Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years @ MAD

“Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years is the first exhibition to focus on the early career of Peter Voulkos, whose radical methods and ideas during this period opened up the possibilities for clay in ways that are still being felt today.”

A chance encounter with the work of an artist I had never heard of before – highly popular in this part of the world, less so in Europe it seems. Following a quick research, I now know that he was an American of Greek descent (as his name suggests), whose parents had migrated to Bozeman, Montana where he was born. He served in the U.S. Army during WWII and studied painting and printmaking in Montana State University where he was also introduced to ceramics. He died in 2002 doing what he loved best: demonstrating his skill to a live audience.

“Commissions for large-scale works in bronze occupied a good deal of Voulkos’ time in the early 1960s, but he continued to work in clay energetically and innovatively. Many of his ceramic works of this period were made in public demonstrations. Voulkos was a natural performer who loved working in front of a crowd. One observer who saw him make Josephine at Greenwich House Pottery in New York, remembers how ”he worked with total abandon and total focus all at the same time”, first pounding the piece as it rose on the wheel then slicing it in half, then welding it together with wet clay as he worked it with his fists from the inside, and finally splashing its surface with slip and glaze.

Voulkos’ demonstrations were great theater, and even the ceramic works that he was making in the studio at this time, such as a series of cracked and fissured plates, capture this sense of immediacy. They can be compared with contemporary Abstract Expressionist paintings, many of which project a similar, stereotypically masculine combination of authority and aggression. Yet Voulkos’ improvisations also relate to his interest in jazz and Spanish flamenco, which he played proficiently on the guitar. ”I think that working in the form of pottery is a very demanding thing” he said. ”The minute you touch a piece of clay it responds, it’s like music – you have to know all the structure and know how to make sound before you can come up with anything”.”

Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years was on show until March 15th, 2017 at 

The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD)
2, Columbus Circle
New York City

March 12th, 2017