Clay Revolution

Hosted by

A few weeks ago, I spoke about the beautifully crafted bowls, plates and vases at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona. That show details the role of artist Millard Sheets as a supporter of the ceramic arts in Southern California in the 1940s and 1950s and, ultimately, his fight with abstract artist Peter Voulkos when both were working at Otis. That show includes very early work by Voulkos, John Mason and Ken Price.


John Mason, Red X, 1966
Stoneware, 58 1/2 x 59 1/2 x 17
Los Angeles County Museum.  Gift of the Kleiner Foundation
Photograph © Museum Associates/LACMA

Those three artists, who left behind the world of craft and used clay to build abstract sculpture in the 1960s, are featured in a newly opened PST exhibition at Scripps College in Claremont. The title, Clay's Tectonic Shift, refers to the substantial realignment that took place between 1956 and 1968 when these bold characters initiated their modest revolution, literally a tempest in a teapot. Though Mason and Price both showed at the dynamic Ferus Gallery and Voulkos showed with Felix Landau and then the David Stuart Galleries, all on La Cienega Blvd. during the 1960s, the works in this show have never been seen together before this. I have to say that the effect is simply stunning. 


Peter Voulkos, Sitting Bull, c. 1959
Stoneware, wheel-thrown and paddled parts, slip and glaze, 69 x 37 x 37
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Bequest of Hans G. M. de Schulthess, 1965.16
Photo: Brian Forrest

Voulkos was, like many of his generation, in awe of Picasso and you can see echoes of that in the spiky or muscular shapes yet they also have the pure force of an abstract expressionist like Franz Kline. John Mason threw clay on the floor the way Jackson Pollock poured paint, and made snaky patterns that he glazed and mount on the wall. 


John Mason, Untitled (Monolith), 1964
Stoneware with glaze, 66.5 x 64 x 17
Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Gift of the Women's Board, 71.68
Photo: courtesy SFMOMA

Voulkos and Mason shared a studio in Glendale where they used an industrial kiln to fire these large ceramic sculptures that often stand as tall as the artists themselves. In violation of the parameters of both ceramics and sculpture, they often painted their works to define edges and volumes. Some of Mason’s massive sculptures of crosses or monoliths that were built in the middle of the 1960s have minimalist simplicity offset by surfaces of fluid color.


Ken Price, Specimen, 1963
Glazed ceramic on sand in wooden box, 6 x 13 x 9
Private Collection. Courtesy of the James Corcoran Gallery
Photo: © Ken Price / Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Ken Price, on the other hand, rejected the bigger is better philosophy of the '50s and '60s. His ceramic sculptures, never much larger than a basketball, were egg shaped, painted in colors like lime green or hot pink and ruptured to reveal plump shiny tendrils. The smallest are contained in wooden boxes, sometimes with glass doors, which turns you into a voyeur of sorts. He is among the many L.A. artists influenced by Joseph Cornell. At the time they were made, they were lumped into the Pop ethos of the '60s and they do have a certain insouciance. Yet, each packs a serious punch, knocking down all sorts of shibboleths about sculpture, ceramics and painting.


Ken Price, L. Red, 1963
Stoneware with lacquer and acrylic, 13.5 x 12 x 10
Collection San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund purchase
© Kenneth Price, 82.155
Photo: courtesy SFMOMA

Organized by Kirk Delman and Frank Lloyd with museum director Mary McNaughton, the show continues through April 8, 2012.

Banner image: Peter Voulkos, Rocking Pot, 1956; Stoneware with glaze, gas fired, 13.75 x 21 x 17.5; Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Gift of the James Renwick Alliance and various donors and museum purchase. Photo: Bruce Miller