Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: California Clay

October 7, 2016

Los Angeles was fertile ground for some of the greatest achievements of the American Studio Ceramic Movement between the 1940s and the 1970s. In the auction on Sunday, October 9th, LAMA offers a number of examples by the leading practitioners of the movement whose work served as a catalyst in re-shaping attitudes toward clay. From Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner, to Stan Bitters and Gertrud & Otto Natzler, Peter Loughrey, director of LAMA, provides his expert insight on the state of clay, while curator Jo Lauria contextualizes these masters works and their lasting influence. Read on!

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

“The Peter Voulkos vase is a really great piece right from the hottest moment of the artist’s career, when he was experimenting with clay and influencing the entire next generation of ceramicists and artists. This piece comes from that time when he was proving that clay is more than just ceramics, it can also be fine art. We’ve been selling Voulkos works since the beginning of our auctions and this one has particularly nice textures and a depth to it that shows the creativity of someone who’s thinking outside of the traditional clay techniques, using the abstract expressionist techniques of Franz Klein, Motherwell and de Kooning. It fits more with those artists than it does with any traditional ceramicists. It’s a very important work.

There are other great works from the same period, including ‘environmental’ pieces by Stan Bitters, like the sunscreen, which shows the interesting way he was working with clay in the environment, making it more architectural. We also have a nice grouping of important ceramics by the Natzlers who are probably the most prolific craftspeople in clay in Southern California. The Los Angeles County Museum has a wonderful collection of works by the Natzlers and these pieces are great examples of their unique work.”

Defining Moments for Socal Ceramics by Jo Lauria

California played a key role in the American Studio Ceramic Movement that emerged post-World War II. The 1940s through the 1970s were a period of intense production
and experimentation in all the arts, and were particularly transformative for ceramics. The creative culture of California in the mid-20th century was open-minded, inclusive, and unfettered by the restrictive artistic conventions of the East Coast; it provided the ideal location for an experimental approach to emerge.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Lot 201, Peter Voulkos, Vase, ca. 1956
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Los Angeles, specifically, was fertile ground for some of the greatest achievements of the movement. In the mid-1950s on the campus of the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) ceramic instructor Peter Voulkos and his students adopted a radical approach to clay. Assertive, dramatically altered, frequently over-scaled, and asymmetrical forms emerged from the Otis studio during Voulkos’ tenure (1954–1958). The Otis Group, as they were known, included artists/students Billy Al Bengston, Stan Bitters, Michael Frimkess, John Mason, Ken Price, Paul Soldner, and Henry Takemoto. The works that these artists produced were a departure from the domestic tabletop and functional objects that had been identified with ceramics since the end of the Arts and Crafts movement.


Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Lot 202, Henry Takemoto, Bowls (2), ca. 1959
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction


The work of the Otis Group sent tremors through the field. Once marginalized in art discourse, this epoch—now referred to as a “revolution in clay”—created a new platform for ceramics. As a medium, clay could now be evaluated for its expressive, intellectual, and sculptural qualities, and it commanded critical acclaim.

Volumes have been written about the expressive power of Peter Voulkos’ work in clay, but one series stands out: the transitional vessels of the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. At this juncture, Voulkos abandoned the pursuit of making perfectly-profiled functional pots—for which he had won several first-place awards in national shows—and pivoted aesthetically to produce non-utilitarian work that was loosely thrown and infused with the Japanese qualities of rustic simplicity and spontaneity. However, Voulkos’ thrown forms were visually of a larger scale than the traditional Japanese folk pottery that they emulated, and they carried Voulkos’ distinctive imprint in the glaze painting—his fluid brushstrokes, mark-making, and palette were more stylistically aligned with Abstract Expressionism than with Japanese sumi ink painting. The sculptural vessels from this period are emblematic of the transition that Voulkos made from controlling to collaborating with the raw qualities of clay.


Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Lot 199, Stan Bitters, Scratch pots (3), ca. 1990
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Observing and learning from his teacher and mentor, Stan Bitters was inspired by the holistic partnership that Voulkos had forged with clay. Bitters’ “organic approach to environments” began in the late 1960s when he was inspired to create oversized ceramic works that related to environments—interior and exterior walls, fountains, gardens, pools, pots, and sunscreens. “Environmental ceramics” was the term that Bitters used to describe outdoor clay elements that responded organically to nature, the site, and to architecture. Bitters’ sunscreens demonstrated the most nuanced collaboration with clay and its physical response to the environment: fabricated of clay shards strung together in vertical rows and hung from a horizontal armature, the assembled unit served as a screen of privacy when static or transformed into a delightful kinetic sculpture when moved by wind. “Environmental ceramics” moved clay into the new territory of architecture, and fostered an aesthetic kinship with site-specific sculpture.

Predating both Voulkos and Bitters is the artistic duo of Gertrud and Otto Natzler. Their work also served as a catalyst in re-shaping attitudes toward clay, but in a quiet, less rebellious way. Fleeing the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, they emigrated to Los Angeles and brought with them the principles of modernism. Throughout their lifelong collaboration on 25,000 refined vessels, they honored the European credo of good design, which should be expressive of its time and attain beauty through functionality. In this pursuit, their work referenced the contemporary art movements of modernism and minimalism and, as such, was highly valued.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Lot 206, Gertrud & Otto Natzler, Double-curved bowl, 1943
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

The Natzlers worked as a creative team—Gertrud threw the vessels and Otto glazed them—and together they produced a variety of classical shapes derived from Asian pottery traditions. However familiar and formal their shapes, Otto’s original glazes made Gertrud’s pots unique, not derivative: the range of glaze treatments on Natzler pots variously achieved lush colors and unusual surface textures that added depth, volume, and visual interest. The descriptive terms of “crater,” “lava,” “fissured,” and “fire-marked” entered the ceramic vocabulary as a means to describe Natzler glaze effects.

Although these artists made their mark during the first wave of the American Studio Ceramic Movement—contributing to the dynamic mix of groundbreaking ceramics produced post 1940—their work has stood the test of time. Numerous recent exhibitions, which have contextualized the contribution of these artists to contemporary art, serve as a testament to the enduring vitality of their work. Their ceramics continue to fascinate and delight museum curators and collectors alike.


Lot 201
Peter Voulkos
Studio, executed c. 1956
Gas-fired stoneware with iron oxides/glazes
Signed to underside
14.25″ x 9″ diameter
LAMA would like to thank Sam Jornlin for her assistance in cataloguing this work
Estimate: $10,000 – $15,000
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 202
Henry Takemoto
Bowls (2)
Studio, executed c. 1959
Each signed “Takemoto”
2″ x 6.25″ diameter; 2.25″ x 9.5″ diameter
Estimate: $1,500 – $2,000
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 199
Stan Bitters
Scratch pots (3)
Hans Sumpf, executed c. 1990
Each stamped “B2118/H.S.C.”
Each: 18″ x 21″ diameter
Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 200
Stan Bitters
Scratch pots (3)
Hans Sumpf, executed c. 1990
Each stamped “B4815/H.S.C.”
Each: 15.25″ x 18″ diameter
Estimate: $1,500 – $2,000
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 206
Gertrud & Otto Natzler
Double-curved bowl
Studio, executed 1943
Green Lavastone glazed ceramic
Signed “Natzler”
5.25″ x 11″ diameter (10.5 cm x 28 cm diameter)
LAMA would like to thank Gail Reynolds Natzler for her gracious assistance in cataloguing this work
Estimate: $15,000 – $20,000
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lauria, Jo, Emily Zaiden, and Sharon K. Emanuelli. Golden State of Craft: California 1960–1985. Los Angeles: Craft in America, Inc., 2011. Print. Bitters, Stan. Environmental Ceramics. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976.

Print. Duncan, Michael, John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos. Clay’s Tectonic Shift, 1956–1968. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012. Print. Johnson, Christy, et. al. Common Ground: Ceramics In Southern California, 1945–1975. Pomona: American Museum of Ceramic Art, 2012. Print.

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