NEW YORK CITY — For more than 50 years, Los Angeles artist Ken Price, who died February 24, 2012, at the age of 77, made innovative works that helped redefine contemporary sculpture by advancing the medium of clay well beyond its traditionally assigned roles. “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art June 18–September 22, is a long overdue major exhibition showcasing the artist’s unique and groundbreaking approach to sculpture. It is the first museum retrospective of the artist’s work in New York.
By assembling the full range of Price’s innovative work, with 62 sculptures dating from 1959 to 2012 along with 11 late works on paper, the exhibition aims to situate his art beyond the realm of craft and into the larger narrative of modern sculpture.
The exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Born in Los Angeles, Price received his BFA from the University of Southern California in 1956 and his MFA from the famed New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 1959. In the late 1950s, at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (later renamed the Otis College of Art and Design), Price’s ceramics professor, Peter Voulkos, encouraged the artist to create work that transcended the traditional boundaries of the medium. Price soon found his calling and within a few years was showing his own abstract clay sculptures.
The curved surfaces of Price’s brilliantly colored egg sculptures, such as “L. Red” from 1963, are disrupted by small portals that open to murky interiors or crevices with sexual and scatological associations. Among the early works in the exhibition is a group of highly colorful cups. According to Price, “The cup essentially presents a set of formal restrictions — sort of a preordained structure. … But it can be used as a vehicle for ideas.” He took this everyday object and embellished it with snails, or, in one instance, melded a cup onto the shell of a ceramic turtle (“Blind Sea Turtle Cup,” 1968).
In the early 1970s, the artist moved from Los Angeles to Taos, N.M. (where he resettled in 2002 after a sojourn as a professor of ceramics at USC from 1991 to 2001). In Taos, the predominant Mexican folk aesthetic inspired the artist to embark on the series “Happy’s Curios” (1972–1977). Named for his wife, the works are wood cabinets filled with ceramics — his personal homage to the style of Mexican folk pottery.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Price also created a series of abstracted, geometric sculptures that are brilliantly glazed and painted. Their fabrication was remarkably labor-intensive, involving multiple firings and layers of glazed color. The 1972 work “Gaudi Cup” has obvious affinities to architectural forms. Moving into the 1980s, works such as “Big Load,” 1988, resemble strange unearthly boulders, or meteorites, with mysterious, glowing apertures that have been sliced into the form.
Beginning in the late 1990s and continuing until his death, Price began a series of haunting, subtly erotic sculptures with mottled surfaces that he created by applying roughly 70 layers of paint that were then painstakingly sanded to uncover each stratum through variations in the pressure of the sanding process. The result, as seen in works such as “Hunchback of Venice,” 2000, and “Balls Congo,” 2003, is a lyrical composition of colors held together in a layered arrangement that is unmistakably anthropomorphic.
Price’s work grew in scale in later years and his glazes became even more elaborate, with complex layers of color that were scrupulously sanded to achieve a wonderfully iridescent, speckled effect of blues, purples, reds and greens. “Zizi,” 2011, though abstract, has an undulating, typically organic shape that suggests a primitive life form.
The installation of the exhibition was designed by Price’s close friend, renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, who worked closely on the show with the artist. A number of the wood and glass vitrines that contain the sculptures were made by the artist, while the rest were inspired by his original designs.
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