Images top to bottom:


Peter Voulkos jurying ceramics submitted for consideration in the 1964 Fiber-Clay-Metal exhibition at the Saint Paul Art Center.


Peter Voulkos throwing his entire body into throwing pots, about 1980.


Peter Voulkos. Left: Bull Bottle, 1952, glazed stoneware. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art, Acquisition Fund Purchase, 1952. Right: Vase, 1958, glazed stoneware. Acquisition Fund Purchase, 1960.

January 2014


“Technique is nothing if you have nothing to say.”
– Peter Voulkos

When attempting to describe the impact that the ceramic artist Peter Voulkos (1924–2002) had on the field, superlatives such as “the hero of American ceramics” and “revolutionary” are not misplaced. The fearless visionary exploded the confines of what was possible with the clay medium, which was never the same again. His ceramics bridged the gap between the potter’s wheel and slab construction, and between craft and fine art.


In 1953, Voulkos’s art underwent a dramatic shift. That summer, Voulkos taught ceramics at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where experimentation across disciplines was encouraged. (Warren MacKenzie was also in residence that summer.) That same year, he was introduced to Abstract Expressionist painters Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, whose bold, gestural style of so-called action painting suggested a new way of working with clay. Voulkos would later observe, “Clay is just thick paint, and paint is nothing but thin clay.” Following the abstract expressionists’ example, the brawny and energetic artist brought his whole body into the activity of making. Voulkos hurled, punched, ripped, scraped, poked, and wrestled huge piles of wet stoneware into sculptural forms that could not be further from the elegant and functional earthenware he had been making prior to his “awakening.”


OBJECTS: MMAA features an example of Voulkos’s early work, Bull Bottle from 1952. Seen next to Vase from 1958, which was a part of the recent touring exhibition Our Treasures: Highlights from the Minnesota Museum of American Art, the distinction between “before” and “after” is clear. Voulkos wanted to get away from making an object such as the one on the left, a timeless and inert structure that revealed nothing of its making, or the direction that his art would take. Voulkos’s new works strove to be records of events or happenings where every stage in the shaping and construction of forms scarred the surface.

Voulkos went on to have a long career as a teacher, inspiring generations of young artists. He established a new ceramics department at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis) in 1954, and again at the University of California, Berkeley in 1959, where he remained until his retirement in 1985. Students were in awe of his powerful presence in the classroom, but rather than being intimidated by the vigor with which he approached his art, they felt liberated to break the rules themselves. Ceramic artist Ken Price recalled, “The way he taught was just to come into the studio, and he approached making work by a method I call ‘direct frontal onslaught.’ Some people thought they were pretty good before they got there, but when we saw him, he just blew our minds. I learned to work from watching him.” Voulkos embodied the genuinely free creative spirit who followed his own way, and it is heartening to learn that even brightly burning stars have humble beginnings, in his case, the humble pot.


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