Voulkos Reexamined

When I was in Pennsylvania with Ann Stannard and Maryon Attwood selecting pieces for an MC Richards exhibit, we came upon her small collection of other people’s pots, haphazardly wrapped in paper. She had a Lucie Rie teacup and saucer which I scarcely dared to hold in my hand it was so delicate, so thinly potted, so luminous, white with a metallic band around the rim, a small chip. And she had a very tall, beautifully thrown, covered jar, which was not wrapped in paper it was so big. It just stood out of the way, against the wall. It was by Peter Voulkos. Both were immediately identifiable to me, even though I had never seen more than photos of works by either Rie of Voulkos. Ann confirmed that the pieces were what I thought they were, and of course, with her encouragement, I did touch them.

Later in the year, Yale will publish a book on Rie that I am very much looking forward to. This morning I finished reading a book on Voulkos, Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Pric,e Peter Voulkos 1956-1958, a collection of essays edited by Mary David MacNaughton for The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery of Scripps College.

We all know at least the outlines of Voulkos’ story: his youth in Montana, his extraordinary throwing abilities and the early tall, covered jars that he made and won prizes for; his California years; and his abrupt change from functional, carefully crafted pots to abstract expressionist clay sculpture on a massive scale. The essays are wide ranging and frame the three men in their time period.

Voulkos was invited to Black Mountain College by Karen Karnes and David Weinrib. MC was there then and that’s probably when she got the covered jar. Voulkos was electrified by the Black Mountain College experience, and especially taken with MC, John Cage, David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and Esteban Vicente and the new work they were doing. Speaking of Cage, Tudor and Cunningham, Voulkos wrote, “I had never been exposed to that kind of work at all, and it was sort of eerie… Coming from Montana, I’d just never seen any of it, heard any of it…. And it was so beautiful and so new to me that, gee, I just really got turned on.”

Voulkos was also inspired by Picasso and by Shoji Hamada. Indeed some of his work is reminiscent of Picasso’s ceramics. That Hamada inspired him surprised me. When Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi made their famous tour of the US in 1952 and conducted a workshop at the Archie Bray Foundation, Voulkos kicked the wheel for Hamada. “I was right there,” he said “and had my head down with his, and he’d tell me to kick faster or slower, so I was just watching his hands.” Voulkos was impressed with the economy and looseness of Hamada’s throwing and the spiritual connection he had with the clay. Many young American potters of the time, and in years since, have been inspired by Hamada, embracing the concept of Mingei, even traveling to Japan to apprentice. Voulkos took that inspiration to turn away from pots and craft to make gigantic ceramic sculptures.

The book talks about the relationship between Abstract Expressionist painting and Abstract Expressionist ceramics, about the influence of the East on both, apparently acknowledged by those in ceramics but not by the painters, the reception that each of the men’s work received and their influence on and relationship with each other. I found the essay that discusses the men’s appearance or nonappearance in the press particularly telling and had to smile that early stories would be put in such newspaper sections as Hobbies or Interior Decoration. And I very much like the conceit of an essay that looks at the press coverage of an artist over time. I may have to steal the idea.

There are many full-page color plates of the sculptures plus black and white shots of the artists in various places, but what I enjoyed was reading about the social context for the work they were doing. I do have to wonder what Hamada thought of the work that young man who kicked his wheel for him ended up doing and becoming famous for, or if he thought about him afterwards at all.


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