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. 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 recounts: “I began to know a lot of other artists there, like painters and sculptors--that was very important to me... [Cedar Tavern] was the watering hole, that's where I would run into all those guys. Franz Kline, he had a stool at the end of the bar...I went to his studio, he invited me up..." After these encounters, Voulkos taught at L.A. 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.
The present lot, executed right as Voulkos discovered his unique voice, is an excellent example of his fine art practice. The sculpture references a vase in its general form, but is clearly sculptural from every side. In order to fully understand and see the sculpture, a viewer must circle around it. This fact is enhanced by Voulkos’ painting technique. He applies different glaze tones to the sculpture in a manner that does not follow the form, but instead subverts the purpose of glazing, which is usually to decorate or enhance the underlying form. Here, the form is simply a blank canvas for the artist to apply paint to, in certain areas choosing to harmonize with the form, in others deciding to clash and cause tension. Voulkos talked to Rose Slivka about the use of color in his work: “I brush color on to violate the form, and it comes out a complete new thing, which involves a painting concept on a three-dimensional surface, a new idea.”
Voulkos’ artistic output piqued the interest of Peter Selz, the Curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1960, he invited Voulkos to exhibit six of his paintings alongside a number of his sculptures as part of the New Talent series, one man exhibitions that the museum had been offering since 1950 to artists who had not yet had solo exhibitions in New York. Voulkos used this opportunity to illustrate the connection between painting, the classic example of fine-art, and ceramics. In the press release for the exhibition, the description of the paintings and sculptures begin to fuse together, foregrounding the way in which the artist could use both painting and ceramics to explore purely formal interests such as texture and color:
"The ceramist's interest in natural textures is pronounced in Voulkos’ paintings as well as his sculpture. The six paintings, which range in size from the 35 x 32" Moving White to the 6 l/2 x 9’ Blue through Black, are of oil, vinyl, lacquer and sand. The paint is thickly applied creating ceramic-like surfaces. Occasionally, as in Red Edge, Voulkos extends the composition over the edge of the painting and strip frame, to produce the effect of a relief. The massive 4 to 5 l/2’ high sculptures are organically evocative forms of fired clay. Colored glazes are applied to some."
After his show at MoMA, the artist spent the summers of 1960-1962, and 1964 in New York teaching and creating work at the famed Greenwich House Pottery and Columbia University. The present lot was acquired by Greenwich House Pottery and remained in the institution’s possession for many years. The institution itself has a storied history. Greenwich House started in 1902 when Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch along with well-known social activist Jacob Riis and other social reformers came together and incorporated the Greenwich House settlement. Its mission was to improve the living conditions among the predominately immigrant population in Greenwich Village, at that time New York's most congested neighborhood. Greenwich House created the city’s first neighborhood association and in 1916 was able to convince the government to zone the Village as a residential district. Over the years, Greenwich House provided art classes to the area’s residents, a tradition that continues even today.
The present lot not only captures a very important moment in Voulkos’ career, when the artist brought ceramics into the realm of fine art, but also, through its provenance, shows his moral commitment to the city that gave him an exhibition in one of its most prestigious institutions.