Contemporary art rarely broadcasts its virtuosity as proudly, or as subtly, as Ken Price’s ceramics do in the Metropolitan Museum’s loving retrospective. His odd, biomorphic shapes are thrillingly executed and bewitchingly mysterious. They could be solid blobs or hollow vessels, squishy life forms or carapaces for mutant creatures hidden inside. They ooze organic vitality.
The glowing, sensual surfaces of Price’s sculptures wrap around an assortment of tumescent nodules and crack open in suggestive fissures. An agglomeration of swelling sausage shapes could be a pile of stray penises or a tower of turds. A purplish blob parts its prickly surface to reveal an aperture of shiny geometric planes. It’s almost impossible to resist touching these ceramic monsters, to see whether a black hole is just a shallow depression or a dark passage to the form’s interior.
Many of Price’s bulbous forms hint at some sort of order within; others seem to have insides that are unruly if not downright dangerous. A monumental, nose-like lump gapes open and its single nostril flares into an orifice with a slopping red tongue. Ungainly tentacles poke through the fractured shells of egg-shaped orbs. Price acknowledged how disturbing these tiny sculptures can be. “People would come and tell me that they were both repulsed and fascinated, like looking at a bad automobile accident or something.”
This dynamic of attraction and disgust may be one reason Price’s work has lingered so long in the shadows. When he died last year at 77, his name was all but unknown except to a small circle of friends. One of them, the architect Frank Gehry, collaborated with him in designing this exhibition, which started its odyssey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before alighting at the Met. “I can’t imagine living in a place without a Ken Price,” Gehry writes touchingly in the catalogue. For now, New Yorkers are getting a double dose: in addition to the Met’s show, the Drawing Center has mounted a concurrent study of his works on paper, Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race.
A Californian ceramicist, Price had to overcome two kinds of prejudice to break into an art world centred on more macho genres and headquartered in New York. He never did get comfortable, caught as he was in a category clash between art, craft and architecture. It’s a set of contradictions he himself nurtured, especially during the period he focused on making countless versions of the potter’s humble vessel: the cup. In the end – which is where the Met show begins, since it narrates Price’s story in reverse chronological order – he gravitated to the aesthetic object, useless, beautiful and pure.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in the semi-wilds of the Pacific Palisades, Price pledged himself to jazz, surfing and creativity. He toyed with cartooning and animation, and his work, even much later, gave off whiffs of R. Crumb and Philip Guston. In graduate school in 1957, he came under the sway of Peter Voulkos, who was then a high priest in the cult of clay as art. Voulkos worked in a direct, spontaneous, expressionist style and Price became a disciple.
But by the early 1960s, needing to unshackle himself from Voulkos’ influence, Price shrank his scale from intimidating to intimate. He began a series of small, delicate cups that still discharge sparks of enchantment. Some he assembled out of tiny clay bricks, as in a child’s bright building toy. Others evoke his boyhood in the California hills, with frogs, turtles or snails clinging to their walls and branches curling into handles. The so-called “slate cups”, precarious stacks of rough-edged clay slabs, threaten at every moment to slide apart. Their horizontality and earthiness evoke the broad valleys and flat mesas of Taos, New Mexico, where Price moved with his family in the 1970s.
The cup was a way for Price to negotiate the straits between art and craft. “The cup essentially presents a set of formal restrictions – sort of a preordained structure,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be about anything other than itself, but it can be used as a vehicle for ideas.” Price’s enthusiasm for the form was also driven by its usefulness as a conveyer of tequila. When he dried out in the 1980s, he abandoned the cup, but he didn’t leave behind its essential nature as a form that could double as a container. This preoccupation with lucid emptiness would reign over his remaining decades. His later sculptures grew in scale and wallowed in comic grotesquery, but he always remained fixed on the eloquent void.
Price’s obsession with enclosing space in idiosyncratic ways helps explain Gehry’s enduring fandom. The architect was so intrigued with the hidden recesses of “100% Pure”, a blobular sculpture in his own collection, that he subjected it to computer imaging. What the virtual X-ray revealed was a baroque structure of overlapping curves, caves and passages that harmonise intriguingly with Gehry’s flamboyant interiors.
Like an architect, Price made elaborate drawings to help himself think. He also sketched regularly, for pleasure and sanity. The Met has gathered a small sampling of these less formal works, but the Drawing Center exhibition shows off the full scope of his draughtsmanship, and the joy he found in putting brush to paper.
“For real pleasure, I’d like to draw all day and listen to jazz,” he said. “My happiest day is when I have no business, visitors or phone and can draw.” And yet the drawings, like the sculptures, use seductive, friendly colours and cartoony shapes to convey a world beset by volcanoes, storms and environmental catastrophe. Price had a taste for wrapping dark obsessions in affable packages, which is what makes his work so unsettlingly pleasant to behold.
‘Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective’, Metropolitan Museum of Art until September 22, www.metmuseum.org.
‘Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962-2010’ at the Drawing Center until August 18 (www.drawingcenter.org), then at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, from September 27, 2013-January 19 2014 (www.albrightknox.org) and Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, New Mexico (www.harwoodmuseum.org) from February 22-May 4 2014