Peter Voulkos, Red River, c. 1960, Glazed stoneware, slip, and epoxy paint, 37 x 14 7/8 x 13 3/4 in. (94 x 37.8 x 34cm), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation, Inc. Photography by © schoppleinstudio.com, courtesy of the Voulkos & Co. Catalogue Project
The fact that Red River was added to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection immediately after it was made in 1960 is a measure of its significance for ceramics and much 3-D work that was to follow. Peter Voulkos, already a celebrated ceramicist in a largely traditional manner, had by the early 1960s assimilated the best of Abstract Expressionism, and the energy of Black Mountain College.
Voulkos drew many lessons in material and form from painting – his own and the paintings of others – lessons which in turn found their most idiosyncratic expression in his ruptured and reformulated ceramics. It was in his roughhouse* clay handling, experimental glazes, and other previously untested techniques, that he innovated. In demonstrations to students (including Mary Heilmann and Ron Nagle) Voulkos handled his clay with confident familiarity, often dropping his creation with rehearsed carelessness, only to pick it up and refashion it as he had intended all along. This theatricality left a mark on his students, and taught them to accept the imperfect and the awkward in their work.
The fractured, and formless presence of works such as Red River, has helped artists since to cultivate the ever more important space between painting and sculpture.
*I have borrowed this wonderfully evocative word from the critic Rose Slivka on Voulkos’s synthesis of “Greek classical culture combined with French modernism and American muscle-toting, mud-slinging, refinement and roughhouse.”