I was able to attend two openings of Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective (one in Los Angeles and the other in New York—unfortunately I missed the Nasher show but a video of this exhibition is playing on The Screen). This tale of two cities showed a real difference in the approach to Price’s art in terms of the installation and one clearly outshone the other.
Let’s begin in Los Angeles; Ed Ruscha’s painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1968) shocked the art world with the image of this institution engulfed in flames. Ken Price has emulated his close friend’s act with an exhibition that once again, metaphorically speaking, has set this curious museum/theme park alight. Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective is kiln hot, with colors that glow like embers plucked from the fire and forms that emulate the flow of molten lava. It is a pyrotechnic display that is shockingly beautiful (despite the installation’s shortcomings) for those who do not already know the work and an affirmation for those who do.
However, as brightly as this retrospectives glows, it has taken Price his entire career to reach this point—his coronation as a great American artist. Alas, he died four months earlier at age 77. One would have expected his retrospective to arrive earlier. Though one will not find an artist more dedicated to his core medium, his is not the craft-rags to art-riches scenario. Price lived his entire career in the fine arts. This should have given him an edge.
Academia can take scant credit for his current beautification. Bar a few critics, Peter Schjeldahl and Dave Hickey being foremost (and least academic), Price’s rise was due to his peers who pushed for his place in the canon. Indeed, the game changer came in 1999 when the New York powerhouse gallery Matthew Marks took him on, not because of the dealer’s prescience (ceramics as an art concept seems to totally escape him) but because of an ultimatum from his stable.
Stephanie Barron did a workmanlike job as curator but there was finally a lack of flair. Given the polychromatic theater of Price’s work, the installation could have offered zest and perhaps a few epiphanies. Although the art sang, the L.A. installation by Frank Gehry was underwhelming. The preciousness of Price’s work called for Cartier, not Bilbao. But there were some high points.
Wittily, Gehry built a giant, room-sized version of Price’s classic wood-framed, two foot by two foot, glass box in which Price installed his smaller works. Inside this showcase were an array the iconic 1960’s Egg forms. The impact was playfully riotous, the energy within the glass cubicle was nearly excruciating, and, en masse, these fecund forms with their palette of automotive lacquer and other paints felt lush, seductive, toxic, lethal and wondrously alien. More of this mayhem would have improved the exhibition. Worst was the treatment of Price’s Happy’s Curios series, which were hidden in two cramped corners.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, also installed by Gehry, many of these errors were corrected and the exhibition gave off a rapturous glow on the jam-packed opening night. The reason? The Met knows how to light jewelry. And that is how the ceramics were treated, as large gems, which in a sense they are, blazing with light and color. Also a more intimate space worked to Price’s advantage. The cups came off the wall and were housed in a large, glass-fronted cabinet atop tall but narrow pedestals and this allowed them to breathe and become sculpture again rather than badges tacked to the wall as they were in Los Angeles.
The New York Times gave the show full court treatment, it dominated the Friday art and culture section with Holland Cotter’s “Yes, the Ceramics Are Art” (relegating coverage of Turrell’s Guggenheim installation, which opened the same week, to the sidelines). But my favorite quote comes from Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe, “Price’s late works have an authority before which you surrender — nonplussed, almost alarmed, but assuredly pleasured. No one has granted them their right to exist — they have simply asserted it, and, in doing so, put the issue beyond question”.
Garth Clark is the Curator and Chief Editor of Cfile.
Ken Price, L. Red, 1963. Ceramic painted with lacquer and acrylic on wood base. Photo by Fredrik Nilson
Ken Price, Snail Cup, 1967. Glazed ceramic, 2 3/4″ high. Photo by Fredrik Nilson
Ken Price, Untitled Cup (Geometric Cube Cup and Object), 1974. Painted and glazed ceramic, 4″ high. Photo by Fredrik Nilson
Ken Price, Black Widow, 1980. Glazed ceramic, 10 3/8″ height. Photo by Fredrik Nilson
Ken Price, Orange, 1987. Fired and painted clay, 16″ high. Photo by Fredrik Nilson
Ken Price, Big Load, 1988. Fired and painted clay, 12 1/2″ high. Photo by Fredrik Nilson.
Ken Price, Ordell, 2011-2012. Photo by Stan HONDA
Ken Price. Zizi, 2011. Fired and painted clay, 16 1/2″ high. Photo by Fredrik Nilson.
Ken Price, Underhung, 1997. Fired and painted clay, 23 1/2″ high. Photo Fredrik Nelson.
Installation views of Ken Price’s Retrospective: Top left: LACMA, Top right: The Met, Bottom: LACMA