Auctions unearth history. Works turn up out of the blue, out of the closet, out of the past. One only has to think of the Chinese pot that went from gathering dust in a British attic and sold on auction for $89 million. The arrival of Bull by Peter Voulkos is a welcome surprise and an exciting addition to the artist’s known oeuvre, authenticated in a letter from Rudy Autio, who was present and working with Voulkos when it was made. (Autio made a few bull sculptures of his own).
Peter Voulkos Bull c. 1952 Glazed stoneware.
Peter Voulkos, Bullfight, 1957, glazed painted stoneware. Marer Collection, Scripps College.
“I remember it well,” Autio recalls, “it was handbuilt and one of two bulls he made at the Archie Bray Foundation, Helena at the time-the other was somewhat more open. The slip-gaze is what we called “Trail Creek” which we used to dig near Bozeman, Montana and very useful because of its great range and color possibilities. The technique [Pete used] was wax resist; first coated with glaze then covered with liquid wax emulsion. After the wax set, the object was decorated by incising through the wax, then filling the lines with a contrasting glaze color. In this case I believe it was red iron oxide or black under-glaze, since it imparted an iron rich color to the lower parts of the Bull retaining a speckled olive-green in the upper part of the object.”
This is a stunning work; the sculpting is powerful and muscular. Indeed the bull seems pent and ready to charge. The exquisite surface is an indescribable mix of drawn line and fired texture (see the close-ups). Its style is early decorative 1950’s, a perfect fit with beatnik coffee shops then and in mid-century modern collections and interiors today.
Voulkos made other bull-themed art and this testosterone driven creature appears in the drawing on his earliest pots. When he was appointed Professor of Ceramics at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1954 Voulkos made several bullfight themed plates, influenced by Picasso’s exploration of the same subject in his Vallauris ceramics. A striking example is in the Marer Collection at Scripps College, a glaze painted stoneware plate by Voulkos entitled Bullfight, 1957.
However, the title suggests a larger metaphor. The notion of Voulkos as the bull in a china shop could hardly be more appropriate. Voulkos rampaged through 1950’s and 1960’s ceramics, breaking and reassembling pots, pushing and cutting holes through vessels, cutting rims off plates and reattaching them, savaging surfaces with a knife. This angered the old guard who saw him as a kind of grim reaper, killing the ceramic tradition when in fact he was the agent of its rebirth. As Cocteau said to Picasso of his clay doves “you wring their necks to give them life.” Voulkos ignored his detractors and his stampede through the traditions of ceramics continued and by the 1970’s he had changed the expectations for pottery as art in America, no mean achievement. Bull could hardly be a greater trophy of this artist’s unstoppable spirit.
NOTE: The auctions in November will include one of Voulkos's major later works, the stack pot Siguirilla, 1999, and the most complex of his great abstract expressionist paintings, Falling Red, 1958.
Mark Del Vecchio