The Last Testament of Ken Price

Ken Price: Balls Congo, 2003, acrylic on fired ceramic, 22 by 18 by 18 inches. Collection Linda Schlenger.

All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. All LACMA photos Fredrik Nilsen.


THE SUPERB SHOW “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective” bears the unique distinction of being the final show the artist helped to plan. During his last two and a half years, before his death in February 2012 at age 77, Price contributed extensively to preparations for the show, which was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and designed by Frank Gehry, the artist’s friend since the 1960s.

Price, who lived sometimes in Los Angeles and sometimes outside Taos, N.M., worked almost exclusively in ceramics. He was being treated for cancer in L.A. when he learned that the show’s curator, LACMA’s Stephanie Barron, had secured the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as its final venue, after Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center. Feeling that he had never quite gotten his due from the New York art world and taking this news as vindication, he opted to discontinue what had become largely unsuccessful treatment and devote his remaining time to creating work and preparing the exhibition, according to Barron. “One of the bravest acts I’ve ever seen,” said Price’s son-in-law, Carl Colonius, at a memorial service in L.A. last fall, “was his decision to die.”

Price created objects that reside “on the line between bewitching and ludicrous,” as critic Dave Hickey quotes him in the catalogue. They are mostly small—topping out at 30 inches high—and take a wide range of shapes. They evoke manifold associations—architecture, body parts, alien creatures—and are often loosely grouped by critics and curators into classifications such as lumps, blobs, eggs, mounds, moon rocks and geometrics.

Though he made cups and plates along with nonfunctional sculptures early on, Price’s signal achievement was to create compelling abstract sculptures in clay that have a beauty and mystery all their own, despite the material often being given short shrift in the fine-art world, particularly on the East Coast. In 1964, when Price was just 29, Artforum editor Philip Leider significantly identified two artists—Price and Robert Irwin—as being at the center of the L.A. avant-garde, and in a 1966 LACMA catalogue essay, critic Lucy Lippard wrote that “no one else, on the east or west coast, is working like Kenneth Price.”

The current exhibition, which debuted in September 2012 at LACMA, presents 100 objects (there will be slightly fewer at subsequent venues), spanning from 1959 to 2011. At LACMA they were displayed in reverse chronological order. (This arrangement will largely be honored in New York, as it is in Dallas.) Among the first things visitors encountered in L.A. were seductive, sensuous, eerie and funny objects from Price’s last dozen or so years, which he described as “rounded forms with active surfaces.”

These include Hunchback of Venice (2000), which recalls a giant, misshapen inchworm making its awkward way along a branch: an elevated, central blob rests on two ungainly supports, one crescent-shaped and ending in a small, round, open mouth. To describe as “active” its spectacularly colorful surface, where tiny amoeba shapes in bright green, red, blue and white proliferate in a radioactive buzz of color, would be a wild understatement.

And there’s Venus (2000), in which fewer hues (metallic blues and reds) adorn a shape that suggests a rearing cobra—a neck, curving at its top, rises from a blob—or an unusually flexible phallus stemming from an outsize testicle. Equally up-front about its sexuality, at least in its title, is Balls Congo (2003), whose surface, too, is dominated by tiny, swarming shapes of blue and red. Multiple spheres at the sculpture’s bottom seem testicular, the ceramic by which they dangle tentacular. They could be the appendages of a squid. The sculpture seems virtually to spring up, startled, off its pedestal.

Price said that he hoped his sculptures would appear to be made from color. In his later works, he applied as many as 75 layers of acrylic paint in several hues. (He stopped using glazes in 1983.) Selective sanding then partially revealed underlying strata, producing surfaces often referred to as speckled, stippled or mottled, words that fall short in conveying the works’ mesmerizing chromatic effects. Photographs of Price’s studio in the exhibition catalogue reveal sequential color charts, with overlapping swatches, that served as plans for paint applications. He employed a wide range of techniques to achieve his finishes—wiping with Q-tips or with a cloth soaked in denatured alcohol, varying the constitution of his clay, sanding wet, sanding dry, and firing as many as 20 times. Though they were the product of much labor, these richly varied surfaces often appear as though they had occurred naturally, like the weathering of a stone.

Gehry designed the exhibition at all venues with detailed input from the artist. (The architect is also a lender to the show.) For example, Gehry told me that not only did Price refuse his suggestion of non-white pedestals, but he specified every pedestal’s height, to allow each sculpture to properly occupy the surrounding space. In many instances, overhangs that allow lighting from above, which Price required, also subtly enclose groups of pieces in an appropriately modest-sized area.

To house some of these groupings, Gehry devised one of the exhibition’s inspired features by enlarging to the scale of small rooms the elegant wood-edged vitrines in which Price sometimes displayed his works. In one of these large cases, various egglike sculptures from the early 1960s, most less than a foot high, seem to defy gravity as each piece stands on end, apparently unaided. Among these is L. Blue (1961), in which, from a central, vertical crevice in an object shaped vaguely like a cartoon heart, protrude three fingerlike green shapes that are, comically, at once phallic and labial.

BORN IN LOS ANGELES in 1935, Price earned a BFA in 1956 from the University of Southern California, along with artist Billy Al Bengston, whom he had met on a surfing trip and who became a lifelong friend. He took ceramics courses at the Chouinard Art Institute and the Otis College of Art and Design (then known as the Los Angeles County Art Institute) over the following year. Otis’s ceramics department had been founded by Peter Voulkos, whom Price called “the hero of American ceramics” and whose approach to the medium as abstract sculpture inspired his student, as did the ceramics of Picasso, Miró and Asian craftsmen. In 1959 Price earned an MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. His gallery debut, in a group show at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery, came just a year later, when he was 25. Having returned to L.A., he had quickly established himself in that city’s then nascent art scene, of which, due to Voulkos’s prominence, ceramics were a vital part. Price would show numerous times at Ferus, along with such artists as Irwin, Jay DeFeo and Ed Kienholz.

Price’s first works include both completely abstract examples, such as Avocado Mountain (1959), the show’s earliest piece, a heavy-set, shiny dark-green mound, and many fanciful cups, sometimes featuring noses or wartlike growths. He enclosed some of these cups or abstract blobs in Cornell-like boxes. Some cups assume the shapes of fauna, like the Blind Sea Turtle Cup (1968), in which the cup fuses with the shell of a turtle that crawls on a bed of sand in a foot-wide wooden tray. Geometric, brightly hued drinking vessels appear in the ’70s, along with a number of “slate cups,” made up of, and surrounded and sometimes interrupted by, jagged-edged sheets that seem torn from the earth.

In the early ’70s, having vacationed in New Mexico and wanting to raise his children away from L.A., Price moved to the Taos area. Much of that decade saw him working on Happy’s Curios (1972-77), a group of works devoted to Happy Price, his wife from 1968 until his death, and inspired by Mexican pottery. These include plates, vases, bowls, mugs and cups, painted with motifs of Southwestern life, complete with colorful houses and men in sombreros, installed in custom-designed shelving units. Price originally hoped to open a store in which he would display them, though that plan never came to fruition.

While today’s all-embracing (some might say all-consuming) art scene exhibits a postmodern openness to widely diverse mediums, in Price’s early days, the divide between art and craft was far less permeable. Barron notes in the catalogue that in the postwar years, museums often classified works in clay as decorative arts rather than sculpture. She suggests that Happy’s Curios, which struck many critics as too folksy, led to a degree of ghettoization for Price; she supplies a litany of group shows in which he was subsequently included, all devoted to ceramics. His reintegration into the art world, she says, came several years later, when he stopped glazing his works and began to paint them in acrylics.

Interpenetration of inside and outside is key to Price’s works, perhaps as a holdover from his early cups and bowls, objects for which voids are functionally essential. He explored this relationship from the beginning, for example in L. Blue, with its creepy appendages emerging from its interior. Straight through to Hunchback of Venice, almost every work in the show features some hole, crevice or cavity. The early ’80s, when he was still glazing his output, saw a series of brightly hued, geometric pieces that sometimes recall spaceships, with holes that suggest the necks of bottles, followed by rocklike works in the late ’80s that might come in two parts.

Big Load (1988) and Pastel (1995) use such holes to create a teasing optical play: in each work, the hole appears at the corner of a rectilinear section seemingly sliced out of a rocklike form. It’s hard to tell if the small black void there is painted (for a trompe-l’oeil effect) or actual. These are also among the earliest works to exhibit his distinctive mottled/ speckled, multicolored surfaces. In Big Load and Pastel, where a piece has apparently been cut away, a bright monochrome interior is revealed.

IT WAS IN THE MID-’90s that Price’s works took on the slinky, biomorphic shapes that would characterize his oeuvre thereafter. The only remnant of the geometry of the ’80s works is to be found in the shapes of the cavities or cutaways, such as the triangular void in Sweet Paste (1994), which appears in an otherwise rounded, bumpy blob, or the square and circular holes, respectively, on lumpy moon rocklike shapes in Pastel and Phobia from the following year.

The artist was limited to what he called “household sculptures scale” until he built a larger studio in 2010. But the results of his excursion into increased scale were mixed. No larger clay works are included in the show. However, two works as large as 6 feet to a side do appear, fabricated in bronze from smaller, handmade clay models. Much as one hates to say it, Ordell and Yogi (both 2011–12) are not among the show’s standouts, as they lack the subtle shapes and chromatic play of Price’s best works. Bulgogi, a 7-foot-high mound of egg shapes in iridescent purple, gold and brown, which was concurrently on view at Matthew Marks Gallery in Los Angeles, is more successful. Like Heap (2004) and 100% Pure (2005), both included in the LACMA show, Bulgogi, which is named after a Korean barbecue dish, is inescapably fecal in appearance. Its shimmering finish suggests the droppings of some magical beast, perhaps unicorn poop.

The retrospective also includes a small selection of works on paper in acrylic and ink from 2000 to 2011, mostly inspired by the New Mexico landscape. Even the artist’s wonder at these beautiful surroundings was balanced with humor, manifest in cartoonishly amped-up or misfit colors, like the vivid green waters in Glass Off (2000). At the September memorial service, artist Vija Celmins recalled watching desert sunsets with Price and critiquing them as if they were artworks. A 2005 acrylic and ink depiction of trailers under a pink sky sardonically imagines a sordid use for the isolated locale. Its title: High Country Meth Labs.

Besides contributing to the show’s organization, Price was also involved, along with the L.A. design firm Green Dragon Office, in the exhibition catalogue, which, if there’s any justice in this world, will win awards for its arresting style. It features essays by Barron, Gehry, Hickey and Phyllis Tuchman, and reprints numerous interviews with and writings on Price, compiled by Santa Fe-based art writer and curator MaLin Wilson-Powell. There’s also a detailed, illustrated timeline of the artist’s life.

In addition to the current retrospective, Price’s work has experienced heightened exposure, appearing, for example, in four of the “Pacific Standard Time” exhibitions in 2011 and ’12, organized by the Getty Institute, which focused on Southern California artists; a survey of his drawings will be mounted at New York’s Drawing Center this summer. But as crowds gathered at LACMA for the opening of his show, Colonius suggested that had Price been alive, he might well have preferred to remain working in the studio that night, with a Dodgers game playing in the background. Many of Price’s artist friends, including Celmins and Ed Ruscha, remembered Price at the memorial service that evening. Speaking of Price’s spiritual approach to his work, Tony Berlant quoted him as demurring, “I only provide the labor.” Ron Nagle, stressing the artist’s humility, recalled his saying, “We’re so lucky to get to make stuff.”

“Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective” debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Sept. 16, 2012-Jan. 6, 2013. “Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” a survey of the artist’s drawings, will be at the Drawing Center, New York, June 19–Aug. 18.

CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective,” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, through May 12; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 18-Sept. 22.