Price, who lived sometimes in Los Angeles and sometimes outside Taos, N.M., worked almost exclusively in ceramics. He was being treated for cancer in L.A. when he learned that the show’s curator, LACMA’s Stephanie Barron, had secured the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as its final venue, after Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center. Feeling that he had never quite gotten his due from the New York art world and taking this news as vindication, he opted to discontinue what had become largely unsuccessful treatment and devote his remaining time to creating work and preparing the exhibition, according to Barron. “One of the bravest acts I’ve ever seen,” said Price’s son-in-law, Carl Colonius, at a memorial service in L.A. last fall, “was his decision to die.”
Price created objects that reside “on the line between bewitching and ludicrous,” as critic Dave Hickey quotes him in the catalogue. They are mostly small—topping out at 30 inches high—and take a wide range of shapes. They evoke manifold associations—architecture, body parts, alien creatures—and are often loosely grouped by critics and curators into classifications such as lumps, blobs, eggs, mounds, moon rocks and geometrics.
Though he made cups and plates along with nonfunctional sculptures early on, Price’s signal achievement was to create compelling abstract sculptures in clay that have a beauty and mystery all their own, despite the material often being given short shrift in the fine-art world, particularly on the East Coast. In 1964, when Price was just 29, Artforum editor Philip Leider significantly identified two artists—Price and Robert Irwin—as being at the center of the L.A. avant-garde, and in a 1966 LACMA catalogue essay, critic Lucy Lippard wrote that “no one else, on the east or west coast, is working like Kenneth Price.”
The current exhibition, which debuted in September 2012 at LACMA, presents 100 objects (there will be slightly fewer at subsequent venues), spanning from 1959 to 2011. At LACMA they were displayed in reverse chronological order. (This arrangement will largely be honored in New York, as it is in Dallas.) Among the first things visitors encountered in L.A. were seductive, sensuous, eerie and funny objects from Price’s last dozen or so years, which he described as “rounded forms with active surfaces.”
These include Hunchback of Venice (2000), which recalls a giant, misshapen inchworm making its awkward way along a branch: an elevated, central blob rests on two ungainly supports, one crescent-shaped and ending in a small, round, open mouth. To describe as “active” its spectacularly colorful surface, where tiny amoeba shapes in bright green, red, blue and white proliferate in a radioactive buzz of color, would be a wild understatement.
And there’s Venus (2000), in which fewer hues (metallic blues and reds) adorn a shape that suggests a rearing cobra—a neck, curving at its top, rises from a blob—or an unusually flexible phallus stemming from an outsize testicle. Equally up-front about its sexuality, at least in its title, is Balls Congo (2003), whose surface, too, is dominated by tiny, swarming shapes of blue and red. Multiple spheres at the sculpture’s bottom seem testicular, the ceramic by which they dangle tentacular. They could be the appendages of a squid. The sculpture seems virtually to spring up, startled, off its pedestal.