Poul Voulkos Ceramist




The exhibition of recent stoneware vessels by Peter Voulkos at Frank Lloyd Gallery featured the sort of work on which the artist established reputation in the 1950s. The work was greeted with stunned amazement. However now it is too, but it\'s amazement of a different order -- the kind that comes from being in the presence of effortless artistic mastery. These astonishing vessels are truly amaising. Every ceramic artist knows that what goes into a kiln looks very different from what comes out, and although what comes out can be controlled to varying degrees, it\'s never certain. Uncertainty feels actively courted in Voulkos\' vessels, and this embrace of chance gives them a surprisingly contradictory sense of ease. Critical to the emergence of a significant art scene in Los Angeles in the second half of the 1950s, the 75-year-old artist has lived in Northern California since 1959 and this was his only second solo show in an L.A gallery in 30 years.”These days, L.A. is recognized as a center for the production of contemporary art. But in the 1950s, the scene was slim -- few galleries and fewer museums. Despite the obscurity, a handful of solitary and determined artists broke ground here, stretching the inflexible definitions of what constitutes painting, sculpture and other media. Among these avant-gardists was Peter Voulkos.” In 1954, Voulkos was hired as chairman of the fledgling ceramics department at the L.A. County Art Institute, now Otis College of Art and Design, and during the five years that followed, he led what came to be known as the "Clay Revolution." Students like John Mason, Paul Soldner, Ken Price and Billy Al Bengston, all of whom went on to become respected artists, were among his foot soldiers in the battle to free clay from its handicraft associations. By the late 1950s, Voulkos had established an international reputation for his muscular fired-clay sculptures, which melded Zen attitudes toward chance with the emotional fervor of Abstract Expressionist painting. Some 20 works -- including five "Stacks" (4-foot-tall sculptures) as well as giant slashed-and-gouged plates and works on paper -- recently went on view at the Frank Lloyd Gallery. This non single show is his first at a Los Angeles gallery in 13 years, although a survey of his work was seen at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (presently carries a different name) in 1995. Voulkos, 75, has lived in Oakland since 1959, “having left after a fallout with the then-director of the Art Institute, Millard Sheets, who is best known for mosaic murals on local bank facades.” Although Voulkos has been absent from L.A. for 40 years, he remains something of an icon for artists here. Price, known for his candy-colored ovoid clay sculptures, puts it simply: "In one way or another, he influenced everyone who makes art out of clay, since he was the main force in liberating the material. He broke down all the rules -- form follows function, truth in materials -- because he wanted to make art that had something to do with his own time and place. He had virtuoso technique, so he was able to do it fairly directly, and he worked in a really forceful way. In the opinion of many artists he is the most important person in clay of the 20th century, not for what he did himself, but for the ground that he broke." In his interview with US art critics Voulkos said: “I never intended on being revolutionary, there was a certain energy around L.A. at that time, and I liked the whole milieu.” “Wielding clay is magic,” he says. “The minute you touch it, it moves, so you\'ve got to move with it. It\'s like a ritual. I always work standing up, so I can move my body around. I don\'t sit and make dainty little things.” As a child, Voulkos did not imagine a future as an internationally influential artist. The third of five children born to Greek immigrant parents in Bozeman, Mont., he could not afford a college education and anticipated a career constructing floor molds for engine castings at a foundry in Portland, Ore., where he went to work in 1942, after high school. But in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps and was