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Voulkos, Peter

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International Institute of Experimental Printmaking, Experimental Printmaking, Garner Tullis Workshop, Garner Tullis New York

Peter Voulkos

Peter Voulkos
(29 January 1924 – 16 February 2002)
Pete and my father were the best of friends from the Sixties until they both departed. I was lucky enough to have access into the Dome Studio and also his home on the tracks.

Born in 1924 to Greek immigrant parents in the town of Bozeman, Montana, Peter Voulkos is one of America’s most significant sculptors of the 20th century. Voulkos got his start in art in the late 1940s, when he was studying at Montana State College, Bozeman on the G.I. Bill, after being drafted and serving as an airplane armorer-gunner in the Pacific in World War II. In classes with Frances Senska, he discovered ceramics, the medium that would characterize his career. After graduating from Montana State College, Bozeman in 1951, Voulkos moved west and earned his MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California.

Returning to Montana after graduation, Voulkos attracted attention “as a prodigious natural potter and a producer of elegantly thrown functional earthenware,” according to Roberta Smith for the New York Times. He also produced dinnerware to sell through high-quality stores, and was noted for his wax-resist method of decoration.Voulkos gained a reputation as a master of ceramics techniques, winning twenty-nine prizes and awards from 1949 through 1955. However, a summer spent teaching at the experimental Black Mountain College (he was invited to teach at BMC by Karen Karnes) near Asheville, North Carolina in 1953 resulted in a dramatic shift in Voulkos’s artistic priorities, as well as his aesthetic. It was at Black Mountain College that Voulkos met Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Charles Olson. He then visited New York City (as a guest of pianist David Tudor and Mary Catherine Richards) and encountered Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline—Abstract Expressionist painters who influenced the new direction Voulkos would go on to pursue.

In 1954, Voulkos was invited to teach at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis), and he established a new ceramics department and graduate program that attracted other young artists including John Mason, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston and Paul Soldner. It was here that, inspired by the scale and spontaneity of the New York School, Voulkos began to build progressively larger works that cast aside utility and abandoned ceramic conventions. Decoration became aggressive, as he slashed at and pierced the clay, which he then energetically painted with glaze. Peter Voulkos exhibited these new works in shows at the Landau Gallery in Los Angeles, which announced to the world a new way of approaching ceramics.

Disagreements with the more conservative administrators of the LA County Art Institute led to Voulkos’s departure for the University of California, Berkeley, in 1959. While at Berkeley, Voulkos experimented with bronze and produced large-scale bronze sculpture, while continuing his ceramic work and doing demonstrations of ceramics throughout the U.S. In 1979, a young ceramist named Peter Callas constructed the first Japanese wood fire kiln in the United States and Voulkos experimented with it, creating works that exploited the spontaneity of the process. The artist retired from his teaching position at Berkeley in 1985, and began working full-time on his own projects. If anything, his creativity and productivity seemed to accelerate in his later years, as he focused on clay and later, bronze.

The influence of Peter Voulkos on the field of ceramic art and sculpture is hard to overstate—Roberta Smith described the magnitude of his impact when she wrote, “few artists have changed a medium as markedly or as single-handedly as Mr. Voulkos.” Voulkos is often credited with contributing to the demolition of the traditional hierarchies between the fine arts and craft, and the elevation of ceramics out of the decorative arts to which they had been consigned. His work as an innovator, teacher, and colleague inspired generations of ceramists to push boundaries and find liberation in their medium.

Peter Voulkos passed away on February 15th, 2002 from a heart attack. During his lifetime, he was honored with countless awards and fellowships, and has exhibited in nearly 100 solo shows around the world. His work is represented in major museum collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Oakland Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and those listed below.

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