LEARN: L.A.'s Ceramic Break-Down

The Getty launched an Interactive Web Archive; here is Claire de Dobay Rifelj’s take on the Ceramics section.

Check it out in anticipation of Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective at LACMA.

This dynamic site offers a digital snapshot of the art scene in Los Angeles from 1945–1980 via artworks documentary images, video interviews with artists and a historical map related to its four exhibitions.

Among the styles and mediums that contributed to making L.A. a center for innovative modern art in the 1950s and ’60s, you might not expect to find a traditional material like ceramics. Yet as the site makes clear, the city was at the forefront of a major development in this medium: away from smaller, useable forms and toward larger-scale sculptural compositions that were in dialogue with other avant-garde art movements of the period.

This shift was due, in large part, to the ceramicist and sculptor Peter Voulkos. Voulkos arrived in L.A. in 1954 to teach at Otis Art Institute (then officially named the Los Angeles County Art Institute), which had just renovated its downtown campus and established a ceramics program. As it turns out, Voulkos had undergone a recent renovation of his own. The previous year, while teaching a summer workshop at the experimental Black Mountain College, his artistic ethos expanded to incorporate elements such as chance; the physicality of the artist’s body; and the action and movement of contemporary abstract painting. Combined with his knowledge of eastern ceramic traditions, this led to a revolutionary approach to clay.  Little Big Horn, which measures over five feet tall, exemplifies Voulkos’s characteristic blend of control and spontaneity: the multihued sections, which seem to be either coming together or breaking apart, hang in a charged but balanced moment. A video on the Getty’s site illuminates further his technique and reputation.

Though Voulkos only taught at Otis for five years, he amassed a dedicated crop of students who took his lessons of experimentation and abstraction and moved in their own directions. John Mason, for instance, created wall-sized works as well as large totems that take on the proportions of an upright body. Such dramatic shifts in scale necessitated the adoption of industrial mixers and kilns, which were on hand in the studio that Mason and Voulkos shared in Silver Lake. Another student, Henry Takemoto, produced oversized pots that he covered with a field of expressive marks. They dissolve the edges of the pot’s form, speaking in turn to linkages between painting and sculpture, to the surrealist vocabulary of Miró, and to enigmatic linguistic symbols.

Ken Price, who spent a year at Otis in 1957, produced early works that exhibit Voulkos’s influence in terms of scale. In the 1960s, however, his objects returned to an intimate size and continued to push beyond the traditional bounds of ceramics. He applied glazes with highly-keyed colors using industrial paints and a spray-gun—a nod to L.A.’s pervasive car and surf culture. Price’s surreal rounded forms look as if they are morphing into sensual, living entities. Along with John Mason, Price exhibited at the renowned Ferus Gallery, proving that ceramics could find equal ground with painting and sculpture, and solidifying the medium’s crucial position in the development of modern art in L.A.

To learn more about ceramics and other aspects the Los Angeles art world, visit Pacific Standard Time at the Getty Center. The Getty will continue to add materials to this site, so check back often.

by Claire de Dobay Rifelj

Also see FYA Asks the Curators of Pacific Standard Time.