Camelback Mountain

Peter Voulkos (American, 1924–2002)

Object Place: Berkeley, California, United States


115.57 x 49.53 x 51.43 cm (45 1/2 x 19 1/2 x 20 1/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


On View

Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell Gallery (Gallery 327)


Americas, Contemporary Art



Peter Voulkos led a group of California ceramists who radically changed American ceramic arts in the 1950s by moving the field toward abstraction, playful handling of materials, and personal expression. In the early 1950s, after earning his M.F.A. in ceramics at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Voulkos became fascinated by the qualities of improvisation and assemblage found in various media including jazz music, Japanese folk pottery, and the art of Pablo Picasso, Juan Miro, David Smith, and the avant-garde Abstract Expressionist painters. After founding the ceramics department at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1954, he assembled a group of highly talented students who formed something of a revolutionary enclave. His radicalism led to conflict with the Institute’s director, Millard Sheets, and in 1959 Voulkos left to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. He continued to be a influential teacher for decades; he traveled widely and gave exciting workshops during which he demonstrated the spontaneous and playful qualities of his work.

Voulkos assembled Camelback Mountain from hollow, wheel-thrown pots which were then paddled and compressed to destroy their symmetrical shapes. These altered pots, some gouged or sliced open to reveal internal space, were then stacked and attached, creating a dynamic form with contrasting areas of light and shadow, void and mass. While the work exists as a non-functional, sculptural object, it also explores the essence of ceramic vessel forms as open and closed containers. Moreover, this work celebrates the earthy and messy qualities of the clay medium. Camelback Mountain demonstrates how Voulkos’ work revolutionized the clay medium not by merely imitating contemporary sculpture or painting, but by exploiting clay in a fresh and direct way.

This text was adapted from Ward, et al., MFA Highlights: American Decorative Arts & Sculpture (Boston, 2006) available at


Purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Stephen D. Paine, 1967 from David Stuart Gallery, Los Angeles; to MFA, 1978, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen D. Paine.

Credit Line

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen D. Paine


© Voulkos Family Trust. Ann Voulkos, Trustee.