Week 4: bronze and beyond
Peter Voulkos, Lady Remington, 1962. Bronze.
During the 1960s and 70s, at the height of his fame, Peter Voulkos began experimenting with bronze, partially due to a growing disenchanted with the limitations of clay. Basically, because his work was getting larger and more sculptural by the day, Voulkos decided that clay, as a medium, didn't make sense for him anymore. His ceramic pieces were requiring an extensive internal armature to help support them, and so, Voulkos saw bronze sculpture as a way of extending his ideas into space. Approaching bronze in initially the same way as he had clay, Voulkos cast pieces without knowing how he would use them, and then would assemble them into forms, attempting to retain the same fluidity and playfulness that he always strove for with his ceramic pieces. Describing this process, Voulkos explains, “I keep my set up as fluid as I can so I don’t get hung up on technical kinds of things. Otherwise you start to make mistakes. You’re dealing with tons of material. The point is to make it weightless on, and in, your mind.” As this quote shows, Voulkos’s shift from ceramics to bronze sculpture was not as drastic a change as one might assume. Bronze casting allowed Voulkos the opportunity to work creatively with new groups of students and colleagues, as well as the chance to redirect his enthusiasm for his work and his creativity into a new medium. As Voulkos explains about the difference between working in clay and metal:
Clay is a very intimate material. It’s a very fast-moving material, immediately responsive to the touch, and it’s silent. When I want to work slower and I want more resistance and more noise, I turn to metal. It’s a different trip. Trying to expand the possibility of pottery and from of pottery–sometimes it gets too tough and I get too tight on it, so it’s nice to swing back to something else, to bronze.
While these bronze sculptures never gained the popularity of his ceramics, and while Voulkos switched back to working almost exclusively in ceramics by the end of the 1970s, his bronze sculptures managed to retain many of the similar aesthetic qualities to those of his ceramics, encompassing the sculptural aspects of his ceramics, yet lacking their sense of viable functionality. This inherent lack of functionality, whether perceived or real, built off of an initial utilitarian form or forms, constitutes the fundamental difference between Voulkos’s bronze sculptures and his ceramics. While the bronze sculptures clearly constitute a legitimate foray into the fine art category of sculpture due, most significantly, to the fact that bronze is an accepted sculptural medium, Voulkos’s bronze sculptures never received the same attention as his ceramics because of one fundamental difference; his ceramics constituted an inherent break away from the traditional aesthetic form of a pot, turning the pot into something more than a simple utilitarian object. His bronze sculptures, however, while capturing the same feeling of scale, spontaneity and space, are perhaps too similar to his ceramics.
Peter Voulkos, Mr. Ishi, 1969. Bronze. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California Digital Imaging Project.
By the end 1970s, however, Voulkos was already growing tired of working in bronze. A performer at heart, it was his love of demonstration and performance combined with the fact that clay a much easier medium to work with in front of a large audience that helped convince Voulkos to return to clay. Once again, Voulkos returned to creating his large ceramic forms, often doing so in front of an audience. As the Manharts describe of Voulkos’s legendary performances:
In one demonstration, he lifted without visible effort a hundred pounds of clay, centered it easily on the moving wheel and, fists inside and outside, opened it, steadily and assuredly raising the walls into a large vessel –an immense vase. He eased the wheel to a stop. Then he stood back, took wads of stiff clay, and threw them like baseballs through the vase, deforming it, holing it, tearing it…Like his work, Voulkos’s performances were shrewd and systematic attacks on all preconceived ideas of his medium.
What a show that must of been! There was clearly an energy and vitality inherent in both Voulkos’s process and work, and this aspect of showmanship just helped add to his fame.
Peter Voulkos, Untitled Stack, 1994. Bronze. Photograph by Joe Schopplein. Courtesy of the Artworks Foundry.
In 1979, Voulkos's work went through another period of change, when a young potter named Peter Callas built the first Japanese wood-burning kiln in this country (in Piermont, N.Y.), persuading Voulkos to try it. As Roberta Smith explains about this period, in her New York Times obituary of Voulkos:
The extreme unpredictability of the process -- in which temperatures could not be maintained evenly, and fire and ash frequently discolored the glazes -- dovetailed with Mr. Voulkos's love of accident and spontaneity. The resulting works -- large stacked pieces and plaquelike plates that he treated as paintings -- were his roughest and most exuberant and, in the eyes of many, his best.
Voulkos continued creating, showing his work and demonstrating until his death in 2002. While he continued to work primarily in clay, in the last few years of his life, Voulkos briefly went back to bronze, focusing more on casting his ceramic works - working their surfaces with different patinas - rather than creating more of the larger bronze sculptures of his earlier work.
 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, 76.
 Edward Lebow, “The Art of Peter Voulkos,” American Craft 56, no. 1 (February/March, 1996): 38.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 38.
 Karen Tsujumoto, “Peter Voulkos: The Wood-Fired Work,” in The Art of Peter Voulkos, ed. Rose Slivka and Karen Tsujumoto, (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, 105.
 Ibid., 103-4.
 Rose Slivka, “The Artist and His Work: Risk and Revelation,” in The Art of Peter Voulkos, ed. Rose Slivka and Karen Tsujumoto (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, 60.
 Rose Slivka and Karen Tsujumoto, eds., 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, 70, 76.
 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), 23.
 Ibid., 23.
 Roberta Smith, "Peter Voulkos, 78, a Master of Expressive Ceramics, Dies," The New York Times online http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/21/arts/peter-voulkos-78-a-master-of-expressive-ceramics-dies.html?pagewanted=all (accessed Feburary 23, 2010).