Birth of a Legend

Birth of a Legend

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Peter Voulkos’s 1957 vase decorated with a “slip stencil” technique. Photo/Schopplein Studio.

Braunstein/Quay Gallery
Peter Voulkos - The Montana, Los Angeles, & Berkeley Years: 1950-70s
San Francisco, California
January 22 - February 21, 2009

It is more than 60 years since Peter Voulkos (1924-2002) became "hooked on clay" taking a required pottery class as a G.I. Bill student at Montana State University, from which he graduated in 1951. It did not take long for him to move from a mastery of clay as a purely functional medium, which he perfected in college and carried over into his stint at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana, where, with Rudy Autio, he established a ceramics workshop in 1952, to a pronounced segue from production pottery into abstract expressionism in Los Angeles, where he headed the new ceramics department at Otis Art Institute (1954-58) and, with a cohort of students and fellow artists, brought about a "revolution in clay."

Voulkos's role as father of the contemporary American ceramics movement was consolidated at the University of California, Berkeley (1959-1985), where he created ever more original sculptural works and influenced several generations of students.

Following the trajectory of Voulkos's early career, this survey of his work includes high-quality functional pieces such as a 1950s glazed stoneware bowl from the Montana period; a 1957 vase decorated with a "slip stencil" technique and an experimental 1959 stoneware sculpture adorned with slips and glazes, both done at Otis; and several examples of what became a signature form, his Stack pieces- Anaqua, and Ukam, both 1968, and Untitled Stack, 1974, all made while he was teaching at Berkeley.

Though Voulkos's work as it developed grew increasingly large, two diminutive works in the show- Cup #1 and Cup # 2 -each four inches high with slashed surfaces and expressionist glazes, are intriguing in their foreshadowing of larger sculptural works to come.

In the decades beyond the scope of this exhibition, Voulkos continued to make art of a high order, mostly in ceramics but in other media as well, and was showered with honors and awards and exhibitions across the country and internationally. Though he was ultimately best known as a ceramic sculptor, Voulkos never lost the connection to pottery making-he died while on the road for a two-week workshop at a university, the last of the bravura demonstrations he relished all his life.

As this show so clearly proves with its stellar examples, the course of a career lasting more than a half-century was firmly limned within its first two decades.

A related show, "Voulkos 101: A Survey Exhibition," is at the Art Gallery, Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, California, from January 26-March 20. Curated by Sam Jornlin, who maintains the Voulkos & Co. Catalogue Project, the exhibition emphasizes the crucial educational aspects of Voulkos's career.