Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Rough Beauty: The Ceramic Sculpture of Ken Price

Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective

September 16, 2012 to January 6, 2013
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California, (323) 857-6000

February 9 to May 12, 2013
Nasher Sculpture Center
2001 Flora Street
Dallas, Texas,  (214) 242-5100

June 18 to September 22, 2013
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
New York City, (212) 535-7710

Ken Price, Zizi, 2011, acrylic on fired ceramic, 16.5 x 24 x 17 inches. Los Angeles Country Museum of Art purchased with funds by the Modern and Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund and gift of Matthew Marks. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.
Ken Price, Zizi, 2011, acrylic on fired ceramic, 16 1/2 x 24 x 17 inches. Los Angeles Country Museum of Art purchased with funds by the Modern and Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund and gift of Matthew Marks. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

Upon entering this visually stunning retrospective of Ken Price’s ceramic sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) visitors were captivated by a profusion of colors beckoning one into Price’s surreal world of quirky shapes, forms, and surfaces. (Following a three-month stay at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, the exhibition completes its tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, opening June 18.)  Frank Gehry, a long-time friend of Price, created a sensitive exhibition design that transformed the cavernous museum space into intimate areas.  It is easy to see why Gehry, in his catalogue essay, speculates how difficult it would be for him to live without works of such enigmatic beauty. The first object one encounters is Zizi (2011), a seductively iridescent turquoise clay sculpture existing on the border between figuration and abstraction. On closer inspection, the work’s apparently monochromatic surface dissolves into green-centered islands of different shapes surrounded by successive rings of yellow, red and purple, a visual experience reminiscent of 19th century Pointillism or a Chuck Close portrait.

By both beginning and ending with Price’s last works and moving backward in time in the middle galleries, the exhibition’s installation enables us to appreciate Price’s remarkable allegiance to dualities in form and sensibility: A shifting back and forth between the architectural and the biomorphic, the geometric and the sensual, the majestic and the humble, the tiny and the grand, the humorous and the serious. There’s a corresponding variety in Price’s surfaces, alternating between the smooth and the rough, the flat and the ridged, the straight edged and the craggy, the glazed and the painted.  In crafting these unpredictable combinations of form, color and surface, Price sought to motivate us to examine more closely the manifold worlds around us.

Price’s work offers as many challenges as pleasures.  While, as an individual, he did not explicitly follow Zen practices, his search for beauty in dissonance and imperfection is consistent with a Zen sensibility. The sculptures offer a rough beauty that defies facile labeling, an aesthetic that seems rooted at a pre-verbal level, where the emotional outweighs the conceptual.  Another aspect of Price’s rough beauty is its “primordial freshness,” a term coined by the poet John Crowe Ransom in 1938.  Price’s engagement with the primal informs his persistent and evolving exploration of the void—those openings that live between the inside and the outside. The “Eggs and Specimens” series from the early 1960s, such as L. Blue (1961), are interrupted by slits and voids that reveal a variety of primitive shapes such as slithering worm-like creatures, phallic protrusions, and gooey globs.

Ken Price, Arctic, 1998, fired and painted clay, 22 x 16 3/4 x 15 1/2 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Edward R. Broida. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen
Ken Price, Arctic, 1998, fired and painted clay, 22 x 16 3/4 x 15 1/2 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Edward R. Broida. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

Price’s forms become increasingly architectural in the early 1980s. The void-like openings now function as portals or windows evoking, in their uncanny simplicity, the architecture of ancient cliff dwellings and the spirit of minimalist design, as in Hawaiian (1980).  Beginning with the so-called “Rocks” series of the late ‘80s, there is greater complexity at a number of levels.  In works like Big Load (1988), the enigmatic void is in the form of a black cube that is set against a smoothly painted yellow slice that appears to be cut out of a solid orb with a veiny blue surface.  Price’s illusionistic cubes, while reminiscent of James Turrell’s corner installations of projected light, are even more mysterious.  Whereas the ambiguity in Turrell’s projected cubes can be resolved visually, with Price’s three-dimensional voids, it is not possible to determine solely by looking whether it is an extruded cube or a deep hole.  You want to put your finger into it to find out, an impulse not present in a Turrell.  In the next group of works from the 1990s, the voids become more explicitly sensual, with a touch of violence.  The erotic white Arctic (1998) exhibits a painted-red vaginal-like opening or deep wound.

In 2000 Price’s quest for a rough beauty takes on a new focus.  The voids disappear, the forms become larger and more intertwined, and surface color becomes his main concern.  What occurred in Zizi holds true for the majority of these late works.  Upon close viewing, seemingly uniform surfaces morph into innumerable brilliantly colored paisley patterns with dozens of nested color combinations.  Price achieved these effects by way of a multi-part technique. Following his shaping and firing of the clay, he would apply up to a hundred thin layers of acrylic paint on the sculpted form before using sandpaper to painstakingly remove some of the layers, differentially exposing the colors underneath.  In these last works, Price is the consummate painter, transforming fired clay surfaces into dense, yet delicate fields of color.

There’s a Thoreau-like sensitivity to nature in Price’s most successful late work. The structures of the natural world—with its mountains, deserts, tide-pools, beehives, snake skins, etc. — are the touchstones for his non-literal fusion of color, surface, and shape.  As Price’s work matured, color changed from a substance to be applied ‘top down’ to a more organic process that appears to evolve ‘bottom up’ to satisfy the needs of form. That is, Price’s ability to map certain colors onto certain forms (as opposed to others) projects a certain inevitability that simulates nature’s functional imperatives, as when the feather color of a Blue Jay or a peacock is determined by natural selection to improve mating capability. Price’s structures embody a Zen orientation to nature that values aging and its concomitant limitations.  Certain Price forms can be interpreted as capturing the ravages of time.  One can perceive the frailty and vulnerability of the human condition in his early “Eggs and Specimens” series and especially in the veiny surfaces of his later works like Big Load (1988).  Price’s empathy for the human condition can also be experienced in his slumping, teetering, and sometimes wounded forms, as well as in some of his last more anthropomorphic sculptures that resemble strange, sometimes vulnerable creatures lying on their backs with their limbs flailing in the air or sitting upright to beckon you.  These works harbor a pathos and poignancy that sneaks up on you.

From the perspective of recent art history, Ken Price has turned on its head Donald Judd’s argument that specific objects should replace painting.  In creating paintings that are essentially three-dimensional fields of color, Price re-invigorates the exploration of color as an aesthetic force across mediums.  In effect, not only did Price blur the boundary between craft and sculpture, but also, in contradistinction to Clement Greenberg’s theory of the singular medium, he blurred the boundary between painting and sculpture.  For his first forty years, Price made painted sculptures, and for the last twelve, until his death in 2012, he made sculpted paintings—all the while defying art historical categories in the name of a visual pleasure principle leavened by an essential humanity.

Ken Price, Hawaiian, 1980, glazed ceramic, 5 5/8 x 11 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches. Betty Lee and Aaron Stern Collection. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.
click to enlarge
Ken Price, L. Blue, 1961, ceramic painted with lacquer and acrylic on wood base, 6 x 9 x 5 inches. Courtesy of Ken Price. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.
click to enlarge