Peter Voulkos Made Great Sculpture by Being a Potter

THE DAILY PIC: At the Museum of Arts and Design, Voulkos's achievement as a sculptor depends on his roots in craft.

THE DAILY PIC (#1706): At the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, a little survey (he deserves bigger) of the great West Coast ceramicist Peter Voulkos proves that, in his case at least, structuralist theory got it right: What something is and means depends on what it most notably is not. In the case of Voulkos, he set about proving that the lowly “craft” of ceramics could go head to head with the fine art of sculpture and win – hell, he even managed to grab the cover of Artforum in 1978.

The thing is, the true greatness of a Voulkos piece lies in the fact that however much it may look and act like sculpture, and compete on sculpture’s terms, it counts as ceramics and has its roots in the history of clay. If a Voulkos were simply to count as a work of sculpture like any other – to achieve that equal footing always seemed one of Voulkos’s aims – his piece might be very good. What makes it great is the fact that it is pottery as sculpture – that it is simultaneously sculpture and not-sculpture. (That is a different thing than simply not being sculpture). The tension it keeps with its opposite pole is what seals the excellence of a great Voulkos piece. In culture, categories and history matter – they can be as important to esthetic meaning as anything more directly perceptual like shape or color or texture or material.

That’s why I’m especially happy that all the current shows at MAD – formerly the American Craft Museum – seem to be exploring the institution’s roots in the various categories and histories of handmaking. They aren’t trying to escape those ghettoes to join the more prestigious universe of fine art and design.

Craft means, in ways other disciplines don’t. (Image courtesy  the Voulkos & Co. Catalogue Project)

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