Ken Price (1935–2012) wanted his ceramics to look like they were made out of color—and that was certainly the effect of those exhibited in the North Gallery of Hauser & Wirth’s impressive survey show. Displayed on plinths and softly spotlit, the sixteen pieces appeared intensely radiant, almost jewel-like. Even the earliest works, made before Price’s palette brightened up, were shown to be richly, delectably glazed: Avocado Mountain (1959) is a pockmarked hump slathered in various shades of lusciously grimy green, while an untitled work from 1962, a sort of sci-fi egg object, shimmers with moody, burnished hues. But for the true quintessence of color, it was the globular, biomorphic sculptures Price began making in the late ’80s that carried the day, and these made up the majority of works here. Building up layers of acrylic paint and then sanding them back, Price produced speckled and stippled surface patterns of such lurid luminosity, such psychedelic scintillation, that the objects seem to achieve a kind of immateriality. Reaching a pinnacle of gloopy sinuousness during the early 2000s, these forms have the crisp, liquid appearance of some sort of digital creation, entities of pure pulsating color.
Over in the South Gallery building, the colors weren’t quite as ecstatic, the aim being more about presenting an overview of Price’s career, with a particular focus on his pottery. His small cups from the ’60s are delicately patterned with earth-toned, crackled glazes, their forms squat and segmented and somehow vaguely archaic, with fanciful sculptural elements occasionally thrown in, such as a snail crawling up toward a rim. Following those, numerous works Price made in the ’70s and early ’80s after he moved to New Mexico and became inspired by Mexican-style tourist pottery pushed the figurative elements further, culminating in plates and cups that were treated as mere surfaces for depictions of pueblo scenes. But during the same period, there were also pieces that moved in the completely opposite direction, consisting of abstract chunks and angular broken shapes that resemble nothing so much as mineral specimens. Indeed, given these fascinatingly opposed tendencies, it was surprising that the vitrines included nothing from his pivotal geometric phase of the ’70s, where vessels were deconstructed into complex, angular forms, barely recognizable yet at the same time still functional. There was a single such piece, in the North Gallery; but in the South Gallery this body of work was represented only through preparatory drawings—the effect of which, despite their rich watercolors, was simply to make you yearn for the full realizations.
Indeed, most of the works on paper—which ranged from annotated technical sketches to detailed preliminary renderings of animal-themed cups to erotic portrayals of Hispanic women bathing in lagoons—were far less interesting than the ceramics. The problem is that such pieces lack the seriousness of Price’s three-dimensional works, which, even at their most whimsical or psychedelically abstracted, inherently offer some sort of twist on notions of craft and tradition, often seeking to subtly maintain the distinction between internality and externality that’s fundamental to the vessel form.
Only in the South Gallery’s final room was there anything like equivalence between the different mediums, in a body of work Price made in the ’90s, after moving back to his native Los Angeles. The depictions are of power stations and choking urban environments, done in sharp, caustic colors and a crisp-lined, noirish style—and they’re extremely effective, regardless of whether the images reside on pottery or on paper. If anything, it’s actually the drawings here that continue the main thrust of his investigations, with their recurring motif—of apartment interiors with city views out of windows—expanding on the core division between inside and outside space.
The 12 new abstract sculptures that Ken Price recently installed at Matthew Marks’s 22nd Street space felt like an extended family, with three large-scale pieces in painted bronze composite displayed on low-lying platforms at the front of the gallery and smaller pieces on pedestals beyond. The works (all but one 2009) ranged in form from unitary and simple to convoluted and complex, and in spirit from playful and humorous (as reflected in titles like Lying Around, Fung and Weezie) to serious and unsettling.
Price fires most of his ceramics before adding painted colors in multiple layers (sometimes as many as 30), which, when sanded, form an iridescent skin that becomes each work’s distinctive exterior personality. Since the 1990s, Price has favored the biomorphic; his output, including a steady stream of works on paper, is prolific.
With his colorful hand-built cups, mounds and eggs of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Price was one of the pioneers who transformed the utilitarian past of ceramics into a sculptural future. His approach to polychromy continues to evolve with impressive finesse. In the recent show, the piece titled Maureen, in which sausage-shaped components balance amoebic blobs, was characteristic of the sheer visual beauty and rambunctious playfulness of the recent work. Like kindred pieces Eskimo LA and Hello Isaac, Maureen stands out as a feat of sculptural choreography: eccentric forms improvised in space, pliant and graceful, with a touch of understated drama.
If works like Zoot and The Loop project buoyant confidence, Eeezo (fired and painted clay, 1995-2009), which was sequestered in its own room, feels prickly and aggressive, a wayward sibling. Within a pocked and polypoid surface, a mouthlike orifice opens, guarded by a pair of tentacle-like fingers. This mutant hulk (20 by 24 by 7 inches), anomalous in the present company, languished for years in Price’s studio until it was pulled out, cleaned off and armored with a metallic apricot-colored overcoat. The mysterious hole at its center seems to signify its ocular heart, or an erogenous zone—deep, dark and silent. Such voids appear as the throats of cuplike vessels in Price’s earliest work, and they reappear intermittently in later sculptures as something akin to dream portals, opening a poetic space between what is known and what is unknowable.
Photo: View of Ken Price’s exhibition, showing (foreground) Maureen, 2009, fired and painted clay, 20 by 18 by 17 inches; at Matthew Marks.