Another Obituary…

… this time the great KEN PRICE

Ken Price, one of the outstanding artists of postwar America, (in any genre) died on Friday, of cancer, at his home in Arroyo Hondo, N.M., outside Taos. He was 77.

Price belonged to a talent-rich generation of artists who emerged across the United States in the late 1950s and ’60s, responding to the innovations of Abstract Expressionism with innovations of their own. Until the last decade of his life, when he started working larger, his compressed, bravura objects rarely measured more than 10 or 20 inches on a side. Their forms oscillated between the biomorphic and the geometric, the geological and the architectural.

A southern Califonian he went to art schools at Chouinard and Santa Monica where he discovered  clay and earned his BFA at U.S.C then attended graduate college with Peter Voulkos,at what is now called Otis, who was applying the scale and gestural freedom of Abstract Expressionism to large clay forms. Voulkos’s conviction that ceramics was a full-blown art was a galvanizing antidote to what  Price called the “crafts-dogma hell” he had encountered in other schools. But finding Voulkos’s influence oppressive after a while, he attended the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in western New York — famous for its traditional studio ceramics program —   where he completed a two-year master’s program in one.

On return to California his small exquisitely finished sculptures in glazed or painted clay established him as a leader in the meticulous objectmaking ‘Fetish finish’ school  that centred at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and which helped make that town an art centre in the USA. With other artists such as John Chamberlain, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, Price contributed toward making vibrant colour a legitimate  part of sculpture, often with the use of automobile enamel and lacquer.

His early ovoid ‘Eggs’ were intensely coloured, punctuated with openings from which  small forms suggesting fingers or worms protruded. Beautiful and disturbing, these small-scale objects were often presented on high pedestals so that attention was called to their every shift in colour, texture and shape because of their eye-level presence.

Later small forms were more complex but the brilliant colour remained and forms often had the addition of a painted  apparent opening that carried the viewer deep into the interior of the piece whilst remaining aware that it was simply surface being viewed. He began painting his forms with scores of thin layers of bright acrylic paint that he then sanded down in patches, revealing multiple hues. Undulant surfaces treated this way suggested rough-hewn stones or meteors from a Technicolor world. On smoother forms the process could yield tiny pore-like starbursts of contrasting colors, to startlingly skin-like effect.

He worked for many years only upon cup forms and, in this, influenced Ron Nagle who admired Price above all others and also decided to concentrate upon the cup as primal ceramic form and sculptural object/subject with endless potential.  Both worked on this form for much of their careers, applying striking colour and formal variations that, despite the parity in subject matter, and the label ‘fetish finish’, together with implicit  intimations of control, patience and obsession, remained distinctly their own.  Price’s first solo show in New York, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, consisted only of cups.

The critic Lucy R. Lippard identified  Price as “something of a Surrealist, something of a purist, something of an expressionist, something of a naturalist.”  Price himself remarked on the associational richness in his work in a letter to a friend in 1959. Referring to one of his mound-shaped sculptures — which preceded the Eggs and would form his 1960 Ferus debut — he wrote that making it kindled “fond memories of mountain peaks, breasts, eggs, worms, worm trails, the damp undersides of things, intestines, veins and the like.”

Price’s museum installation, honouring roadside stalls south of the border, called “Happy’s Curios” toured many cities and was in honour of his wife, Happy and a long admiration for Mexican folk pottery. Together, from their base in New Mexico, they would travel down to Mata Ortiz and other ceramics producing villages.  Price showed with top New York galleries such as Leo Castelli, Franklin Parrasch and Mathew Marks while in L.A. after the ground-breaking Ferus closed, he showed with Corcoran and most recently with  L.A.Louver. He never considered ceramics–only situations preferring his work to be seen with main-stream sculpture.  He was given a survey of his work in Houston in 1992 and a 50-year retrospective will open this year at LA County Museum of Art  (LACMA). in September then travel to Dallas and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013.

His greatest achievements were the establishment of small scale as opposed to the Voukos/Price-led move to monumental in clay, vibrant colour in a genre noted for sobriety and the natural surface and contributing to a revolution in ceramics that was in many ways the true genesis of the Southern California art scene. Allied with Voulkos and John Mason he insisted on ceramics as high art — an argument that Ken Price, a man of few but well-chosen words, left to his sculptures to articulate.

Many years ago at Ron Nagle’s urging, I tried to get him as a Fletcher judge and he was tempted, as apparently his wife has relatives here. Eventually he refused intimating that it was this singular insistence upon ceramics as high art that did not allow him to support a ceramics-only competition.  It is the refusal that I most regret.


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