Peter Voulkos

Peter Voulkos



Peter (Panagiotis) Voulkos, the third of five children of Aristovoulos Voulkopoulos and Effrosyni Voulala, was born in 1924 in Bozeman, Montana, where the family had settled after leaving Greece since 1921. He grew up during the American economic crisis and came of age when the United States entered World War II. In 1942, after graduating from school, he worked as a molder for US Navy ships, before being drafted into the Air Force and serving as a gunner in Saipan until 1946. Following his discharge, and with funding from the G.I. Bill, he began his artistic studies at Montana State College without having any prior contact with art. His enrollment in Frances Senska's ceramics course proved to be crucial and his talent became evident before he was even awarded his first degree in 1951. Having already been awarded, exhibited and sold his ceramic creations, he immediately pursued his postgraduate studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Auckland while working on the construction of one of the largest ceramic kilns in the United States at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Montana. After its completion, he used it for a while as a studio and then co-directed it with his former classmate and colleague Rudy Autio until 1954. In 1952, he completed his postgraduate studies and married Margaret Cone. In 1953, he was invited to teach a summer ceramics seminar at Black Mountain College where he met, inter alia, painter Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer David Tudor. During this period, he visited New York for the first time as David Tudor's guest and met personalities of the American artistic vanguard. From this point on in his artistic career, he abandoned ceramics conventions by combining traditional clay baking techniques with new materials and by adding gestural decorative elements. This change resulted in Voulkos being associated with the abstract expressionism movement. In 1954, he moved to Los Angeles to take the chair of the newly established ceramics department at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, while also designing and organizing his installations. In 1957, he acquired his own studio in Los Angeles with a two-meter kiln that allowed him to make even larger ceramic sculptures. At the same time, he focused on painting and, despite being recognized for his work in the field of ceramics and integrating gestural painting into ceramics, he continued painting alongside his other activities. In 1958, he was asked to resign from his position at the Los Angeles County Art Institute due to ideological differences with the administration. A year later, he assumed the position of assistant professor in the Department of Applied Arts at the University of California. In 1960, a solo exhibition of his was held at the MoMA in New York curated by Peter Selz. During this period, he also began producing bronze sculptures. Over the next decade, he produced numerous monumental bronze sculptures in private and public venues such as the San Francisco Hall of Justice, the Pasadena Art Museum, the Oakland Museum and the State of New York while systematically moving his workplace to increasingly larger factory spaces which he converted into homes-workshops. In 1978, a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts of the American Crafts Council in New York, along with the publication of a monograph of his by Rose Slivka. In the same year, he started using the traditional Anagama kiln Japanese technique in collaboration with Peter Callas while producing monotypes at the Institute of Experimental Printmaking of San Francisco. In 1985, he dropped out of teaching at the University of California and a year later he tried to stop substance and alcohol abuse through a rehabilitation program. In 1987, he married Ann Adair. In 1995, a major retrospective exhibition of his was held at the Oakland Museum of Art. In 2002, Peter Voulkos died of a heart attack. During his lifetime, he held hundreds of solo exhibitions around the world, received dozens of US and international awards for his artistic and teaching work and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Montana State University in Bozeman, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and the San Francisco Arts Institute. His work and influence have been crucial to the renewal of ceramics and its reconsideration from applied to fine art.