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Thursday, May 01, 2003


Peter Voulkos: Clay’s Magician and Master

The relationship between the artisan and the artist has traditionally been fraught with misunderstanding: skilled craftspeople have been shunted to the margins of artistic practice and discourse, where their peripheral status is offered as proof of their amateurish standing. This is problematic, to say the least; art’s definition, especially in light of the intensive and self-contained practices of modernism, has too often set apart the work of outsider and artisanal art as not belonging to the mainstream expression of what is considered esthetically valid. Recently, of course, there has been a decided shift in favor of a broader recognition of all art’s merit; yet boundaries die hard, given as they are to policing the edges of the acceptable in confrontation with imageries whose outline and manufacture lie beyond the line of acceptable professionalism. Despite the shows that incorporate art whose facture does not fit comfortably within current notions of what art is or should be, and despite the writings of scholars and critics who look at all kinds of art as inherently meaningful without judging the authors of the work, there is a residual discomfort in our appreciation of craft. This is in part the result of an over-professionalization in contemporary art; but it is also due to the feeling that, ever since modernity came upon us, art has been characterized not by feeling but by intellect, without which neither the close analysis of form nor the ironic critique of culture is maintained. In contrast, craft’s accomplishments must seem at the least naive, if not necessarily anti-intellectual.

But what if craft made up what it lacked in intellectualism through the clever, quick-witted use of intuition? And what if there resided, within the historical expression of whatever craft we were seeing, the wisdom of a folk tradition, much in the same way The Iliad, essentially an oral construction, reflects the intelligence of its long construction in Greek culture? There is more than one way to skin a cat: in our thought-obsessed, theory-ridden culture, we have forgotten what it means to connect with traditions whose clarity results from the accumulated experience of generations rather than the abstract insight of the individual. Because so much of the way we regard, indeed experience, art now is taken in via a culture of abstract reckoning, we no longer hold true or compelling the expression of craft’s intuition, its long glance backward toward the skills learned over the past. I am suggesting that the artisan, in the usual anonymity of his art, is enabled by the extraordinary gift of tradition, which places before him an entire history of creativity inherent within the skill required to make the design. One needn’t be too romantic about this to understand that there is a residual intelligence in folk culture and the minor arts that is all too quickly being swept away by a now international, highly hip culture of technology; perhaps our recognition of the probable loss of the artisanal esthetic lies behind our interest in just that way of making things. The point is that there can be an intuitive understanding of culture, supported by tradition, that is at least the equal of the acute insight brought about by contemporary theory and professional art practice.

Crafting art
The career of Peter Voulkos (1924-2002) is a case in point. Born in, of all places, Bozeman, Montana, to Greek-immigrant parents, Voulkos is a true original — a ceramic artist whose considerable, even inspired, craft intelligence has been both lionized and passed over, even within the field of ceramic art, for its freedom and spontaneity. Voulkos’s ice buckets, plates, stacked sculptures, and bronzes are all of a piece; they are the stunning results of a craftsperson who with remarkable haste made himself into an artist of idiosyncratic originality and brilliant formal insight: someone who very quickly moved beyond craft into a space of real creativity, all the while making sure that the craft of his art received its proper due. It should be remembered that the poor regard with which artists sometimes view craft is not entirely due to prejudice; very few craftspeople attain the stature of Voulkos, whose energies and capacity for work were nearly mythic in their amplitude. It is rare for someone to explode categories in a medium, but this is exactly what Voulkos did — he created a language that owed more to the fierce individuality of abstract expressionism and the New York school than it did to the limited and limiting expressions of traditional clay work. Extending the language of ceramics in its dimensions and its surfaces, Voulkos saw in clay a material unlimited in its possibilities.

But however creative Voulkos may have been in his life, and however accepted he may have been by the New York school, it is fair to say that his long career never quite achieved the notoriety of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. This is, I think, the consequence of the contemporary fear of the artisanal as art — surely, nothing in Voulkos’s extraordinary oeuvre could be ascribed to craft alone: his athletic treatment of the clay, which he pinched, punched, and scored into beauty, was the work of an original artist far more than it was the effort of someone who found inspiration in craft alone. In a way, Voulkos’s career transcended the boundaries of craft so completely that it proved more or less impossible to see him as an artisan; his close-to-mythic energies and public demonstrations of art on the wheel only emphasized the fine-art aspect of what he made. This is not to say that he was a wonderful artist and insignificant potter, only that he was so much a master of his medium that the fine-art quality of his works were intrinsic to his handling of materials. No one before Voulkos had made work quite like he did; and no one after him could proceed in ceramics without acknowledging his massive presence in the field.

It is interesting to consider Voulkos’s relation to the artists of abstract expressionism, with whose profligate lifestyle he had more than a little in common. Beginning in the summer of 1960, Voulkos taught ceramics at Greenwich House Pottery and Teacher’s College, Columbia University, in New York. Renting a studio from the artist and writer Herman Cherry, he met Franz Kline, among other artists, while living and working in New York. In many ways, Voulkos was a quintessential New York school artist, despite the fact that he worked primarily in ceramics. His early works reflect this affinity. The painting, Passing Red (1959), done with vinyl paint, sand, and clay on unprimed canvas, is classically abstract expressionist, complete with Clifford Still’s jagged edges and small fields of color dominating the piece — in the center, there is a deep patch of red that has a curving black graffito scribbled on top of it. A similar scrawl and patch of red can be found on the surface of an untitled plate from 1959, whose shape is more or less square, with a beautifully free treatment enlivening its flat expanse. Even a very early work, such as Tall Covered Jar (1956), whose form is more or less conventional, has an exterior covered with freely painted black brushstrokes, some areas being covered with a sepia-colored hue.

This freedom on Voulkos’s part did not always endear him to the powers that be in the sometime hothouse atmosphere of ceramic craft. Hired by Millard Sheets in 1954 to serve as chairman and professor of the new ceramics department and graduate program at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), Voulkos was asked to resign his position some four years later, primarily because his treatment of clay was seen as too radical for the more conservative ceramists at the Institute. Voulkos is a classic example of someone who falls between categories, in a manner that incorporates elements from sculpture and painting as well as ceramics. His art’s free flights of form and eclecticism, which demonstrate spontaneity at least as much as control, subverted traditional notions of what a pot should be in favor of an expressiveness very close to Zen wisdom. Voulkos, after all, was a West Coast artist — someone whose work seems to acknowledge a debt to Eastern philosophy just as it is informed by the liberated, highly intuitive art practice of the mostly New York-based abstract expressionists he was close to in both spirit and form. This conflation of influences necessarily involved a degree of openness, perhaps Voulkos’s greatest transgression — at least in the eyes of the more hidebound.

Little matter, though, the hot water Voulkos found himself in: he was a natural with clay, an instinctive artist who seemed to start out both completely confident and fully realized. In the early stoneware work entitled Flying Black (1958), he offers a wonderfully organic, rounded series of forms that rise to a height of 39 inches. The shapes extend outward from a central core, while the black and red slip gives them a genuine sense of drama and even an epic intensity. One is reminded of a whimsical exercise that Voulkos took on with his students: the construction of a complete teapot — with body, spout, and cover — in two minutes. The kind of concentration needed to complete the task forced the competitors to work utterly instinctively, using intuitive skill and gut feeling. In the plates that Voulkos made over the years, it is possible to see a continuity from the works of the early 1960s to the plates of the 1990s. In one untitled plate from 1962, the viewer encounters all the effects and interventions seen in later efforts. The edge of the plate is chipped, even broken off in places, while the center has gray holes with a patch of blue glaze on the right. Another untitled plate, made nearly 20 years later in 1981, has reddish and brownish overtones; its main feature, however, is the cuts made through it — signs of Voulkos’s fierce physicality and offhand irreverence for ceramic decorum. The later plates from the 1990s continue Voulkos’s passionate approach; they are cut and scored and indeed mutilated, but their rough-hewn beauty is that much stronger for it.

Voulkos favored improvisation over tradition, intuition over rational mind. The analogy to Zen practice is appropriate in that the artist claimed to be working well when he was hardly aware of what he did, moving within a penumbra of pure action. In the stacked pieces, the viewer can see how he risks fragmentation and decay, even the appearance of ugliness, as he searches for a fresh approach. As ungainly as the pots such as Nauga (1982) — a cracked and crevassed stacked piece — may seem, the awkwardness allows Voulkos direct contact with the mysterious energies behind the expression of form. Nauga is not any more extreme than the other stacked works; despite the casualness with which it seems to have been put together, its slabs overlapping and its base pieced together with small parts, it feels solid and even monumental. By eschewing easy formalities and deliberately coarsening his treatment of materials, the artist has found a balance that looks back across the millennia and ahead to an esthetic beyond our time, in which the integrity of ability is subsumed within a greater stance, one that gives preference to an expressiveness that breaks the rules so as to affirm them.

The description of Voulkos’s method may sound paradoxical, but that is in fact the way he worked. A destroyer as well as a creator of form, he provided his audience with a vocabulary that included emblems of destruction that serve, in final consideration, as the legacy of a creative process notable for its incorporation of stylistic negation. It is clear in an untitled painting from 1988, in which a dark-blue X-shape is imposed on an open square outlined in black against a white ground. The shape occurs again in the powerful stacked work entitled X-Neck (1990), in which an X-shape has been cut into the body of the sculpture, as if Voulkos meant to define his art by nearly destroying it. Some of the destruction seems autobiographical — in the 1980s, Voulkos used cocaine and became strung out, necessitating a three-year hiatus from making art — but it makes greater sense to see his desecration of clay as actually representative of great, even cosmic, forces doing battle through the struggle of form. Why should art only show a painted face to its audience? Voulkos’s extraordinary hands worked against facility, taking as truth the brutal honesty of his materials’ violation. In the stacked pieces, Big Jupiter (1994) and Tsunami (1994), you sense that the ragged edges and patchovers culminate in an esthetic that comes close to that of war; as a result, the improvisation becomes that much more real, instigated as it is by aggression as well as grace.

Voulkos was not only a craftsman working in clay; he also, as early as 1961, was an artist who made bronzes, receiving his first bronze sculptural commission in 1962 from the Tishman Realty Company in San Francisco. His Hall of Justice (1967-71), done as a public project (commissioned by the San Francisco Art Commission for the city’s Hall of Justice), is an impressive piece of work; it stands some 26 feet high, with large coiled tubular forms sitting on platforms, much as notes rest on staves in music. Mr. Ishi (1969-70), a bronze sculpture sitting outside the Oakland Museum of Art, is a wonderful collection of disparate forms: long tubes curl under cubes forming a straight-edged T-shape, which has a straight tube directly attached to it and another tube off to the side. Sirius, a later bronze work built in 1989-91, looks like a collection of machine parts, with slots in what look like ball bearings, off of which run long pistonlike legs. These pieces confirm Voulkos’s ability to work big, in a medium he was not necessarily noted for. They reassure us that Voulkos’s skill is really quite broad; he is as acute in matters large as in matters small.

In a couple of monotypes, done in 1985, one can see Voulkos again incorporating within the body of a work the feeling of instability — chaos, actually — within a language of primally neolithic solidity. In one, he has described a ziggurat in black; it rises from the bottom to the middle of the page, with black, blue, and red masses filling parts of the ground. The patches of color mount an attack against the outlined steps of the ziggurat, which holds its own in the composition. It becomes more and more clear that the violence in the monotype is not the performance of emotion but an actual part of the artist’s psyche; Voulkos is a Dionysian artist, a figure whose extremism attacks the ideal of an idealized calm. What he does to his forms and surfaces becomes metaphorical in regard to the process of creation, which is, as he implies by his technique, the consequence of psychical and physical force. He gives himself entirely to the task at hand, seeing in his unstinting outpouring of energy an allegorical reading of the imagination’s ability to create.

As has been mentioned, Voulkos took his chthonic responsibilities quite literally and paid for it through the abuse of drugs. Yet what we remember of him is not the fragment or the ruined reputation but rather the triumphant declaration of a style that freed not only the artist himself but his field as well. The vocabulary of what is acceptable in ceramics has been immeasurably broadened by Voulkos’s work, which offers both the consolation and defiance of form. Not to see him as a major innovator would be a great mistake; he engineered and energized the language of clay in works of great personal integrity as well as public aplomb.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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