Friday, February 12, 2010

Designer of the Month: Peter Voulkos

Week 2: the Peter Voulkos style/art vs. craft, part 1

Sorry about changing things up on you guys at the last minute, but it had to be done. While I do want to discuss Peter Voulkos's early work today, as originally planned, I decided that there was just too much to show and tell about Voulkos's aesthetic and his body of work from the 1950s and 60s to limit it to just one measly week. So, the next two weeks will now be about the Peter Voulkos style and that great big contested realm of art vs. craft, with week 4 still about Voulkos' work in bronze. But enough of the technicalities, let's move on to the good stuff.

Peter Voulkos pot. Courtesy of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.

As I mentioned last week, Peter Voulkos began as a painter, but once he started working with clay in college, he realized that he had found his true passion. The late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as a period of experimentation for Voulkos. He was still relatively new to clay, but was already establishing a reputation for himself, producing award-winning utilitarian pottery that was larger than the average pot, but which still retained all of the semblance and functionality associated with the form (the image above and below are great examples of this).[1] Voulkos knew that he wanted to work big, and he knew that he wanted to incorporate aspects of painting and collage into his work, but he was still focused on the idea that ceramics had to imply functionality.

Peter Voulkos, Jar, 1956.[2]

It was in the late 1950s that Voulkos established what would become his prefered mode of creation. Instead of merely throwing massive amounts of pots, which he certainly continued to do, utilizing around a ton of clay a week, Voulkos then began to take these forms apart, reworking the pieces into new forms.[3] Marcia and Tom Manhart describe this process in their book The Eloquent Object:

His massive scale was unprecedented, as was his method of constructing. The works are made of separate, usually wheel-thrown, parts which are paddled, compressed and assembled around an inner armature of thrown cylinders – a technique that can sustain size and mass that defy the limitations of the medium.[4]

This process allowed Voulkos to create new ceramic forms that, while coming out of the tradition of wheel-thrown ceramics, had a completely new look and feel to them. As you can imagine, these new forms, retaining the semblance of a utilitarian object yet lacking functionality, caused quite a stir in the art world.

Peter Voulkos in Glendale Boulevard studio, Los Angeles, surrounded by (from left to right) Little Big Horn, Solano. Black Bulerias, and Sitting Bull, ca. 1959. [5]

Take a look at those giants! The image above shows Voulkos with 4 of his works in his studio, and you can really see the types of work that Voulkos was creating. And with these huge sculptural forms came the inevitable debate about art vs. craft. Because these works couldn't possibly be considered craft object, could they? They lack the functionality that traditionally defined craft, but they were created utilizing traditional craft materials and skills, so they couldn't possibly be considered art could they? Trust me when I say that this is a bit of a never-ending debate, but it was certainly on the forefront of people's minds during this time.

Beginning in the late 1950s, partially as a result of the intellectualization of craft that was occurring at the time, but spurred on by the work of Voulkos, among many others, craft was beginning to be elevated to the status of art. This was the time of the American studio craft movement, and there were a lot of artists, craftsmen and designers who were pushing the boundaries of their chosen media. This elevation of craft was furthered by such important figures of the time as Rose Slivka, writer and editor of the magazine Craft Horizons and intimate of many New York based artists, who would later go on to become Voulkos’s primary biographer, and John Coplans, a painter, educator, and editor for Artform.[6] Both of these individuals compared Voulkos to the Abstract Expressionalist painters and sculptors of the time, stating that those individuals who were working in craft media outside of the traditional sphere of functional objects were just as artistically important as fine artists.[7]

Peter Voulkos, Camelback Mountain, 1959. Stoneware. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This issue gained new prominence through the article “The New Ceramic Presence,” written by Slivka in issue 4, 1961, of Craft Horizons, in which she discusses the work of Voulkos, his students, and others like him, comparing their new interpretation of traditional ceramics through sculptural-based forms, to that of the Abstract Expressionist painters.[8] Slivka states:

It is corollary that the potter today treats clay as if it were paint. A fusion of the act and attitudes of contemporary painting with the material of clay and the techniques of pottery (the potter's hand if not always his wheel is there), it has resulted in a new formal gesture that imposes on sculpture.[9]

Slivka believed that the work of artists such as Voulkos was moving more into the realm of fine art through the blurring of the lines between what could be considered ceramics, an object coming out of a craft tradition, and sculpture, an object coming out of a fine arts tradition. Slivka called for a new way of looking at ceramics, one that takes into consideration both the craft traditions out of which it is based as well as the new sculptural and painterly aesthetic with which artists such as Voulkos were aligning themselves during this time.[10]

[1] Edward Lebow, “The Art of Peter Voulkos,” American Craft 56, no. 1 (February/March, 1996): 35.

[2] Rose Slivka and Karen Tsujumoto, The Art of Peter Voulkos, (NY: Kodansha America, Inc., 1995). Published in conjunction with the exhibition “The Art of Peter Voulkos” shown at the Oakland Museum, Newport Harbor Art Museum, and the American Craft Museum, 39.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] Marcia Manhart and Tom Manhart, eds., The Eloquent Object: The Evolution of American Art In Craft Media Since 1945, With coordinating editor Carol Haralson, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), 25.

[5] Rose Slivka and Karen Tsujumoto, The Art of Peter Voulkos, (NY: Kodansha America, Inc., 1995). Published in conjunction with the exhibition “The Art of Peter Voulkos” shown at the Oakland Museum, Newport Harbor Art Museum, and the American Craft Museum, 12.

[6] Garth Clark, “The Voulkos Revolution: Part II, Berkeley, 1960s and Beyond,” Ceramics, no. 50 (2002): 31.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 31.

[9] Rose Slivka, “The New Ceramic Presence,” Craft Horizons 21, no. 4 (July/August 1961): 34.

[10] Ibid., 36.

1 comment:

  1. his work is exceptional that is why i am doing my research project on him an his life. can anyone tell me what his "style" was and the time period he worked in?


Thanks for your comments - they mean the world to me!