(Newport Harbor Art Museum, Orange County) At a recent lecture in connection with his current exhibition The Art of Peter Voulkos, the artist was introduced by the remark that had America, as they do in Japan, a system of selecting the country's most precious artists to be called "Living Treasures," Peter Voulkos would indeed be one. Despite a bad flu, a raspy voice, and the need for a supportive cane, the hulking 71 year old giant among artists proved, by his wry wit and peppery demeanor, and by the slides he presented, that the contributions he makes to the art field have not faltered.
The exhibition reveals the major role Voulkos played in raising conservative ceramics beyond its accepted limits to where traditional wheel-thrown, slab-built, glazed clay techniques were transformed into the fine art of Abstract Expressionist sculpture. Thus, Voulkos became, among other artistic distinctions, the leading ceramic sculptor of the 1960's, and made California a major center for experimentation with clay. Originating from the Oakland Museum and curated by Karen Tsujimoto, this is a treasure house of exquisite art, representing 35 years of work, with some 70 pieces.
There is a hint of Voulkos' traditional ceramics, but his collages, paintings, monotypes, and bronze sculpture--with the heaviest emphasis on his signature nonfunctional Plates, Stacks, and Ice Buckets--predominate. The show is called a survey and not a retrospective, as it unfortunately does not include some of Voulkos' quintessential late '50s to '60s sculpture. The art leans towards his later years, and is the first museum show to feature the wood-fired stoneware from the last 15 years.
Voulkos began, fifty years ago, a passionate love affair with ceramics, and clay continues to be his dominant medium, the vehicle of his greatest art. However, he works simultaneously, and in the same aggressive manner, with a variety of media. No matter what the medium, his art is characteristically organic, bold and free. The show demonstrates how the artist instills each medium with a unique aesthetic that maximizes its innate qualities. Consequently, there are in fact an array of different Voulkos "looks" which do not easily transfer from what he creates in one material to another.
Upon entering the gallery, the range of Voukos' ideas is immediate. One not only observes his masterful proficiency, but also his sensuous intimacy, particularly with clay, made even more real by the warm presence of his touch still seen and felt in the fired stoneware. His large, untitled Plates--not meant for eating--reference the Japanese influence Voulkos so admires, with its Zen stillness and ancient simplicity that shows off his gentler side, yet sustains a sense of heft and grandeur.
Passing Red is one of his most powerful paintings-a vast field of vinyl paint, sand and clay, a sculptured painting in the Abstract Expressionist vein. It records the days when he hobnobbed with the likes of Jackson Pollack, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, and echoes Pollack's description of Voulkos' art: "energy made visible."
Voulkos' bright collage, such as Pharaoh's Bandsaw, reveals how poetically he builds layers of torn colored paper, injecting volume into an otherwise flat surface. This work is a two-dimensional depiction of his large clay constructions. By contrast Voulkos' outdoor bronze sculpture, here limited to photographs and maquettes, are unlike his other forms. They are of shiny metal, lithe and sprawling, much like graceful machinery or spidery creatures-a complete change from his craggy, clay monoliths.
In 1954 Voulkos established the Ceramic Center at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, but his greatest influence was at UC Berkeley, where he taught from 1959 to 1989.
He was the force behind the Craft-to-Art movement, also known as the American Clay Revolution. The movement added techniques to the traditional repertoire and new terms to the ceramic vocabulary, but most importantly, a whole new perception of art emerged, one that realized the necessity of breaking barriers that separated craft from fine art. Voulkos attributes this phenomenon to America's lack of having a long and solid potting tradition, as do so many other countries.
Few restrictions meant that he and other now noted ceramic artists--John Mason, Kenneth Price and Paul Soldner--could push the throwing of a cup, plate, or bowl to new levels and open a vast territory from which pottery was previously excluded. While Voulkos' clay works are never far from traditional techniques, they look as if tradition was totally abandoned.
The transition from functionality to abstraction--constructed and glazed forms of unprecedented size and shape--inevitably brought technical problems, on which Voulkos seems to thrive. One situation was the dilemma of infusing solid Abstract Expressionist forms with vibrant Abstract Expressionist color. Rather than apply ineffective glazes, Voulkos introduced direct painting on a fired surface, treating the charred surface like a canvas. Such radical standards then have become common today in classrooms and studios all over the world.
Of greatest significance, and permeating the pores of the exhibition, is Voulkos' artistic drive and nature--the passions that lead to the creation of daring art. The Voulkos legacy is his courage to destroy any limitation inherent in traditional and technically bound ceramics in order to free himself and other artists of rigid perceptions. His strength is a willingness to smash--in the same manner he beats a clay bowl with a wooden stick--accepted concepts, techniques or imagery for the unknown and new that destruction may yield. Little Big Horn is one of the best works in the show. It exemplifies what makes Voulkos great--his courage to destroy and then elevate conventional forms and techniques. It captures his willingness to allow new possibilities to emerge, unlocking rather than sequestering clay's secrets. Isn't this reason enough to be called a Living Treasure?