Peter Voulkos - Design New York Thursday, June 6, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, circa 1958

  • Catalogue Essay

    Phillips would like to thank Sam Jornlin, archivist and representative of the Voulkos estate, for her assistance cataloguing the present lot.

    Peter Voulkos’s artistic career began in the late 1940s following his service in the US Army Air Corps as a result of the G.I. Bill, an educational benefit provided by the government which he used to enroll in ceramics, painting and printmaking courses at Montana State College. While practicing in these media, Voulkos excelled in ceramics and became a “prodigious natural potter and a producer of elegantly thrown functional earthenware,” according to The New York Times, often borrowing skills and techniques from painting and printmaking and applying them to his ceramic artworks.

    Peter Voulkos’s virtuosic skill as a ceramist won him numerous awards in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and in 1953 he was invited to teach a ceramics course at Black Mountain College, the progressive art school in Asheville, North Carolina, often seen as an incubator of twentieth-century artistic talent. At Black Mountain, he met poet Charles Olson, artists Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, and dancer Merce Cunningham. He then traveled to New York City at the behest of poet MC Richards, where he encountered painters Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Philip Guston. These excursions away from his home base in Montana into the throes of American Abstract Expressionism were pivotal—the movement was already well underway in painting but it had not yet taken hold in clay and Voulkos, tiring of traditional constraints within the ceramic craft, and freshly inspired by these encounters, was primed to be its conduit.

    These early years—the 1950s up through 1968—are what scholar Glenn Adamson defined as Peter Voulkos’s “breakthrough years.” During this time, he was creating his most important and influential body of ceramic work, eschewing traditional forms and notions of ceramics and engaging fully and physically in the manipulation of clay into abstract sculpture. In 1958, the year the present lot was painted, Voulkos was sharing a studio in Los Angeles with fellow ceramist John Mason. The two worked closely together, experimenting with new techniques, surfaces, and working on ever larger scale sculptures, developing the necessary equipment together. From the composition and coloring of the present painting, compared with Mason’s iconic monumental Blue Wall (1959), one can surmise that Voulkos’s and Mason’s collaboration extended beyond material to concept as well.

    During this time of tremendous artistic experimentation, Voulkos continued to paint in abstraction, and the materials he used in his paintings —epoxy, sand, brightly colored paints —he often used on his ceramic sculptures. He debuted his groundbreaking ceramic sculptures, alongside paintings, at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1958, and subsequently at the Frank Landau Gallery in Los Angeles in 1959. In exhibiting the two media together, he demonstrated how intertwined and supportive of each other they were among his oeuvre. It is evident now that it was necessary then for Voulkos to use multiple modes to transcribe his artistic urges—whatever could not be expressed in one medium would find relief in being expressed in another, and thus the paintings during this period continue to be an important connective study with his groundbreaking work in ceramics.

Property from a Private Collection, Los Angeles



Sand, epoxy, and mixed media on canvas.
49 1/2 x 33 3/4 in. (125.7 x 85.7 cm)
Reverse signed Voulkos/58'.

$25,000 - 35,000 

Sold for $32,500

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New York Auction 6 June 2019