LAMA BLOG

Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: Otis College and the Ceramic Revolution

May 14, 2015

The Los Angeles County Art Institute, which became the Otis College of Art and Design, was at the center of ceramic’s evolution as an artistic medium in America. In 1954 Peter Voulkos became head of its ceramics department. He brought with him energy, strength and a bold streak influenced by Abstract Expressionism–all new elements for the discipline.

May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction  Lot 101, Peter Voulkos, Plate, Executed c. 1956


May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction
Lot 101, Peter Voulkos, Plate, Executed c. 1956

The kilns at Otis College became the launching pad for the new ceramic artistry. Voulkos’s students and colleagues joined the signal artistic movements of the sixties and seventies. Paul Soldner (1921–2011), the first student in the nascent department, early on made staggeringly tall, monumental-sized pots, before creating sculpture of slabs in shapes reminiscent of jagged “angry” flowers using his own new version of raku, the 16th-century Japanese firing method.

May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction  Lot 106, Paul Soldner, Raku vessel, Executed c. 1970


May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction
Lot 106, Paul Soldner, Raku vessel, Executed c. 1970

At first with runic motifs, then in cruciform,  John Mason fabricated large-scale totemic sculptures; in his late career his art was geometric and minimalist.

May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design AuctionLot 105, John Mason, Plaque, Executed 1958


May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction
Lot 105, John Mason, Plaque, Executed 1958

Henry Takemoto’s early works–often large, rugged, fired clay forms, were overlaid with patterns and organic shapes referencing traditional Asian ornamentation. Ken Price (1935–2012), a student for a brief time at Otis, later became arguably the most important sculptor of ceramics in the late 20th century. He later developed a personal visual vocabulary that shifted back and forth between geometric shapes and biomorphic forms with eye-piercing, vibrantly colored surfaces.

May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design AuctionLot 111, Henry Takemoto Platter, Executed c. 1959


May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction
Lot 111, Henry Takemoto Platter, Executed c. 1959

Price, Mason, Soldner, and another Otis College alumnus, Billy Al Bengston, were among the first artists shown at Ferus Gallery—the venue credited with establishing Los Angeles as a contemporary arts center. Bengston would forgo clay for paint. Yet he credits Voulkos with teaching him a rakish, assertive spirit and “how to handle . . . actual physicality. The strength, the tenacity.” The progenitors of key elements in  Bengston’s later work are evident in his student ceramics: he placed blunt, forceful emblems in the center of his compositions, and created sharply-angled mug handles shaped like chevrons, a motif he would regularly employ in later works.

May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design AuctionLot 114, Billy Al Bengston, Mugs (2), c. 1957


May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction
Lot 114, Billy Al Bengston, Mugs (2), c. 1957

From Peter Loughrey, Director of Modern Design & Fine Art:

Ceramics came into its own as a fine art form in the 1950s. Clay had been regarded as a second-class medium–more artisanal than artistic. But what’s been called the American Clay Revolution, or the California Clay Movement, changed all of that and put ceramics on equal standing in prestige with painting and sculpture.

The crucible of that change was the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, in the ceramics studio headed by Peter Voulkos. LAMA’s May 17th auction includes a wonderful group of lots featuring the work of Voulkos and his colleagues and students–every significant artist at the heart of that revolution, including Paul Soldner, John Mason, Henry Takemoto, Ken Price, and Billy Al Bengston.

Voulkos brought Abstract Expressionism to clay. He was a big, tough, burly guy from Montana. You could picture him fitting in at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, maybe even getting into a fistfight with Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline. Voulkos brought to his work a force and commitment; he passed that sensibility along to his students. He taught them to think of themselves as artists, not ceramists.

Most of the works in the lots here are from the collection of a fellow Otis College ceramics student, and on the market for the first time. She was prescient enough to buy from or trade pieces with her classmates. We’ll likely never again see a collection of early Otis ceramics like this.

An early Ken Price piece is particularly impressive. It shows what was to come in his career—but it’s more than a formative example of the learning process. This vase embodies the abstract geometric ideas that inform a significant part of Price’s body of work.

The May 17th sale includes a group of Picasso ceramics that I believe relates to the Otis College pieces and to the clay revolution as a whole. When Picasso began in 1947 to devote so much time to ceramics, he sent a message to the fine art establishment and to artists like Voulkos. It was as if Picasso meant to give these artists his stamp of approval–permission to look at ceramics as an art.

 

May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction


May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction
Lot 104, Ken Price, Vase, Executed c. 1958

Lot Information:

Lot 101
Peter Voulkos
Plate
Executed c. 1956
Partially glazed stoneware with slip-pencil technique
Studio
Signed “Voulkos”
2.75″ x 15.25″ x 15″
LAMA would like to thank the Voulkos & Co. catalogue project for their assistance in cataloguing this work.
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Estimate: $6,000 – $9,000

Lot 102
Peter Voulkos
Footed bowl
Executed 1951
Studio
Signed and dated “Voulkos 51” and “J”
3.5″ x 8.5″ diameter
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California;
Frank Lloyd Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Lot 104
Ken Price
Vase
Executed c. 1958
Partially glazed stoneware
Studio
Signed “Price”
17″ x 7″ x 5″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Estimate: $8,000 – $10,000

Lot 105
John Mason
Plaque
Executed 1958
Studio
Signed “Mason 58″ verso
14″ x 20″ x 3”
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Estimate: $7,000 – $9,000

Lot 106
Paul Soldner
Raku vessel
Executed c. 1970
Studio
Signed
17″ x 7.5″ diameter
Provenance: Mr. Katsunari Toyoda, Japan;
Private Collection, United States (acquired from the above, 2013)
Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

Lot 108
Paul Soldner
Dish
Executed c. 1955
Studio
Signed “Soldner”
1″ x 9.5″ diameter
Estimate: $1,500 – $2,000

Lot 109
Paul Soldner
Charger
Executed c. 1975
Studio
Signed “Soldner”
2″ x 18″ x 18″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Literature: O’Connor, Letitia Burns. Paul Soldner: A Retrospective. Perpetua Press: Los Angeles, 1991. 76 (for a similar example.)
Estimate: $800 – $1,200

Lot 110
Henry Takemoto
Plates and bowl (4)
Executed c. 1959
Studio
Each signed
Bowl: 4″ x 4″ diameter; Plates: 1″ x 11.25″ x 11″; 1″ x 9″ x 7″; 1.5″ x 4.5″ x 4.25″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Estimate: $3,000 – $5,000

Lot 111
Henry Takemoto
Platter
Executed c. 1959
Studio
Signed
2.5″ x 14″ x 13.5″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Estimate: $1,500 – $2,000

Lot 112
Henry Takemoto
Bowls (6)
Executed c. 1959
Studio
Each signed
Each approximately: 3.5″ x 4.75″ x 4″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Estimate: $3,000 – $5,000

Lot 113
Billy Al Bengston
Mugs (2)
c. 1957
Partially glazed stoneware
Studio
Each inscribed “Moontang”
4.5″ x 4.5″ x 3″; 3.25″ x 4.5″ x 3.5″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Literature: Monte, James. Billy. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968. N. pag. (for a example of stoneware with “cross” motif.)

Lot 114
Billy Al Bengston
Mugs (2)
c. 1957
Partially glazed stoneware
Studio
Each inscribed “Moontang”
3.25″ x 5″ x 3″; 3.5″ x 5″ x 3″
Provenance: Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Thence by descent
Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

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