There was a huge sense of occasion at the opening of the Ken Price retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the 12th September. L.A.’s art world turned out to celebrate the work—and at that evening’s memorial, mourn the passing—of one of the ever-shrinking band of brothers which was at the core of the legendary Ferus Gallery stable, and which helped establish Los Angeles as one of the world’s great art centers. Larry Bell, Joe Goode, David Hockney, Ed Moses and the artist’s family were present while Tony Berlant, Vija Celmins, Frank Gehry, Ed Ruscha, and others spoke at the memorial. It was clear that Ken Price was a much loved figure, but what of his work? What case does this retrospective make for an artist who worked his entire life in clay—largely on a modest scale—and who had just begun to experiment with monumental work towards the end of his life (which sadly ended just last February)?
In the exhibition and her remarks that day the exhibition’s curator, Stephanie Barron, made a passionate case for Price to be taken seriously as a contemporary sculptor. This in spite of the lingering prejudice against work done in media traditionally reserved for craft, left over from the 20th century’s chauvinism against what earlier ages termed the “decorative arts.” I won’t delve into these arguments here—Price’s work speaks for itself—but in point of fact, his work spans this divide. Recognizing the challenge, Barron intelligently (and beautifully) installed the show in reverse chronological order, so that the later, larger-scale work could set the tone (Price’s early Mexican ware Happy’s Curios of 1978, more in the vein of craft or ceramic art, were reserved for the last gallery).
To my mind, Price’s sculpture and hence the present exhibition is about architecture. The line between sculpture and architecture has always been fluid, although there have been particular moments in time when this has been more true, such as during the Baroque and indeed, our own time. Many sculptors—from the greats of the past, Michelangelo and Gianlorenzo Bernini, to practitioners today like James Turrell and Ai Wei Wei—have worked in architecture. Likewise, architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry have worked in sculpture. Bernini, whose own clay models are the subject of a current Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition (to be reviewed), fused the relationship between sculpture and architecture to an extent not seen before and seldom if ever since. Did Price chart a similar course in his efforts to elevate his chosen medium?
In the end it is hard to say, but there is an important clue: Price’s long relationship with Frank Gehry, who worked closely with the artist before his death to design the exhibition (both Gehry at the memorial service and Barron in the excellent accompanying catalogue, speak of Price’s affinity with architecture). It is clear that there was a symbiotic relationship between these two creative forces. It is interesting to note the similarities between certain works by Price and Gehry in the 1990s. The architectonic pieces Baby Blue and Untitled on one hand remind one of German Expressionist design such as that of the benchmark film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and on the other, Gehry’s buildings for Düsseldorf, Germany, the Neue Zollhof of 1996-99. There are rich allusions in Price’s work to Russian Constructivism—a highly important source for modern and contemporary artists and architects—in his ceramics from the early 1980s. And Price’s organic forms of the last two decades parallel developments in contemporary architecture such as in the work of Peter Cook and Zaha Hadid.
Gehry’s exhibition design itself is a triumph, beautifully thought through in terms of materials, presentation and overall effect. Seen in the lucid natural light of Renzo Piano’s Resnick Pavilion, Price’s works were a revelation (although, at nighttime the show is a different and, to me, less satisfying experience). The architect today is in a particularly potent period of the long arc of his career. His recent buildings like the New World Symphony Center in Miami and his recent designs for the L.A. Philharmonic’s production of Don Giovanni and the present exhibition radiate a sureness in their monochromatic minimalism. Even so, his contrapuntal, cubic volumes—pushing in and out like organ stops—play with the quiet glory of a Baroque organ. The installation’s long axis—off which falls smaller spaces—plays as a Dr. Caligari-like street or a grand enfilade, Price’s colorful forms as punctuation along the way. The casework is also very sensitively thought through. Doubtless, Gehry designed the wooden vitrines to evoke the feel of Price’s own original settings for some of his pieces, but the pale wood vitrines brought to my mind those used in grand Victorian expositions or natural history displays, containers of exotic specimens.
And indeed, Price’s sculptures are exotic specimens: brilliantly plumaged birds or the pelts and skins of wild animals and slithering reptiles with seductive, iridescent, colorful, and patterned surfaces. The sculptures are sensuous in form and finish. The surfaces, with the glazes, and later the paints (the artist stopped using glazes in 1983), are brilliantly colored and complexly fashioned. Through sanding, rubbing and polishing, Price was able to achieve truly spectacular effects, revealing layers of color, creating speckled and patterned effects otherwise not thought possible in sculpture or craft. While it has been noted that Price was not comfortable with the quintessentially Californian Finish Fetish movement, it is undeniable that his works participate in it in a supremely aesthetic manner.
It is difficult to choose only a few of these wondrous objects to discuss. However, two of the show’s highlights were Big Load (1988, Janssen Collection) and Pastel (1995, James Corcoran Gallery). The former has a purple-speckled glaze, a quarter of it cut-away yellow and within that a deep, black void. It appears to be like a cut geode, yet another specimen from Ken Price’s curiosity cabinet. Pastel is even more mysterious, with a sickly green and slightly bulbous surface with its void centered within a brilliant Chinese red cut-away.
Price’s ambitions in sculpture led him to explore the aperture or the void alongside Turrell and Anish Kapoor (the geometry of Turrell’s Afrum (White), 1966, in LACMA’s own collection, is a clear comparison). Likewise, Price’s disturbing sexual imagery in his egg-shaped containers with crevices filled with writhing worm or snake forms—male and female genitalia—can be compared with sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama. Price in a classic mode also explored Brancusi and Cubist sculpture. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the artist’s forms—such as in the marvelously subversive, non-functional cups—as well as his choice of colors locate him in Post-Modernism (like Price’s Baby Blue or Hawaiian, very much reminiscent of works seen in the excellent Ettore Sottsass show at LACMA in 2006).
Price’s alignment with contemporary sculptors in these common artistic concerns, in addition to his grounding in the traditional pursuit of ceramics and their role in design, aptly demonstrates what a singular figure and talented artist Price was. The title of this memorable memorial exhibition—Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective—emphatically proclaims him as an artist, a sculptor, and not a craftsman. Case made.