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For the last few months there has been a quiet competition between two West Coast giants on view at The Renwick Gallery. They contrast in medium: ceramics versus enamel and electroplated copper. Formally, one might be considered ugly, while the other is considered elegant. But what unifies these distinct exhibitions is their approach to their respective crafts: one of pushing boundaries and breaking new ground for their respective disciplines.
Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years is a 16-year window into Peter Voulkos’ experimentation with ceramic between 1953 and 1968. The survey contains a few jars and vases, demonstrating that the man was not just an enfant terrible in the potting studio, but had the formal abilities to master the wheel and create elegant vessels—fat and thin. But in comparison to the rest of the work, those traditionally sound wheel-thrown pieces are the least remarkable of the works. Any avenue into the exhibition will greet the viewer with a work that looks like it came from a bad day in the studio. “Tientos” is one such example: a 55-inch totem consisting of over a dozen pots that appear to have fallen off the wheel and been heaped together. The description may be crude, but it is fitting; while we might expect a ceramic artist to include specific glazes and clays within the medium, Voulkos includes the process, pushing beyond “wheel-thrown” or “slab” to include words like paddled, gouged, and ripped.
For the exhibition, “Tientos” also functions as a cairn for what’s to come. The path Voulkos has blazed is mired in process and brute physicality and doesn’t simply push the boundaries of tradition: It violently attacks them.
The overall scope of the exhibition demonstrates an evolving process. Voulkos abandoned traditional vessel-making for something more sculptural. In the span of a few years, the works grew larger and briefly flirted with figurative abstraction. Eventually, as the works continued to get larger, the nature of the abstraction grew out of the process itself: a bridge to more contemporary fine art practices of the period. One such example is “Sitting Bull,” a Picasso-esque 69” x 37” x 37” hulk of glazed stonewear. At its scale, it’s a combined feat of speed and patience. If built up too fast while the clay was too wet, the sculpture would slump. Too dry and it might crumble. A second example would be “Red Though Black #3,” a 70” square painting incorporating sand and clay that stylistically might find common ground with Franz Kline. Neither of these works scream “pottery,” and both have the conviction that—despite millennia stating otherwise—clay isn’t simply a material that needs to be associated solely with craft and functionality.
Eventually the works hit a wall—figuratively speaking (though it would be no surprise to learn he literally threw pots against a wall). The latter half of the exhibition makes clear his experiments with high-key colored glazes and use of paints to color his ceramic sculptures continued to trail-blaze, but they have all the delicacy of a child scribbling with a crayon. A series of all-black vessels closes the exhibition. Thrown and assembled in 1968—each about 3 feet in height—these asymmetrical constructions are about the only body of work that feels remotely political (considering their year of creation—though such a read might be apocryphal). As a group they have a commanding presence. But taken individually, and in comparison to earlier pieces, their forms feel self-conscious.
Unlike the Voulkos exhibition, which offers a relatively narrow window into the artist’s indefatigable output, June Schwarcz: Invention and Variation is a full retrospective, covering 60 years of her career’s work in enamel. While the materials of her art are intrinsically elegant, it’s in the subtle nature of her craft where she pushed boundaries.
As the exhibition catalog and wall texts indicate, the technical aspects of enamelling are what attracted Schwarcz to the medium in the early 1950s. However, since fusing glass to metal can yield unpredictable results, it would seem her career as an enamelist was one of asserting greater control over the fluids of melted glass. To gain control over where the color would reside, Schwarcz applied the printmaking techniques of etching into her copper supports, unknowingly working in a centuries-old technique called basse-taille. However, unlike the traditional approach, she would use acid baths like a printmaker, further complicating the quality of her etches and texture of her surfaces.
Applied in thin layers, through repeated kiln firings, the colored glass is at times controlled. An early example would be “Bowl #316,” where the colors are in specific locations in a pattern in the belly of the bowl. Such tight control could allow for specific placement of glass particles in even the smallest recesses of a vessel. With subsequent layering of clear and colored glasses, the result is an iridescence that defies specific color tones within several of her pieces.
Eventually, the thinness of the copper became a limitation to overcome. In 1962, with the help of her husband, an engineer, she constructed a 30-gallon tank to electroplate copper. The process would incrementally build upon the surface of her bowls over the course of several hours or several days, thickening copper walls, and increasing the textures of her forms.
The Fortuny bowls also reveal fashion’s influence on Schwarcz. But fashion was not her only influence. Several pieces incorporate references to Romanesque façades, Renaissance masterworks, kimonos, and even her husband’s blueprints for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
The process of electroplating proved a valuable technique in later years when she would stitch pieces of copper together and electroplate them to fortify their vessel walls. But the fortification of forms wasn’t limited to copper foil: It was a technique she also applied to copper mesh, like “Vessel #2332,” which was given a patina, rather than enameled. The result is a seemingly solid form that could appear both opaque and translucent, depending on the angle encountered. And they seem a perfect foil to Voulkos’ all black pots: a whisper that overpowers a rant.
Though Schwarcz’s exhibition opened nearly a full month before Voulkos’, the exhibitions were intended to pair, and they do so masterfully. Where it seems Voulkos tried to create chaos, Schwarcz attempted to tame it. Where Voulkos appears to destroy, Schwarcz appears to construct. Where Voulkos seems to change with rapid shifts, Schwarcz negotiates change more methodically and deliberately. Regardless of means, both pushed the boundaries of their respective media through accident, experimentation, and patient awareness of their materials’ limitations, albeit sometimes haphazardly.
Both on view at the At the Renwick Gallery to August 20 and August 27, respectively.1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Free. (202) 633-2850. renwick.americanart.si.edu.