Out of the Fire And Into The Limelight

Peter Voulkos lets the kiln have the last word on his ceramic sculpture

Strictly speaking, Peter Voulkos's clay pieces are more poetry than pottery.

His massive plates, each big as a trash-can lid, are suggestive rather than literal serving dishes. Yet, unlike poetry - an art of compression - Voulkos's pots thrive on additives. His "stacks" - or juglike vertical forms - begin as 250 pounds of basic clay shapes like cylinders and domes, thrown on a wheel. By the time Voulkos finishes attaching slabs and gobs of clay to this armature, the bulging assemblage may weigh 400 pounds (and will sell for $75,000). "More is more" would definitely be the credo of this collagist spirit trapped in a potter's body.

Sixty-one pieces by Voulkos, a ceramic sculptor who revolutionized the craft of pottery, are on display at the American Craft Museum in New York. Although works from four decades of his career are shown, the focus is on the last 15 years' production, during which Voulkos, born in Montana, fashioned idiosyncratic plates, "ice buckets," and stacks fired in a wood-burning kiln.

In 1953, Voulkos encountered Abstract Expressionist paintings by Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. His work was never the same. Claiming for pottery the same go-with-the-flow spirit of Action Painting, Voulkos embraced the principles of spontaneity and improvisation. Far from utilitarian, his pots are tactile records of the potter's emotional struggle during the process.

As the late painter Herman Cherry said, Voulkos "punches his pots." He also slits, slashes, scores, and pummels them. The resulting aesthetic transforms destructive energy into a creative force.

"King's Chamber" (1992) is a stack formed out of both deconstructive power, which fractures the clay surface, and layering, which patches what was first torn apart. We see in one vessel the opposing forces of entropy - proclaiming Yeats's "the center cannot hold" - and gravitational attraction, which prevents the pastiche from flying apart.

Other important influences on Voulkos's work are Japanese ceramics and the Zen Buddhist concept of the "controlled accident." Beginning in the late '70s, Voulkos started using an anagama (which means "hole" or "tunnel kiln" in Japanese) to fire his pieces. In this method, thick rustic ware is piled in a tunnel dug into a hill. Workers stoke the fire with wood around the clock for seven days. The resulting ash melts and fuses on the surface of the pots, producing unpredictable natural glazes. "Untitled Plate" (1990) with its scorched, mustard-colored surface shows, as Voulkos says, that "the kiln's got the last say."

Digging his pieces out of the ash after firing reveals what they have become. For the potter, who welcomes chance effects, it must be like unwrapping gifts at a surprise party. His pots may not hold water but, like ancient cuneiform clay tablets, they say a lot.

Voulkos, an influential teacher who works in Oakland, Calif., has described his approach: "I like the feel of it being a little too big and a little bit out of control - right on the edge." With a personality as irrepressible as his works are wild and anarchic, Voulkos has both worked large and lived large. His impact on the field has been commensurately huge. He has pushed ceramics right out of the mudroom and into the avant-garde art gallery.

*'The Art of Peter Voulkos' originated in California at the Oakland Museum, which has also published an accompanying catalog. The exhibition continues at the American Craft Museum in New York through June 9.

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