Ken Price's sensuous clay sculptures have been compared to eggs, mounds, slugs, even Jabba the Hutt. Their sinuous curves, slumping volumes, and mottled, luminously colored surfaces are simultaneously natural and otherworldly, like chunks of rock from a glittery asteroid, or primordial slime arrested in mid-ooze. "We're always using analogies," says Stephanie Barron, curator of Price's current retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "because they don't look like anything else that I've ever seen. They just don't."
Price, who passed away in February at the age of 77, was until recently, one of L.A.'s most overlooked masters. Born in West Hollywood and raised in Pacific Palisades, he was acclaimed as part of a group of artists--including Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, and Billy Al Bengston--associated with the Ferus Gallery in the 1960s. But for much of the 1980s and '90s he found himself on the periphery of contemporary art. This, says Barron, was because he worked in clay, which was associated with craft. "I think there was a time when the work was seen more within the 'clay' group and I think that was hard," she says.
In the last decade or so, Price's work has steadily received more attention--as sculpture--which Barron attributes to changing attitudes towards materials. "It used to be that you were so pigeonholed by your material, particularly if it wasn't painting, or bronze, or cast bronze, or carved wood, that it was kind of a lesser form," she says, "I think we're beyond that. And I think someone like Ken Price has contributed to getting beyond that."
A surfer, and a lover of jazz and the Dodgers, Price cared little for the machinations of the art world. He found early fame for his somewhat surreal, lushly colored abstract works, making the cover of Artforum in 1963, and exhibiting in the 1966 Whitney Annual (now the Whitney Biennial). But in 1971 he moved with his family to a remote property in Taos, New Mexico. There he began work on a large project called "Happy's Curios" (named for his wife, Happy) that occupied him for the next 6 years. The room-filling installation was intended to evoke a curio store; Price saw it as his tribute to Mexican pottery, which he first encountered on surf trips to Tijuana. But the work, exhibited at LACMA in 1978 (parts of it are included in the current retrospective), left him physically and financially exhausted. It also changed the way his work was discussed, re-casting it within the framework of craft and pottery.
Yet Price kept his own counsel. "All that Ken wanted to do was be in the studio," recalls L.A. Louver gallerist Peter Goulds, who has represented Price since 1994, "He had a circle of very particular artist friends and individuals in the community that he kept close to and otherwise he wasn't going to be running around going to every party in town."
His intense focus on his own work probably accounts for its extreme originality. "I don't think there are a huge number of influences in a funny way," says Barron, "I think he was incredibly learned, incredibly visually literate; he looked at a lot of things, but I think the work kind of marches to its own drum."
In addition to "Happy's Curios," Price's work took a more architectural turn in Taos. His series of "Slate Cups" from the 1970s, are composed of angular slabs of clay with rough, broken-looking edges. They're more like jumbles of tectonic plates than vessels. Other pieces are smooth, rectilinear volumes in clear, hot colors that might be at home in a neon version of a Cubist painting. And although many of his forms feature mysterious openings, they have more in common with architecture than pottery. Goulds says Price was just as concerned with the interior of his sculptures as he was with the outside. "Think about the nature of clay," he says, "You're always building these walls; you're always digging your hands inside, working from the inside out. So it would follow that the interior of the object would occupy him."
References to architecture may not be immediately obvious because of the work's small scale, which was limited in part by the size of the kiln. But their modest stature is also an important part of the experience of the work. "The size of all sculpture is seen in relation to the human body," Price said in a 1993 interview with curator Mark Rosenthal, "But there's not much that is scaled to the intimate, hold-in-your-hand size. When you use a cup, it's right in your hand, and you actually put it to your mouth and drink warm liquid from it. That is very primal, physical, and sensual."
Not that you should actually hold a Price sculpture in your hand. In a gallery filled with ceramics, security is, needless to say, a chief concern. But Price insisted that most works be displayed on open pedestals, as modern sculptures, not under glass like pottery or artifacts. Designed by Price's long-time friend, architect Frank O. Gehry, the exhibition includes wide tables and shelves that keep viewers at arm's length.
Until two weeks before his death, Price was deeply involved in the planning of the exhibition. He specified the exact heights of the pedestals and the angle of the lighting. Gehry, who owns several of Price's works, understood the artist's requests. "The issue," he says, "is that they are intimate, and in the gallery shows I've seen they float too much." To address this, Gehry designed overhangs throughout the gallery to mitigate the space's high ceilings and make the space feel more appropriately scaled to the works.
Price, says Barron, "held himself to very, very, very high standards and expected that of people who worked with him." In planning the show, she knew she was working against the clock, and sped up the typical process to get as much input from the artist as possible. Price not only approved the layout at LACMA, he also approved designs for the show's next two stops at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Although Price spent a large part of his career outside of art world centers, it was essential to him that the retrospective have a New York venue, says Barron, who also felt the need to assert a national profile. Price was featured in several shows as part of "Pacific Standard Time," the recent Getty-sponsored initiative on Southern California art history, but, says Barron, "I was not interested in doing this just for an L.A. audience."
Indeed, between time spent in Taos and an eight-year stint in Massachusetts, it's arguable that Price is not entirely an L.A. artist. However, he did return to the city in 1991 and taught for 10 years at the University of Southern California. It was during that time that his works took increasingly fluid and fantastical biomorphic forms, looking less like architecture or geodes, and becoming more fleshy and plasmatic. Goulds speculates that the organic forms in Price's work reflect his experiences in nature: "The north shore of Kauai is a very special family retreat. So you think of that; You think of the roots of the trees, all the things that go on there, the forms, and think of maybe how these shapes came into being."
In 2002, Price returned to Taos. Five years later he was diagnosed with cancer. He sought treatment in L.A., but to no avail. "The treatment wasn't working," says Barron, "When I basically committed to doing the show, he said to his wife, 'O.K., that's it, no more treatment, I'm going back to Taos and I want to get back in the studio.'"
Despite limited mobility and reliance on a feeding tube, Price dedicated himself to preparing for his final exhibition. "I think the work that he did in the last three years is absolutely some of the best of his career," says Barron, "It's fluid; it's like performing without a net. He wasn't worried about any failure. It was just such courage and such exuberance."