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Monday, June 02, 2003


Battered Beauty

Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), Charles Cowles Gallery, New York, May 1-31.

The charm of Peter Voulkos was well-known, both in his art and life; his death on February 14, 2002, deprived the American art world of a remarkable figure who maintained the highest levels of artistry despite exposing himself to the dangers of alcohol and cocaine. Like Jackson Pollock, his reputation as an abstract expressionist led to an image that was larger than life; as a ceramic artist, he attacked the notion of clay as a minor art form. Voulkos often demonstrated the creation of his categories of object, which included heavily scored plates, stacks (tiered works that rose to approximately four feet in height), and ice buckets (shorter, open works). He also produced several very large public sculptures in bronze. An innovator whose reputation was made by his considerable presence as much as his work, Voulkos — again like Pollock — needs to have the romance of his life separated from the genuinely impressive nature of his achievement, which extended the language of ceramics into the field of fine art.

The separation of myth from actual accomplishment is worth considering. The abstract expressionist moment during the 1940s and early 1950s was fueled as much by the extravagance of the artists’ lives as by the work itself. Edward Lucie-Smith, a British historian and critic of contemporary art, has suggested that the achievement of abstract expressionism may in fact be more indicative of America as a cultural entity than it is of a great movement in art. In other words, the art’s true value may be as an expression of the American romantic esthetic, and its preoccupation with mythmaking and self-destructive creativity. Voulkos would naturally fit into this conception; indeed, now that he is gone, it would be very interesting to objectively assess just exactly what he did for ceramic sculpture. If it is hard, indeed almost impossible, to remove Pollock’s reputation for alcoholism and womanizing from the remarkable worth of his work, it seems equally difficult to pry away Voulkos’s wildness of manner from the highly disciplined artist who was a master of clay. America’s sense of itself, its imperial desire, finds massive corroboration in the grand stories of extraordinary talent wasted by excess — although in Voulkos’s case, the excess seems not to have done great harm to his mastery of a medium.

Time, of course, will tell whether Voulkos is a truly transcendent figure. To this writer, his extension of the language of what is acceptable in ceramic art is so visionary as to constitute a new reading of the form. Despite extensive international recognition, however — including the Rodin Museum Prize in 1959 for work exhibited at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and a solo show a year later at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — the craft nature of Voulkos’s chosen field relegated him to the margins of fine art, at least in many people’s perceptions. Voulkos brought to the table not a conceptual intelligence but rather an inspired physicality — a quality not calculated to transform his chosen material into a vehicle of intellectual force. Really, what his ceramic works celebrate is the medium itself, freed from the constraints of its tradition. Voulkos is hardly subtle in his treatment of clay, and that force of use is key to his ability to transform a material whose finished, fired expression has tended toward subtlety rather than fierce attack. Voulkos pushes the idiom as far as it can go; the results constitute a new understanding of ceramics as art.

His plates look to all the world like battlefields, complete with knobs of scored lines, scarifications, knobs of clay pushing through from the back of the plate, and jagged, fragmented parts. Clay’s tensile mutability is explored: the plates have a tendency to be eloquently broken apart, in a way that emphasizes Voulkos’s treatment of both the surface and its chthonic strength. Voulkos’s presence — his much recognized humanity and charm of personality — seems to have been linked to his work with the medium, in the sense that the physical nature of his plates, stacked pieces, and ice buckets mirrored the shifting enthusiasms of his creativity itself. In this case, form followed the person, as its function was subsumed to the expressionism of the medium. Clay is an alchemical material that begins flexibly and then transforms itself into a brittle medium, with the history of its transformation visible and intact. The stacked pieces are particularly elemental and inspired in their mixture of solidity and precariousness; the different levels ending in a relatively narrow throat that rises upwards, the x-shapes scored into the surface, and the brittle fragments composing the whole of the form are so inherently expressive as to come close to cliché.

Voulkos’s essentially Zen nature, and intuitive use of materials, made him very much an artist as opposed to a craftsperson. He explored categories of creativity — forms of expression — in ways that bespoke an imagination enamored of shapes whose gestalt suggested extraordinary perception and purpose. His sculptures serve no real utilitarian use, but comment instead on the primacy of form, while his plates seem to conform to an ur-plate that exists only in the imagination. Yet the work cannot be regarded as Platonic variations on an idealized original: it is much too battered into beauty to be understood as exquisite in any way. Somehow, the artist, in the intensity and even violence of his method, communicates something of his personality as well as of the living energies of clay: the material merges with its author. Voulkos was a magician of the earth, a contemporary shaman whose energies of personality found their equilibrium in a melding of certain elements of the past (as happened with the material itself and with his heritage as a child of Greek immigrants) and with the present and future (as happened in the ingenious eloquence, the essential playfulness, of his method, so different from the tradition of ceramic art). In a contemporary art world increasingly taken up with high technology and the rigidity of the art “scene,” Voulkos looks more and more like a humanist in the old sense of the word. His love of art supported a wider expressiveness and knowledge of material and form. These qualities recommend him now as a master of emotional depth as well as of form.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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