Sculpting a New Tradition

An Early Masterpiece by Peter Voulkos

This work originates from a pivotal period early in Peter Voulkos’ career. In 1953, he taught at Black Mountain College where he met Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg and other abstract expressionists, and the following year he returned to Los Angeles, California where he took a position as chairman of the new ceramics department at the Otis College of Art and Design. Here, Voulkos’ practice evolved as he developed a rough, earthy style and a towering presence that was not constricted by traditional concepts of form and construction. 

Peter Voulkos in his studio on Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles, 1959.

Voulkos introduced a whole new energy to the medium and was experimenting through improvisation, deconstruction, reconstruction, and scale. In 1957, the year the present work was made, he and John Mason started a studio with the largest non-commercial kiln on the west coast and a goal of creating monumental sculptures in clay. Over the next few years Voulkos created significant large-scale, sculptural works that further elevated pottery from craft to art. Ken Price, who studied under Voulkos during this time, characterized Voulkos’ methods a “direct frontal onslaught” and indeed Voulkos’ influence extended beyond his students and started the California Clay movement.

Massive in scale, the present lot stands over 5 feet in height and the carefully stacked form features a dark, monochromatic palette that further accentuates volume. It is one of only a few known monumental works from the first year with his new studio and kiln. Leonard Edmondson acquired the work directly from Voulkos at his Glendale studio. The two artists met while teaching at Otis and were known to play cards along with John Mason, Mack McLain and others at Edmondson’s house in Pasadena. 

Fresh to the market, this work stands as an important marker of a seminal period in Voulkos’s production and is among the most coveted artworks in his influential oeuvre. 

Some evenings I create art. Sometimes I search art out. Sometimes I run into it accidentally.

Peter Voulkos

Peter Voulkos 1924–2002

Few artists can revolutionize an ancient medium, but Peter Voulkos did just that when he brought ceramics into the realm of fine art starting in the late 1950s. Born in Bozeman, Montana in 1924, he studied painting and ceramics at Montana State University and later received his MFA from California College of the Arts in Oakland. While Voulkos began his career by creating utilitarian objects such as bowls and vases that won him wide renown, he began to contemplate abstraction and other fine art principles when he spent the summer of 1953 teaching at Black Mountain College, there he met Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Josef Albers. From there, he visited New York, meeting many of the Abstract Expressionists.

Voulkos returned to California to teach at Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) from 1954 to 1959 and it was in this period that his works really began to evolve. As the decade came to a close, Voulkos moved away from creating functional items, instead morphing vase-like structures into sculpture. He slashed the clay in certain instances and aggressively applied paint to the forms like canvas. No longer content to create works that hid their process of creation, Voulkos made the very act of creation paramount to the understanding and appreciation of his work, much like the Abstract Expressionists that he had associated with.