionary. Los Angeles had a certain energy at that time, and I was drawn to the entire environment.” He believes working with clay is magical, saying: “The moment you touch it, it starts to move, so you must move along with it. It’s almost like a ritual. I prefer working while standing so I can freely move my body.”

Voulkos, as a child, did not have the aspiration to become an influential artist. He declared “I don’t sit and make dainty little things.” Voulkos grew up in Bozeman, Mont., as the third of five children born to Greek immigrant parents. Due to financial limitations, he was unable to pursue higher education and expected to work in a foundry constructing floor molds for engine castings in Portland, Ore., starting in 1942 after finishing high school. However, his plans took a different turn when he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. During his service in the central Pacific, he worked as an airplane armorer and gunner.

After the war ended, Voulkos took advantage of the G.I. Bill which granted him the opportunity to attend college. He decided to study painting at Montana State College (now Montana State University). It was during his junior year that he started taking ceramics courses. In 1951, Voulkos successfully completed his studies and graduated.

Voulkos demonstrated innate talent with clay and quickly began receiving accolades, including the highest recognition at the 1950 National Ceramic Exhibition in New York. This encouragement led him to pursue ceramics as his area of focus at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he earned a master’s degree in 1952. During this time, he married Margaret Cone and became a father to Pier. Simultaneously, his artistic creations were gaining recognition, which resulted in an invitation to teach at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1953. This opportunity proved fortuitous as he had the chance to collaborate with notable figures such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and David Tudor. He subsequently relocated to New York, where he gained further exposure and connected with influential Abstract Expressionist painters such as Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Philip Guston, and Robert Rauschenberg. Despite returning to Helena with plans to sell his ceramics for a living, his fortune changed when Sheets reached out.

“I was a rural individual from Montana, so relocating to Los Angeles was a significant event for me,” Voulkos recalls. “Obtaining that job marked a turning point in my career. I no longer had to create dinner plates. I received payment for teaching and didn’t have to stress about sales anymore.”

Teaching allowed me to improve my vocabulary as I learned from my students. I found ceramics dull at that time. However, I was briefly captivated by Scandinavian design, but it didn’t hold my interest for long due to its slow pace. Eventually, Voulkos found a supporter in sculptor David Smith, renowned for his steel cubes with perfect balance.

Voulkos and his former student John Mason shared a studio on Glendale Boulevard, with architect Richard Neutra as their neighbor. In the evenings, they would listen to jazz at the Tiffany Club, along with their friends who were also their students. According to conceptual artist John Baldessari, Voulkos, who was both a painter and a sculptor at the time, represented the avant-garde New York art world. Baldessari, who was studying painting, found Voulkos to be more inspiring and challenging than his academic instructors. He felt liberated by Voulkos’ encouragement, as opposed to feeling limited by his other teachers. Just before Christmas 1958, Voulkos had a solo exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum).

Shortly after, Voulkos was fired from L.A. County Art Institute and later hired by UC Berkeley. During his time at UC Berkeley, he taught notable students like Ron Nagle, James Melchert, and Ann Adair, who eventually became his second wife. His second wife, Ann Adair, bore him a son named Aris. Voulkos’ career reached new heights when he had a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1960. The show received positive reviews from Dore Ashton in the New York Times. Despite his desire to work on a larger scale, Voulkos continued to create monumental bronze sculptures for corporate clients, such as the 18-foot-tall sculpture in the lobby of the San Francisco office of Tishman Realty. However, Voulkos never lost his passion for pushing the limits of ceramics. Between 1979 and 1984, he focused on firing plates and creating vessel-shaped “stacks” in an anagama, which is a Japanese wood-burning kiln.

Voulkos took inspiration from the Haniwa figures and ceramics of the Momoyama period in Japan. He allowed the ashes and soot from the kiln’s firing process to decorate the clay’s uneven surface. He admired the casualness of some Japanese ceramics, noting that even a large crack caused by the kiln could transform a piece into a national treasure. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, Voulkos faced a significant personal struggle. Around the middle of the decade, he had to confront his cocaine addiction and seek treatment in a rehabilitation facility.

In 1989, Peter Voulkos returned to his ceramic sculpture with a renewed purpose and a more controlled composition. Throughout the 1990s, he regained confidence in the process. Despite retiring from UC Berkeley, Voulkos continues to thrive as a teacher, conducting seminars for about four months each year. (Source: Levin, Elaine, “Peter Voulkos: A Ceramics Monthly Portfolio,” Ceramics Monthly, June, 1978, pp. 60-68, ill. Albright, Thomas, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985, ill. Baker, Kenneth, “Strong New Work by Voulkos,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 1991, p. C5, ill. Baker, Kenneth, “Voulkos Elevates Ceramics to Art,” San Francisco Examiner Chronicle, Datebook, July 30, 1995, pp.)

35 and 39. Donald Kuspit discusses the concerns surrounding Peter Voulkos’s “Stacks” in his article titled “The Trouble With The Body” from American Ceramics, volume 12, issue 2, published in 1996 on pages 14 to 21. The article includes illustrations and an illustration on the cover.

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Poul Voulkos Ceramist. (2018, Oct 05). Retrieved from


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