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Peter Voulkos, 78; Reinvented Ceramics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peter Voulkos, the artist who launched an American revolution in ceramic sculpture, died early Saturday morning of an apparent heart attack. He was 78.

Voulkos, who lived in Oakland, died in Bowling Green, Ohio, where he had just finished teaching a ceramics workshop at Bowling Green State University.

Voulkos was the fountainhead of a new strain in American art. When he began, pottery was considered a minor decorative art or a hobbyist’s craft. Six short years after the Montana-born artist moved to Los Angeles, however, his work was the subject of a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Working from an unassuming classroom studio in the old Los Angeles County Art Institute in 1954, Voulkos was the pivot around which an important group of ambitious young artists turned, establishing what became known as Otis Clay, the first art movement of national importance to originate in L.A.

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“Peter opened a door,” said Manhattan gallerist and ceramics historian Garth Clark, who featured Voulkos’ work in “A Century of Ceramics,” a landmark 1979 book and exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y. “He removed ceramics from the death grip of good taste, which is what the decorative arts tradition had been.”

Kenneth Price, Voulkos’ former student and today the most important direct heir to his ceramics legacy, once explained the significance of his teacher’s career. “In one way or another he influenced everyone who makes art out of clay,” Price told The Times in 1999. “He is the most important person in clay of the 20th century.” When Voulkos was hired to teach ceramics at the County Art Institute--later renamed the Otis Art Institute--by its director, Millard Sheets, in 1954, he arrived to find a classroom outfitted with little more than a table and a working sink.

Voulkos and student Paul Soldner built several prototypes of pottery kick-wheels from scratch. Soldner’s welded X-frame kick-wheel became the California classroom standard, while Voulkos’ ceramics changed the direction of the art.

The summer before, Voulkos had gone to teach a traditional ceramics course at North Carolina’s now-legendary Black Mountain College, where he worked in a heady, experimental atmosphere alongside painters Josef Albers and Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and other avant-garde artists. They provided contacts for a subsequent visit to New York City, where he met several Abstract Expressionist painters, including fellow Westerner Jackson Pollock. Back in L.A., Voulkos began to dismantle ceramic tradition.

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Without a studio of his own, he persuaded Sheets to allow him to keep the ceramics classroom open 24 hours a day. Hierarchical distinctions between teacher and students began to dissolve, replaced by camaraderie and mutual experimentation.

Few women were allowed into the boisterous ranks of the group, which centered on Voulkos, Soldner, Mac McCloud, Billy Al Bengston, Michael Frimkess, John Mason, Kenneth Price, Jerry Rothman and Henry Take- moto, many of whom would develop careers of distinction.

Typical of the raucous tenor was Voulkos’ dismissive statement as a disappointed juror at the fifth Miami National Exhibition (1957), which caused an uproar: Ceramics, he declared, needed “a kick in the pants” to pull it out of the doldrums.

“I never intended on being revolutionary,” Voulkos once insisted. “There was a certain energy around L.A. at the time, and I liked the whole milieu.”

Before L.A., Voulkos had been an award-winning potter in the traditional manner, but now he was busy kicking--and kicking hard.

In place of the traditional potter’s concern for volume and lightness, he pursued mass and weight. Rather than integrate surface decoration and form in a seamless, unified manner, he set them against one another. Asymmetry replaced symmetry. When a bowl was pierced with holes and turned upside down to stand on its thickened rim, function went out the window. Everybody else was after simplified classical beauty, so Voulkos went for ugly.

Size began to matter, too. With Mason he built a 7-foot-tall, walk-in updraft kiln--one of the largest in the country. Combining wheel-thrown and slab-built forms, he assembled sculptures as tall as a standing man.

Voulkos’ work was soon making a stir in both the sequestered world of ceramics and the larger art world. Fred Marer, a Los Angeles college professor who put together a major ceramics collection now housed at Scripps College in Claremont, began collecting his work in 1955. At the International Ceramics Exhibition in Cannes, France, that year, Voulkos was the only American to win a gold medal.

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His first L.A. solo exhibition was at the Felix Landau Gallery in 1956, and the following year he was invited to participate in the first national conference of the American Craft Council. In 1958 his work was the subject of a solo show at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), and in 1959 his stoneware sculpture “5,000 Feet” was chosen for a purchase prize at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s annual survey of local artists. The sole juror was David Smith, the most important sculptor of the 1950s.

In February 1960, Voulkos had a solo exhibition in the Penthouse Gallery at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, underlining the sudden maturity of clay as an artist’s medium. Writing in the New York Times, Dore Ashton, doyenne of New York School art critics, praised the sculptures’ “virile images, ranging from boulder-like clusters to complex open-and-closed pieces that have the dynamic rhythms of dances.”

Voulkos was born Panagiotis Harry Voulkos to Greek immigrant parents on Jan. 29, 1924, in Bozeman, Mont. After graduating from high school he worked in Portland, Ore., as a molder apprentice making engine castings for ships. Drafted in 1943, he served three years in the Pacific as an airplane gunner in the Army Air Corps.

From 1946 to 1951 he studied art on the GI Bill at Montana State University. As a student he won first prize for pottery at the Montana State Fair. It was the first of many awards, which included the Rodin Prize (1959), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984), the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Assn. (1997), and honorary doctorates from four American art schools.

In 1951 Voulkos entered graduate school at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. After graduating in 1952, he and his new wife, Margaret Cone, moved to Helena, Mont., where Voulkos managed a pottery production center.

There he met Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada, historian Soetsu Yanagi and the influential English potter Bernard Leach. The expressiveness of Leach’s work would prove decisive for Voulkos’ later direction, although Leach’s commitment to traditional forms gave the young American something to push against.

With several years of skillful pottery production under his belt, Voulkos had the means to choreograph his energetic building, cutting and tearing of clay, together with a vigorous, painterly use of glazes.

One result was sculptural forms that recalled the dynamism of Abstract Expressionist painting. And, like many of his New York School compatriots, he also developed a reputation as a boisterous, demanding hard drinker, for whom the lure of Scotch and cocaine was intense.

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The revolutionary work Voulkos and his colleagues produced in Los Angeles has come to be called Otis Clay--although, ironically, a falling-out with the school’s director, Sheets, over the raucous direction of the ceramics program led to Voulkos’ firing in May 1959, before the school took the Otis name. Voulkos moved to Oakland, where he lived for the next 40 years, to teach at UC Berkeley.

In addition to ceramics, Voulkos made paintings and bronze sculptures, although they never approached the significance of his work in clay.

Voulkos is survived by his wife, Ann Adair Voulkos; their son, Aris; and a daughter, Pier, from his first marriage. A memorial service in Oakland is pending.


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