Peter Voulkos

Tuesday 26 February 2002 01:00

Panagiotis (Peter) Harry Voulkos, ceramic artist: born Bozeman, Montana 29 January 1924; married first Peggy Cone (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Ann Adair (one son); died Bowling Green, Ohio 16 February 2002.

Peter Voulkos was one of the central figures working in ceramics in the United States after the Second World War. He transformed the craft of pottery into an art.

After setting out as a studio potter making high-quality, well- designed tableware, Voulkos was inspired by the powerful concepts of the abstract expressionist painters in the early Fifties. Deciding that ceramics needed "a kick in the pants", he started to build large, vibrant, craggy and anything but polite vessel forms on the wheel that incorporated different wheel-thrown components. His work in clay remained vessel-based, whether tall, soaring stack forms or flattened platters with scored or torn markings. He enjoyed an anarchic reputation, both for his use of clay as a medium of artistic expression, and for his assertive, extrovert manner.

There was little in his early years to indicate the rebel. The third of five children born to Greek immigrant parents, Voulkos left Bozeman, his home town, at the age of 18 to work for the Western Foundry Company, in Oregon, helping to fabricate the floor moulds for engine castings used on American Liberty ships.

During the war he served in the Pacific as an airline gunner. After the war as a student at Montana State College he started out as a painter, fascinated by the spontaneity and emotional power of painters such as Van Gogh and Cézanne. He become interested in clay only in his final year at college when studying ceramics as a requirement for graduation and was immediately taken by its plastic, tactile qualities, and virtually abandoned painting.

Mesmerised by the way clay offered "instant" possibilities, he approached it with the sensibilities of a painter rather than an artisan. His early conventional pots were as much three-dimensional drawings in space with a surface for mark-making as they were containers. Through clay Voulkos sought to explore the history of humankind. On one occasion, as a student, after seeing a picture of a rice bottle he threw its shape on the wheel some 10 times larger than the original, a physical and metaphorical coming to terms with the visual rather than functional qualities of form.

Following postgraduate study at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Voulkos worked at a brick factory run by Archie Bray in Helena, Montana (later known as the Archie Bray Foundation), where he set up a small studio making pots and firing beehive brick kilns. The production of well-thrown and -designed pots also helped sell more bricks, and the studio attracted visitors, including, in 1952, the potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, and the Japanese craft critic Soetsu Yanagi. During one demonstration Voulkos kicked the wheel while Hamada threw pots. While not particularly inspired by Leach or Hamada's pots, he was impressed by their discussion of Eastern philosophies and the idea that accidents often yield greater vitality than perfect control. Voulkos is credited with imbuing the Archie Bray studio with the aura of legend because of his energy and the quality of his production pottery.

During a summer teaching at the Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, he worked alongside avant-garde artists such as Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg and the composer John Cage. These contacts provided introductions for a later visit to New York, where he met abstract expressionist artists including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and in the American spirit of spontaneity and improvisation started to translate expressionist ideas into ceramics.

His highly physical contact with clay involved beating, punching, tearing, scraping and gouging, to create visual objects that owed little to convention. Concerned with form and mass, Voulkos worked on a large scale, with some pieces soaring 7ft high, firing them in specially constructed kilns. In 1960 his pieces were exhibited to great acclaim at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and a year later at the Seattle World's Fair. Voulkos's ceramics were part of a new, radical movement within ceramics, of which he was its unacknowledged leader.

As a lecturer at what was to become the Otis Art Institute and later at the University of California, Voulkos was as unconventional in his approach as he was in his ceramics. In the open, experimental atmosphere, in which student and teacher learned together, students had to learn to throw on the kick rather than the electric wheel to struggle with clay and discover the rhythm of making. They were encouraged to tackle huge lumps of clay and push the material to its limits.

He was joined by some of the most talented young artists in the country, including Paul Soldner, Ken Price, Michael Frimkess and many others, all of whom were to establish their own highly individual voices. Voulkos, however, remained the catalyst, a central and inspirational figure.

In the late 1960s Voulkos turned his attention to bronze, continuing the revolution he had started in clay, but interpreting it in metal. Clay was used for the model, and the forms were a continuation of the free, spontaneous use of the material, stacking, wedging and pounding it into forms with hollow interiors but removing the foot and closing in the top. Some were tall and craggy, others plate-like with surface markings.

The relation of the bronzes to clay was intensified by the use of patina surfaces that echoed the finish of ceramics. Like the ceramic pieces, the sculptures have mysterious, shamonistic qualities reflecting his interest in Far Eastern religions. Later he produced large metal sculptures incorporating pre-cast hollow tubes, but these rarely carry the same conviction.

Addiction to drink and narcotics took its toll on Voulkos, and for a time he was unable to work but, rehabilitated, he returned to clay, making tall, soaring stacks, his rock-like "ice-buckets", and platter forms. Prolific, with a passionately obsessive approach to work and a unique ability to handle clay, he produced objects that fed the mind as well as the body, his virile images having, as Dore Ashton wrote, "the dynamic rhythms of dance".

Emmanuel Cooper

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