Peter Voulkos, Cross, 1959. Museum of Arts and Design, gift of the Johnson Wax Company, through the American Craft Council, 1977. Photo: Ed Watkins. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.
The Museum of Arts and Design presents Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years, on view from October 18, 2016, through March 15, 2017. Spanning the years 1953–1968, the exhibition is the first to focus exclusively on the early career of Peter Voulkos, whose radical techniques and ideas opened up new possibilities for clay that are still being felt today.
In the words of Glenn Adamson, the co-curator of the exhibition, "Nearly everyone involved in ceramic art has a Voulkos story to tell. He was a charismatic figure, and his influence was tremendously important for the history of the medium. This exhibition gets past the personality, and follows the progression of his ideas in this crucial period of his career. It is fascinating to see him wrestling his materials into new forms, producing one breakthrough moment after another."
Initially trained as a traditional potter, Voulkos defied mid-century craft dictums of proper technique and form to completely reinvent clay as a medium. He combined wheel throwing with slab building, traditional glazes with epoxy paint, figuration with abstraction, and made huge sculptural structures with complex internal engineering. Rocking Pot, an iconic early example, is a massive upside-down bowl punctured with saber-like forms penetrating the exterior walls. Intentionally kinetic, the sculpture is a mockery of the rule that properly made ceramics should never rock on a flat surface.
Though Voulkos would continue to work in bronze, paint, and printmaking for the remainder of his career, ceramics was the medium he always found the most instinctive: "Now me and a ball of clay, we'll get together and it's perfect," he once said. "I almost feel I could take a pile of rough sand and make a pot out of it." The exhibition will feature approximately 30 examples from this crucial body of early work in ceramic, most of which have not been exhibited on the East Coast for four decades. Also included will be three of the artist's rarely seen mixed-media paintings, which help to demonstrate how Voulkos developed his ideas concurrently in painting, sculpture, and pottery.
Voulkos is a central figure in the history of MAD, featured in numerous past exhibitions, including two monographic surveys, and an exemplar of the cross-disciplinary thinking that the Museum supports. Both the exhibition and accompanying scholarly catalogue provide a detailed account of the breakthrough works from Voulkos' vital period of experimentation.
Exhibition highlights include:
• Standing Jar (c. 1956), which reflects Voulkos' interest in contemporary painters such as Jack Tworkov and Franz Kline. Thick strips of clay act as three-dimensional brushstrokes and colored drips are allowed to trickle downward. The combination of thrown and slab-built elements soon became a cornerstone of Voulkos' working practice.
• Rocking Pot (1956), an iconic example of the artist's "pot assemblages," now in the collection of the Renwick Gallery. Voulkos' colleague John Mason coined this term to describe works that Voulkos assembled and joined after first throwing them on the wheel and then pounding them out of the round, improvising as he went. A massive upside-down bowl with cutout holes and saber-like forms that penetrate the exterior walls, the sculpture is notionally kinetic, fitted with two tapered skids, a mockery of the rule that properly made ceramics should never rock on a flat surface.
• Sitting Bull (1959), Little Big Horn (1959), and Tientos (1959), complex amalgamations of wheel-thrown and slab forms that have been paddled, gouged, or cut open. These three works, borrowed from prominent West Coast museums, represent the monumental height of Voulkos' achievement in his breakthrough period.
• The iconic Cross (1959), the Museum of Arts and Design's most important work by the artist. Voulkos energetically addressed the surface of this totemic sculpture by scratching through slips and glazes and using unexpectedly bright colors.
• The rocket-like Red River (c. 1960), which was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art shortly after it was made. For Voulkos, painting and sculpture were always in dialogue, and in 1960 he began making this connection more explicit by adding epoxy-based paint to the surfaces of his ceramics after they had been fired. This was a highly unorthodox maneuver by ceramics standards, but it helped him to achieve some of his most complex relationships between volume and surface composition.
• A group of Voulkos' 1968 blackwares, which marked a return to monumental pot forms and an emphasis on tactility. These works made for a dramatic finale to his breakthrough years, and are reunited for the first time since their initial presentation.
Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years is co-curated by Glenn Adamson, former Nanette L. Laitman Director of the Museum of Arts and Design, and Andrew Perchuk, Deputy Director of the Getty Research Institute, with Barbara Paris Gifford, Assistant Curator at MAD.
Following its run at MAD, Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years will be on view at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, from April 7 through August 20, 2017.
Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years is part of MAD Transformations, a series of six exhibitions presented this fall that address artists who have transformed and continue to transform our perceptions of traditional craft mediums. The MAD Transformations exhibitions consider fiber, clay, and jewelry and metals—disciplines (along with glass and wood) that compose the bedrock of the Museum's founding mission and collection, and that continue to morph in the hands of contemporary artists today.