One of the great and influential artists of Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s was Peter Voulkos, a dynamic personality determined to use the humble material of clay to build monumental abstract sculptures. In the late 1950s, while head of the ceramics department at the L.A. County Art Institute, now Otis College of Art and Design, he inspired any number of young students, especially Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, John Mason and Paul Soldner. Voulko’s radical ideas went against the grain of the administration, especially the ideas of the school's director, Millard Sheets, who had hired him to teach the students how to throw pots. Voulkos moved on to Northern California to teach at UC Berkeley and have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sheets reputation receded in history but an exhibition in Pomona tells another version of the story.
The American Museum of Ceramic Art, a rather grandly named former bank building in downtown Pomona, has a 77-foot-long mural by artist Millard Sheets that is now part of the main gallery. This is more than usually significant because the show chronicles Sheets' role as an educator and promoter of ceramic programs in Southern California in a show funded by the Getty as part of Pacific Standard Time.
Sheets (1907-1989) is best known today for his mosaic murals on the facades of buildings that were built by the now defunct Home Savings and Loan. A Pomona native, Sheets was considered a most significant artist in L.A. and one who was committed to modern design. The exhibitions that he organized at the County Fair gallery were popular, especially as there were so few venues for modern art in L.A. before the County Museum of Art was built in 1965.
Teapot Prototype, 1960s
11 ½ x 11 ¼ x 6 in.
Collection of Tony and Flower Sheets
Photo: Gene Sasse
There are 300 works in this show by 53 artists and all have some connection to Sheets who encouraged them, introduced them to the commercial ceramics company Interpace, where they could make a living designing and producing dinnerware or tiles, and even purchased ceramic work for his various building projects.
The exhibition, organized by museum director and curator Christy Johnson, focuses on work produced at various college ceramics departments because of the strong relationships between teachers and students throughout Southern California. Sheets became head of the Scripps College art department in 1936, just five years after graduating from Chouinard Art Institute. He asked his former classmate William Manker to establish a ceramics department at Scripps and it was Manker who initiated a studio pottery movement in Southern California.
John Mason, Sculpture, 1956-1957
16 ¼ x 14 ½ x 5 ½ in.
Collection of Derrick Johnson and Andrea Chen
Photo: Gene Sasse
The show traces the relationships of other ceramics teachers and students at schools around Southern California. Glen Lukens, who taught at USC, molded sturdy bowls and plates with deeply colored glazes in the late 1930s and though he told Frank Gehry that he would do better in the architecture department, he did encourage Beatrice Wood, whose lustrous gold-glazed bottles are in the show as well as Harrison Macintosh, whose Masonic Temple Jar was originally commissioned by Sheets for the now vacant Scottish Rite Temple on Wilshire Boulevard.
The show also features the work of European immigrants like Gertrude and Otto Natzler, who brought to L.A. their advanced knowledge of glazes and use of the pottery wheel. Apparently, ceramicists in Southern California did not throw on a pottery wheel until after World War II. They molded or built their clay forms.
7 ½ x 5 ¾ x 5 in.
Collection of Jamie B. Boran
Photo: Gene Sasse
In 1954, Sheets was hired as director of the L.A. County Art Institute, and that is when he hired Voulkos to establish the program of a master’s degree of fine arts in ceramics. The exhibition includes early work made by Voulkos before he began pushing the boundaries of the medium. Refined vases in dark brown and gray glazes as well as a chocolate pot though one of his asymmetrical vases hints at the bold direction to come. There is also work by his students including a plate painted with a figurative scene in black by Bengston, a roughly made cup with a long handle by Price, and a marvelously eccentric soft blue glazed small sculpture by Mason. All of these artists showed at Ferus Gallery but this is their student work, drawn from the personal collection of their classmate Marian Moule, whose torqued gray bottle is in the show.
Sheets may have been seen by the younger artists as an old fashioned relic but this exhibition serves as a prequel to much of what is commonly known about the history and presents Sheets as an advocate for what the relationship between ceramics and design. (In 1954, he got House Beautiful to cover his exhibition, The Arts of Daily Living.) The show at AMOCA includes Sheets' own ceramic teapots and tiles, streamlined but not daring, as evidence of his taste. The exhibition clarifies his role and, even more important, the history of the development of ceramics in Southern California.
Banner image: Glen Lukens, Bowl, 1939; 3 1/8 x 6 ¼ x 6 ¼ in.; Collection of Forrest Merrill; Photo by Gene Sasse