This exhibition, planned with the artist before his death last year at the age of 77, offered an unprecedented opportunity to see a wide range of Price’s sensuous, richly worked objects, often glazed or painted with brilliant and unusual colors. Working almost exclusively on an intimate scale with shapes that were suggestive, sexy, mysterious, and sly, he achieved a mastery of color, form, and surface that commanded a unique position between sculpture and painting. Price’s sculptures were built around voids, and their meaning was often disturbingly ambiguous.
Together with his teacher Peter Voulkos at the Los Angeles County Institute of Art (now Otis College of Art and Design), Price stretched the definition of sculpture by confronting the prejudice that pigeonholed clay works as craft. As he put it, “A craftsman knows what he’s going to make and an artist doesn’t know what he’s going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like.” In 1959, following a year in the esteemed Alfred University ceramics program, he established himself in Los Angeles, exerting a deep influence on fellow artists and exhibiting frequently in the 1960s at the legendary Ferus Gallery. In the 1970s, while maintaining his studio in Venice, California, Price increasingly spent time in Taos, New Mexico, drawn to the light, landscape, and a growing artistic community. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and undergoing unsuccessful treatment, he moved permanently with his family to Taos, where he remained until his death in February 2012.
Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective moved the artist’s work outside of the realm of craft and into the dialogue of contemporary sculpture. A rich selection of work from 1959 to 2011 highlighted each of the major styles of his prolific career including slumps, rocks, geometrics, cups, eggs, and mounds. While Price tended to progress in loose series, Ken Price Sculpture reviewed his career in a broader and yet more integrated way, establishing connections and linkages across the years, rather than within individual series. The exhibition also included displays of two of the units from his 1970s project Happy’s Curios. Named after his wife Happy, Happy’s Curios were comprised of large cabinets, filled with between eight and twenty or more ceramics mimicking the style of Mexican folk pottery.
The work from 1995 to 2011 highlighted sculptures from the last years of his life. In this period, Price began a new series of mottled sculptures, for which he became most well-known. The work’s surface was composed of roughly seventy layers of acrylic paint that he painstakingly sanded, each stratum uncovered as he varied the pressure of his sanding. The result was a lyrical composition of colors held together in a layered arrangement. Eleven works on paper and two large scale sculptures from 2011 to 2012 were also included in the exhibition.
Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ken Price Sculpture debuted there last fall and traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York after closing at the Nasher. Renowned Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank O. Gehry, a longstanding close friend of Price, designed the exhibition, which was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by exhibition curator Stephanie Barron, Phyllis Tuchman, and Dave Hickey, as well as an extended interview with the artist by MaLin Wilson-Powell.