Winning the Race: Ken Price Drawings

Ken Price, Untitled, 1992, acrylic and ink on paper, 20 ¼ x 25 ¾ inches.


The L.A. artist Ken Price, mostly known for his ceramic sculptures, is in the spotlight in New York, where a retrospective of his sculptures opened this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Sept. 22) and an incomparable group of works on paper, by turns racy, tender and sublime, is on view at the Drawing Center.  

Prior to finding his voice in ceramics, Price was initially trained in illustration and cartooning at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts).  Early works in the show, such as K.P.’s Journey to the East (1962) and Sea Turtle Cup (1969), reveal Price’s attachment to these illustrative art forms, a narrative predilection rarely seen in his almost purely abstract ceramic works. Such “bi-polar but interconnected tendencies” are one of the more interesting aspects of Price’s lifelong practice, said the exhibition’s curator, Douglas Dreishpoon, chief curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y., at a press preview Tuesday morning. 

For example, K.P.’s Journey to the East, a 10-foot-by-9-inch, ink-on-paper scroll that catalogues the artist’s 1962 travels in Japan, functions as the touchstone for the show. Explicit humor and wit pervade the scroll’s drawings and accompanying text. On his journey, Price, “a mystical white man in the mountains,” witnesses a samurai sword fight and ritual bathing by local geishas. The graphite-on-paper Sea Turtle Cup, meanwhile, shows the titular animal swimming underwater, a giant mug seemingly fused to its shell.

Throughout the landscapes and in many of Price’s “specimen” drawings from the 1960s and early ’70s, Eros plays a central role. Specimen on Pillow Base (1968) features the architectonic rendering, in colored pencil and craypas, of a tangerine-hued square. On the topmost surface of the shape, a semi-cylindrical cut-out awkwardly cradles one of Price’s favored egg forms, its turquoise shell offset by the soft pink of protruding labial bumps and crevices. In Liquid Rock (2004), lava explodes upward from a distant volcano. A river of molten rock oozes toward the picture’s lower edge, the material’s flecks of orange and yellow echoing the type of surface treatment Price so often employed for his multi-layered sculptures, which feature mottled and sanded areas of color that expose underlying layers, often of psychedelic hues. 

Price often “courted abstraction as a way to obfuscate his interest in pictorial sexuality,” Dreishpoon said at the press preview. “This [expression] is present, however, in the drawings. They were a very important part of him, of his very being.” 

Price said that he hoped his sculptures would seem to be made of color, and the most impressive aspect of the artist’s paper-based output is his impeccable sense of chroma. In one example after the next, the sculptor surprises with his command of optical effects, a skill honed during his time spent either under the L.A. sky or gazing toward the horizon of the desert near Taos, N.M., the two places where he lived the bulk of his life. 

Never the showman, Price worked tirelessly and prolifically. His was a “slow burn,” Dreishpoon said, one where the divergent sensibilities of abstraction and realism, sculpture and drawing offered a balanced vocabulary for his thoroughly original creative expression. 

“Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962-2010” will travel to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y. (Sept. 27, 2013-Jan. 19, 2014) and the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, N.M. (Feb. 22-May 4, 2014).