When Peter Voulkos (1924-2002) was an undergraduate ceramics major at Montana State University in the late 1940». the students dug and processed their own day and developed their own glazes. The necessity of this entirely do-it-yourself approach may seem remote now. but ceramics, like many of the traditional crafts, had been largely displaced by-the industrial revolution.
In la» Angeles, where Voulkos would establish his mature practice, dsc arcJretypil potters tool—the wheel—was largely unknown for much of rise twentieth century, and throwing on the wheel became widespread only in the laic 1940s. 1 In addition, casy-to-manipulatc. low-fire earthenware was favored over more exacting stoneware, and even high-firc kilns were extremely scarec. Consequently. Voulkos was part of a generation that was more rediscovering the craft of ceramics than working tradition. Part of this rediscovery consisted in an engagement with both Faun pea n and Asian ceramists who either relocated to or toured the United States at midcentury.
These foreign porters enunciated definite prescriptions for American ceramics, and competing notions of tlc nature of time in ceramics were central to their saricd programs. This emphases made ceramics temporality a fundamental isnic for potters like Voulkos who emerged in the 19508. Engjish potter Bernard leach came to the United States twice in the early 1950s, the second time with his Japanese associates front the nrfngri movement, the peat ceramist Shoji Haiuidt and the philosopher Soctsu Yanap and Voulkos I sot ted the three visitors for an extended work shop in Montana in 1952. leach’s teaching, mingling his own arul nangri ideas, proposed what Oliver Watson, curator of ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has called the “ethical pot”: a vessel rooted in simplicity ansi hmct ton. – In his influential publication Pottrri Book.
Leach Lad out principles for the ethical ptxtcr. which are found in “the me so far as possible of natural materials in the endeavor to obtain the best quality of body and pfuc, in throwing and in a striving towards unity, spontaneity, and simplicity of form, and in general [in] tlte subordi nation of ail attempts at technical dcvcmcss to straightforward, untdf????’sous workmanship. Tlx spontaneity leach called for was directly derived front the irregularities and imper fections of Japanese ceramics. Through rigorous training and discipline. Japanese ceramets allowed chance to enter into tire look of’ the finished object.
This encouragement of the accidental—small cracks in the body, bubbles or blotdtcs in tltc glazed surface—is related to a particular, holistic view of time. The mirtgrt potter Hamada indicated the absence of a (elm. or definite end state, in his pottery. l‘m not interested in results. I’m just interested in going on. ‘ Hamada meant that the finished pot could not be nude to resemble any precon ceived idea of it.
Use vessel needed to take form in a manner that allowed its maker to be acutely aware of tire particularities of tire time and space in which he or she worked. Thus the pot w-as not a projection of an ideal hut an object (hat came into existence through an openness to temporality and contingency. Both Lcachsand Hamadas practices stressed process over product and perception over coocrprion. This shift to an art tlut insists on the primacy of perception was taken up by Voulkos and became the dominant strain among Los Angeles-based potters in the 1950s. If lxrach and the mingri movement idea of time w its holistic.
Marguerite Wildcnhain can best be described as organic. Wildcnhain had studied from 1919 to 1926 at the Bauhatis, where the teaching in ceramics privileged form over color and stressed a strict util itarianism. Wildcnhain» influence on American ceramics, particularly California ceramics, w-as moat pronounced through her reaching. Ar? immigrated to the United States in 1940 and was first affiliated with tire California College of Arts and Crafts (now tire California College of Arts) before setting up her pottery at Pond Farm in Cucmcvillc.
California, in 1942. Voulkos hosted her for an intensive five-week workshop in Montana in 1953. Wildcnhain instilled in her students ihc Bauhaus dictum of Tmth to materials. ” In 1?? ease, this was an insistence that successful ceramics respect the essential properties of the medium as wdl as aim for a seamless integration of form and function. Richard Peterson, head of Scripps College’s ceramics department in Q arc mom. California sointsour that Wildcnhain» pot-making was an ancmpc.
from a very different perspective than that of nfngri to merge craft with ruture: “Everything sire slid was an object lesson in the inte gration of pottery with Nature clay bodies infused with her glares to become one. This integration of pottery with Nature meant that, for Wildcnhain. ceramic creation was an organic progression of throw ing, glazing, firing, as if these were bound together in a seamless evolution. Wildcnhain believed that through a profound understand ing of the properties of tlx- clay and the effects of the wheel’s consistent ccntnpctal force, she could create pots that more emerged than were manipulated into bong. In the forma tion of Wildcnhain’s day bodies, ceramics time is a natural, tclcoksgjcal or purposeful flow that reduces as much as pos sible happenstance and irregularity It is unquestionable tlut Voulkos learned a great deal from his encounters with Leach. Hamada.
and Wildcnhain. Frances Senska. Voulkos’» tcaclxr at Montana State, even commented tlut “sometimes, what you watdt Pete throw, you can see Marguerite Wildcnhain. “‘ Nevertheless, Voulkos ultimately proposed a fundamentally different view of ceramics time. In the mid-1950». when lie had relocated to la» Angeles, Voulkos and other |sorters aoociatcd with tlte Otis An Institute—induding John Mason.
Paul Soldncr. Ken Price, and Henry Takemoto—reeducated themselves in basic ccram ics manufacture, beginning with a deliberate attempt to negax some of the refinement that charnctcrbcd the work of leach. Hamada. and Wildcnhain. A first experiment was to greatly accelerate the established practise.
“W’c used to have contests to see who could throw the fastest teapot. ” Voulkos remembered. “W’c trial to nuke a teapot in two minutes complete—throw it on tlx wheel, nuke a lid. a spout, real fast. .
. . Had some of the weirdest-looking teapots you ever saw, some of them fan tastically good. -*’ Speed was a method to test how far one coukl push materials and traditional modes of ceramic production while still producing recognizable pot forms. IX-spite such innovative exercises, by 1955 Voulkos was unutisficd with the a-ramics he was producing. He spent that summer in Monuiu and returned to Los Angeles in the hill with works that were distinctly combination forms, assemblages of separate wheel-thrown dements.
A characteristic work is UntitUtl. a pot of about 1956 that comprises three or four different forms joined together. The ssork coalesces around a central thrown cylinder, the only visible part of which is a base with a slashed cutout. Hand-formed slabs of day were roughly added to the thrown element, creating two distinct boxlike volunscs in the center.
The top of the piece was thrown separately and then slip-welded to two of the slabs to produce a flat vhclflikc pedestal. The* pieces transform an organic method—traditional wheel-throwing, in which clay is given form as it spins on the svhed—into a series of frag mental tasks that must be performed one after another. In the large-scale ceramics for which Voulkos became famous in the later 1950s-—works created from hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds of clay—he extended the lessons of’ his earlier multipart assemblages into a series of step-by-step procedures: throwing. forming, joining, building, painting, firing (and sometimes repainting and retiring).
Instead of the holistic process advocated by mingri or Wildcnhain organic growth. Voulkos substituted a temporality more akin to the assembly line. To work on such an enormous scale. Voulkos botrowed from architecture a method in which large, but of ten unseen, cylinders thrown on the wheel supply the inner engineering against which additional cyl inders arc balanced or cantilcvcrcd. Next Voulkos augmented these cylinders—as in Hi. uk Hultrias—with a small repertoire of slab dements that were formed by striking the clay with the flat side of a paddle and manipulating it by luitd until the slabs lost the symmetry that characterizes wheel-thrown ceramics.
To avoid collapse during constmctinn. the pieces needed to bub nee in rime as well as space opposing states and qualities of city. Voulkos described the challenges to stability tlut his process posed:7he larger tin starting mound ofclay, dte safer it has to be, to the morr water it contains. 7hatmeant the drying time longer until it got to the leathery state and could handle it, push it.
pull it. find my reach and Ma. Knowing when theformed day hat dried enough—cured to justthe rigfst leathery consistency, hard enough to it does not collapse but still soft enough to be mal-leable. able to widntand more handling plies the ? eight of more day forms—is crucial If the water content is too high-stack or cylinder will collapse in on itsdf.
but if it is too dry. it become brittle and fait to pieces. Once the day was tlc right consistency, Voulkos needed to work rapidly on individual sections, and it was essential that he work both the inner structure and the adjoining outer form simultaneously, because if one dried out before the other, tlscy would not adhere. The resulting work* transformed ceramics temporality rax only in terms of production but also in terms of reception.
In Unit Big Horn, slabs jut out from the structural core, par tially visible through cracks in the superstructure, to form a series of faceted planes. In thdr lack of a continuous outline, these plane* break ccxnpktdy with the lumtonksu structure of earlier ceramics. It ? impossible to extrapolate any section on the basis of any other section, even if the two sections form adjoining planes. This disjunction is magnified by Voulkos’s treatment of the surface. He handk-d clay as if it were paint, cithci as a watery dip that can be dripped, poured, or splattered across tlx surface or. in larger areas, as a field that cm he scraped down or built up for textural or coloristic effect.
Glares were applied to magnify these effects. Unit Htg Horn has broad fields that are richly colored: a deep blue, for instance, makes one section on the right-hand side scent utterly flat. The plane adjacent to the left, splattered with a white slip, jutforward, making it appear unconnected to the flat blue and without any means of support. Unlike the ceramics of leach. Hamada. ot Wildcnhain, which in their adherence to traditional conceptions arc more readily comprdxndcd.
Voulkos’s large-scale pieces only coalesce when they ate experienced over extended tinx and from multiple viewing angles. This Is largely because they arc not conceptually cogent. Contrary to the aesthetics of the older ceramists, Voulkos’s work presents a sisual cxpcrietxc that, like the temporality of their manufacture, is not cohesive but additive and aspectual,dis-mtcgrated stacks, surfaces, and moments never coming together into a unified whole.