Dancer in the Dark: Voulkos’s Rasgeado

Dancer in the Dark: Voulkos’s Rasgeado

The masterpiece featured in our 5 June Design Auction in New York exemplifies the passionate musicality of the revolutionary ceramicist.

The masterpiece featured in our 5 June Design Auction in New York exemplifies the passionate musicality of the revolutionary ceramicist.

Peter Voulkos (right) and Rudy Autio playing guitar in Helena, Montana, 1953. New York Design.

I’d work at night, mostly. And I’d always play flamenco.

—Peter Voulkos

By Glenn Adamson

Four years. That is all it took for Peter Voulkos to transform himself from a proficient studio potter into one of the great sculptors of the twentieth century. From 1956 to 1959, he completely reimagined the potential of his skill set — wheel throwing, slab construction, painting with slips and glazing — and transmuted these familiar procedures into a wholly abstract formal vocabulary. It was a conceptual breakthrough on a par with Jackson Pollock’s drip technique or Helen Frankenthaler’s pours, but across a far greater material and technical range. Ceramic artists are still processing the implications today.

All the while, he was also studying flamenco guitar. This curious biographical detail is sometimes mentioned in relation to Voulkos’s work of the period, but it has not received in-depth consideration. Rose Slivka, his first and greatest interpreter, did note his habit of wearing hard-heeled flamenco boots, and his interest in the Spanish concept of duende, “which he interprets as the mysterious coming together of all parts, gestures, and powers at the right moment, for the consummate utterance in the work of art.” It is also well known that in this crucial period of his work, Voulkos borrowed many of his titles from flamenco: Black Bulerias (1958), alluding to a fast and festive, partly improvised dance; Rondena (1958), a type of fandango associated with the town of Ronda, in Malaga; Soleares II (1958), named for a slow and solemn song, itself etymologically related to the Spanish word for “sorrow”; Sevillanas (1959), a dance in 3/4 time, associated with Seville; and Tientos (1959), a style akin to tango in a slow four-count rhythm.

Peter Voulkos, Rasgeado, 1958. New York Design.

To this list we can add not one, but two works called Rasgeado – a slight misspelling on Voulkos’s part of the Spanish term rasgueado, a demanding method of playing the guitar in which the player uses both the tips and nails of the thumb and fingers, strumming the strings on both up and down strokes. Voulkos’s first sculpture of this name was a key breakthrough work of 1956, a quasi-figural composition made of three stacked cylinders articulated with triangular cuts and applied slab elements, all topped with a crown of four spouts. Alongside two other sculptures of the same year, Rocking Pot (Renwick Gallery) and an untitled work now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that work demonstrates the explosive potential of Voulkos’s rough-and-tumble reinvention of traditional ceramic procedures.

By the time he made the second Rasgeado, two years later, he had fully realized this potential. The sculpture stands two feet high, and is assembled from roughly a dozen conjoined volumes, themselves made from both slab and thrown elements. Voulkos made a whole group of sculptures using this methodology in 1958 and ‘59, with notable examples including Black Bulerias and Soleares II, as well as 5000 Feet (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Funiculated Smog (Fallingwater), Black Butte Divide (Norton Simon Museum of Art), and Flying Black (private collection, Michigan).

Peter Voulkos exhibition at Felix Landau Gallery, Los Angeles, May 1959.

All these works are covered in a more-or-less uniform dark “galena” (iron oxide) slip, though Voulkos also made others — like Rondena — which are constructed in the same way but feature neo-cubist painting on their jutting surfaces. Slivka described the process of making these works as follows: “working the inside and the outside simultaneously with the leather-hard technology, he managed to build huge clusters of bulbous forms, each piling on itself, sometimes reaching out, miraculously holding on. There were many times when the ballooning shapes collapsed, caved in, toppled over…But he piled them up as far as he could make them go, just short of falling down.”

It seems likely that Rasgeado was among the first of these works to be realized, in 1958, probably at the same time (possibly even in the same kiln firing) as Solearas II and a further untitled work. Rasgeado was published in the catalogue for Voulkos’s solo exhibition at the Felix Landau Gallery in Los Angeles, held in May of 1959, but it is unclear if it was actually included in the exhibition; it may have been sold prior. A bit smaller than the works of the same idiom that Voulkos would make in 1959, its edges are also comparatively well-defined. They suggest colliding blocks of stone, whereas the succeeding works with their more modulated transitions rather call to mind garments whipped in the wind.

Of particular relevance is the upright, bipedal stance of Rasgeado’s composition. The work is firmly planted on two strong legs, yet its upper register has all the energy and lunging asymmetry of a whirling dancer. Here and there on the surface are passages of shallow scoring, evoking the cross-hatching of an etching — or that seen in Picasso and Braque’s Cubist paintings, an important source for Voulkos — but also the chiaroscuro effect of stage lighting.

Peter Voulkos, Rasgeado (alternate view), 1958. New York Design.

No work better embodies John Coplans’s observation that in the late 1950s, Voulkos’s ceramics “began to assume all the qualities of an explosive release, and although completely abstract they began to reveal strong anthropomorphic overtones.” Encouraged by such indications, we might look more deeply into the connection between Rasgeado and the flamenco music from which it took its name — and which was almost certainly blasting from the stereo as Voulkos actually made it.

If you have been fortunate enough to attend a live flamenco performance, you will likely remember three things: the intense interaction between the musicians and the dancers; the extraordinarily high emotional pitch, particularly in the singing; and the sheer percussive force of hard heels on the floor. In its concentrated dynamism, Voulkos’s Rasgeado evokes all these impressions. But the connections go deeper.

Historically, flamenco is thought to have been developed among the gitano, the Romani or “traveler” population of Spain, in the 18th century. In this context, performers would have competed with one another for acclamation, accounting for the extremely skill-intensive nature of the dance and musicianship, while the dramatic, heart-rending singing style conveyed the all too real challenges faced by this itinerant marginalized population. Voulkos was of Greek, not Spanish, heritage, but one can easily imagine how his imagination was fired by this Mediterranean legacy.

There are also intriguing parallels between flamenco and the ceramic culture he fostered. To begin with, the program he led at Otis Art Institute during these years was nothing if not competitive, as Voulkos and his adherents constantly tried to outdo one another in the scale, speed, and boldness of their creations. Yet even in this somewhat anarchic setting, there was also a high regard for technique. The work coming out of Otis was not abject and comical, as the ensuing Funk movement would be, but self-consciously virtuosic.

Then too, there is the particular relationship between tradition and experimentation that Voulkos was exploring. While he has the reputation of a bridge-burning avant gardiste, that is hardly the case; the aforementioned breakthrough works of 1956, including the earlier Rasgeado, were inspired in part by ancient Japanese haniwa guardian figures. In later years, he would deeply engage with anagama wood firing to enliven his monumental stacks and sculptural plates, through a collaboration with Peter Callas.

By 1958, his framework of reference was becoming more modernist, as Voulkos gravitated toward sculptors like David Smith, Fritz Wortruba, and the now little-known Jack Zajac, who also showed at Landau Gallery. Voulkos’s sudden turn to bronze casting following his move up to Berkeley is the clearest reflection of these influences, but they are also clearly evident in the 1958 Rasgeado and related works. Even at this moment, though, ceramic precedent still loomed large for him — and that would have included not just functional and decorative objects, but the terracotta maquettes of baroque sculptors like Gianlorenzo Bernini.

It makes perfect sense, then, that Voulkos would have pursued the demanding métier of Spanish guitar concurrently with his adventurous ceramics. Flamenco, we should remember, was also a continual evolving form, rather like jazz, another kind of music that Voulkos loved. And like jazz, it had improvisation at its heart. In these musical genres and in ceramics alike, intuitive, in-the-moment decision making was understood as means of breaking through to a vital expression.

Peter Voulkos, Rasgeado (alternate view), 1958. New York Design.

Of course, this postwar “culture of spontaneity” (as historian Daniel Belgrad has called it) is only one aspect of Voulkos’s Rasgeado. Even an artist of his astounding facility could not have made such a work in a sudden rush; it would have taken time to build, accumulating complexity along the way. It is much more reliant on constructivist principles as the painterly effects of Abstract Expressionism. The title he chose for the work, referring to a particularly intricate and hard-won technique, aptly conveys this slow-burn intensity.

All the same, when we face this nearly seventy-year-old sculpture, we find it still possessed of tremendous immediacy. Voulkos’s active, questing energy is evident at every turn. It is an achievement of massing and manipulation, as well as musicality: an enduring incarnation of his ongoing partnership with clay: “it’s beautiful you know. You touch it and it moves. So you have to move with it.”


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