May 17, 2015


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Lot 113: Billy Al Bengston

Lot 113: Billy Al Bengston

Mugs (2)

c. 1957
Partially glazed stoneware
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.)
Estimate: $2,000 - $3,000
Price Realized: $5,625
Inventory Id: 19113

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American ceramics over the last century have both evolved and endured, but Southern California holds claim as the breeding ground for revolutionary aesthetic and technical changes in the field. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, a group of Los Angeles ceramists demanded the medium’s cultural reappraisal—away from associations of simple utility and domesticity. Through audacious experiments with scale, color, surface and technique, and by sheer drive and tenacity, this small faction of artists—including Glen Lukens, Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner, John Mason, Henry Takemoto, Ken Price, and Billy Al Bengston—helped elevate the craft of ceramics to contemporary fine art.

In the 1950s, Otis College of Art and Design (then the Los Angeles County Art Institute) was the crucible for the medium’s dramatic changes under the banner of the California Clay Movement. But this story began some 20 years earlier when Glen Lukens (1887–1967) became the founding head of the ceramics department at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture in 1932. Lukens took a daring and unusual approach to pottery. Not simply decorative, his work married bright colors to raw, rough surfaces, inspired by the rugged landscape of the Mojave Desert, where the artist dug for alkalis to make glazes. More significantly, Lukens delighted in defects and happy accidents, such as cracked surfaces with hardened drops of over-applied glaze. His love of gesture and spontaneity would have a profound influence on other ceramists.

No one was more deeply affected by Lukens’s example than Peter Voulkos (1924–2002). Montana-born, the burly and charismatic artist honed his talents at, among other places, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the legendary school that nurtured such great artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ruth Asawa, and John Chamberlain. In 1954 Voulkos became head of the ceramics department at Otis College. He brought with him energy, strength, and a bold streak influenced by Abstract Expressionism—all new elements for the discipline. Voulkos composed works in slabs of clay: stacked, perforated, and torn. Aggressively glazed and built in large format, they are reminiscent of Franz Kline or Willem de Kooning paintings, but rendered in three dimensions. There is nothing utilitarian about Voulkos’s ceramics; they are sculptural manifestations of force.

The Otis kilns became the launching pad for this 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. At first with runic motifs, then in cruciform, John Mason (b. 1927) fabricated large-scale totemic sculptures; in his late career his art was geometric and minimalist. Henry Takemoto’s (b. 1930) 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 College, later became arguably the most important sculptor of ceramics in the late 20th century. Though from Voulkos he learned a freedom of expression in clay form, he would later reject his teacher’s penchant for big and brawny sculpture in favor of small, fierce pieces. Price developed a personal visual vocabulary that shifted back and forth between geometric shapes and biomorphic forms with eye-piercing, vibrantly colored surfaces.

Price, Mason, Soldner, and another Otis College alumnus, Billy Al Bengston (b. 1934), were among the first artists shown at Ferus Gallery—the venue credited with establishing Los Angeles as a contemporary arts center. Bengston, unlike the others, would forgo clay for paint—materials taken from the California car and motorcycle culture, like sprayed enamel on metal. Yet Bengston 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.

In recent years the art of ceramics has enjoyed consistent recognition at art institutions. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston opened a yearlong survey exhibition in January 2015 dedicated to the interpretation of more than a century of ceramic production in the United States, called Nature, Sculpture, Abstraction, and Clay 100 Years of American Ceramics. The show follows other acclaimed presentations of work in clay, mounted at major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Also at LACMA, in 2012 the museum exhibited Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective.

Adamson, Glenn, Wendy Kaplan, and Bobbye Tigerman. California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011. Print. Cerio, Gregory. “American Studio Ceramics at Midcentury. ” The Magazine Antiques 5 Mar. 2009. Print. Duncan, Michael, John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos. Clay’s Tectonic Shift, 1956-1968. Ed. Mary Davis MacNaughton. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012. Print. Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Rebels In Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s. New York: A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt and Company, 2011. Print.