Ken Price at The Met

It is rare indeed that the New York Times expends space on a ceramics show in its arts section (daily arts section, you might note, just like sports here)

Here is cover of the retrospective show of the late, great, Ken Price who died last year, at 77,  in his long-term home in Taos, New Mexico.

Price is only the second contemporary ceramic artist (the show was booked in before his death) to merit a show at the Metropolitan in New York. First was Betty Woodman about 3-4 years ago.

To see images go to the NY Times/arts and click on images under the heading picture.

A Career of Bumps and Twists

Tableware? Toys? Genetic accidents? Objets d’art? The ceramic sculptures of Ken Price suggest all these possibilities and many more. To the market’s old divide-and-label query, “Is this art or craft?,” Price offered one finessing answer: “Yes.”

And right he was.

You see the rightness instantly in “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is one of those rare ideal shows: right size, great design (by Frank Gehry), pretty near faultless art. Ideal, too, in a plainer way, is a concurrent survey of the artist’s works on paper, “Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” at the Drawing Center in SoHo.

Price, who died last year at 77, was in certain ways a classic Southern Californian. Born in Los Angeles and raised there in the 1930s and ’40s, as a kid he lived for surfing and jazz, and he had art on the brain from the start: drawing, painting, sculpturing, he liked it all.

Where he departed from the stereotype was in the matter of focus: creatively, there was nothing laid-back about him. He was alert, hungry for input. One day on the beach he met a surfer named Billy Al Bengston, a serious painter who, like Price, had an interest in ceramics. They buddied up and eventually shared a studio, but while Mr. Bengston stuck with painting, for Price clay became the way.

It was not, however, the way in most art schools, where the art-craft divide was firm. At the University of Southern California, Price ended up studying, among other things, cartooning and animation.

He made a major shift in 1957, when he was a graduate student at what is now Otis College of Art and Design. There he worked with Peter Voulkos, who is often credited with shifting ceramics, in the art world’s eyes, from craft to fine-art status.

Voulkos, a big-gestured sculptor in the Abstract Expressionist mode, was a don’t-talk-but-do-as-I-do sort of teacher. And what he did was work with clay every day in the Otis studios.

Seeing Voulkos in action and working beside him had a deep effect on Price, who always seems to have learned more from experience than from instruction. On early surfing trips to Mexico, he paid close attention to folk pottery sold in Tijuana shops, noting that even objects produced in bulk were individually enlivened by flourishes and flaws that came with handmaking. In the early 1960s he traveled to Japan — in a charming pen-and-ink scroll at the Drawing Center he depicts himself as a visiting pooh-bah — less to gather technical tips than to feel the vibes of a place where great pots were made.

For Price, nature was a real presence. In the 1930s, Los Angeles was still rural around the edges. He grew up at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, near the sea. Mountainous landscapes recur in his drawings. Some of his sculptures look like things that were fished from tidal pools: extravagant crustaceans, tangles of kelp and a variety of oozy, amphibious eel-ish critters.

And he was soaked — what young person isn’t? — in visual pop culture, which in the 1940s and ’50s meant, among other things, comic books, monster movies and advertising. He embraced it all, though selectively, in the same way he did modern art, paying attention to Abstract Expressionism’s appetite for color; to Joan Miró’s soft-porn blobs and curves; to Joseph Cornell’s blend of adorableness and abjection.

The Met show — organized by Stephanie Barron, senior curator and department head of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and overseen in New York by Marla Prather — is arranged in reverse chronological sequence, with late Price coming first.

Strategically, this makes sense. His last sculptures are his largest, weirdest and, with their wondrous surface patterning, prettiest. You see them and you want to see more of him. Yet an early-to-late narrative is well worth tracing.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, as if in recoil from Voulkos’s dour, crushing work, Price went light, bright and anti-titanic. Instead of clay colossi, he made ceramic cups. Some were ornamented with frogs, turtles or snails, like children’s breakfast mugs. Others had handles in the shape of branches or stems, like jade brush holders found on a Chinese scholar’s table.

Mr. Bengston was also making cups at the time, as was the slightly younger artist Ron Nagle, a Voulkos acolyte (and a star of this year’s Venice Biennale). All three were learning about the power of smallness. As Price correctly perceived, diminutive doesn’t have to mean dinky. Imaginatively shaped, a very small object can seem more monumental than something many times its size.

For Price, such insights were arrived at through experimentation. At first, for example, he enclosed some of his cups in display cases, as if uncertain that they would otherwise be perceived as art. Such framing became unnecessary as the cup forms, broken down into modular cubes or stacks of craggy planes, lost all pretense to utility, making them sculptures for sure.

Even after he retired the cup as an image, he kept exploring what was most salient about it sculpturally: namely, that it wasn’t a solid mass, but a container, with an inside and an outside of equal importance. Containment itself, put under psychological pressure, became a recurrent subject of Price’s. His first noncup series, in the 1960s, featured egg-shaped sculptures. With their smooth exteriors and vivid, sharp colors — the paint is automobile lacquer — these roughly ovoid objects look solid from a distance. But when you get closer, you see that the surfaces are pierced by orifices from which abstract forms, phallic or fecal, protrude like tongues or groping fingers. The recurrent image is of a high-polish shell hiding appalling activity, sexual or excremental, or both.

Price stayed fixed on this drama of dark recesses even as his sculptural forms changed. Gradually growing larger, they moved from quasi-architectural to freakishly organic. By the early 1990s, he was turning out warty, bulbous, fruitlike lumps that combined realism and fantasy, comedy and pathology in ways reminiscent of Basil Wolverton’s 1950s Mad magazine portrait heads and of gloriously schlumpy Oribe-wear tea bowls.

What saves even outrageous forms from grossness, though, is color, the element that Price ultimately cared about most, worked hardest at, and mastered most completely. By the late 1990s, his forms had simplified — no more orifices, no more interiors — and his colors had grown staggeringly complex, as he covered pieces with up to 70 coats of different-colored acrylic paint, sanding surfaces between applications or swiping them with pigment-dissolving fluid to create mottled and speckled patterns of breathtaking depth and subtlety.

Such fine-grained effects would have been lost on a four-inch-tall cup. But they can be fully savored on sculptures that, by the end of Price’s career, had attained an average height of two feet, twice that in the case of the all-black “Ordell,” completed the year he died. This work comes at the front of the show, exquisitely framed by Mr. Gehry’s multivista design.

The Met retrospective also has several of the artist’s paintings on paper, all landscapes, and dozens more are at the Drawing Center. Price drew almost daily for 50 years, in a crisp, sophisticated pop style. The Drawing Center survey, organized by Douglas Dreishpoon, chief curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, gives some sense of his range, with sculptural studies, book illustrations, cartoons and erotica.

But, as at the Met, landscapes dominate, and they’re odd, disturbed, eschatological images of erupting volcanoes, rising seas and a bleak world viewed from the mouth of a cave. Price has often been celebrated by his fans as an upholder of the pleasure principle, that California specialty, in an era when art was idea-intensive and political. I wonder about that evaluation, though. His surfaces are as gorgeous as Pacific sunsets. But they cover some tough subterranean stuff.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Ken Price at The Met

  1. Thanks Moyra, informative as usual.

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