NEW YORK — The curves of Ken Price’s steroidal sculptures are also the modest, quotidian curves of the cupped or caressing hand. They are not just within reach (most sculptures are that); they’re portable. In most cases, you could pick them up.
The mind registers this in concert with the hand, even when the works themselves are behind glass. And then, because you will never have picked up anything remotely resembling a Ken Price in your life, you will likely erupt in giggles.
Price’s sleek, spill-over fabrications are outlandish. They make you nervous, as all great art should. They suggest hand-eye coordination in its deepest, most soulful sense, with dollops of sex and scatology thrown in.
Price, who died in 2012 at the age of 77, was great. East Coast audiences are finally getting a chance to register this in a retrospective that, the organizers admit, is long overdue.
The show is laid out in reverse chronological order, so that you see the most recent work first. Immediately upon entering, you’re swept into a world of ecstatic, sometimes iridescent colors fortifying forms that spill, bubble, stretch, bend, fold, and spread, often around cavities that can seem indecent one minute and metaphysical the next.
The show opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after stints in Los Angeles and Dallas. It was organized by Stephanie Barron, senior curator and head of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who worked on the project with Price over several years.
Price, sadly, was already ailing, and succumbed to cancer six months before the Los Angeles opening. He was active, and increasingly ambitious, in his two studios, one of which was run by his son Jackson, right up until his death.
Barron and Price collaborated on the exhibition layout with the architect Frank Gehry, Price’s long-time friend and admirer. Gehry has contributed a chatty, heartfelt essay to the catalog, which also includes fine essays by Dave Hickey, Phyllis Tuchman, and Barron.
It’s the excerpts from interviews with Price himself, however, that are the most fun, and give you the strongest sense of his seriousness, independence, and integrity.
Price was born in West Hollywood, Calif., in 1935, and grew up in the Pacific Palisades, at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains. The area, he said, was “completely undeveloped and full of wildlife, including the occasional mountain lion in our backyard. One of the great parts of growing up there was the opportunity to experience nature in a relaxed, aimless kind of way.”
Later on he took to surfing, and he claims to have surfed almost every day for 15 years. The surfer and meandering child’s “relaxed, aimless” feeling for nature can be sensed in all Price’s subsequent work. That intuitive feeling includes a capacity to incorporate (yikes! a mountain lion!) alarm and anomaly.
Price was also into jazz. He played trumpet and for a while took informal lessons from Chet Baker (he even played a couple of gigs with him). The lazy, slurred lines of West Coast jazz find echoes in some of his works, which slump and roll, but the luminous spiritual fade-out of a Baker solo is nowhere in evidence: Price burns bright.
The Met show is smaller than its Los Angeles incarnation, which means a great chunk of Price’s idiosyncratic early work is lopped off. The shrinkage left me in two minds.
It’s a shame to see such a magnificent, unlikely tree without its roots. Most of Price’s funky early preoccupations — his naked humor, his sensitivity to setting, his unembarrassed localism — are given short shrift. We get little sense, as a result, of the influence of Peter Voulkos, the innovative clay artist who was Price’s adviser at Los Angeles County Art Institute, and who, in Price’s words, “liberated clay from the crafts hierarchy in America.”
Similarly, there’s not enough early work to help us grasp the importance of Japanese ceramics to his formation. And “Happy’s Curios,” a whole body of work inspired by Mexican folk pottery that absorbed Price exclusively for half a decade in the 1970s, is entirely missing.
On the other hand, much of this work, for all its vigor and originality, really does feel like juvenilia. It’s gorgeous and wildly uncool — painted ceramic cups, for instance, with snails, frogs, and lizards attached! But it doesn’t have the full-throated self-assurance of the later work, and Price may have been content to see most of it cast aside (don’t worry: Three of the reptile cups are on view).
In the end, the Met show, with 62 sculptures displayed in a handful of midsize rooms, has the quality of a suave reduction. Its flavor is concentrated. The earlier qualities are still there but they’ve been beautifully sublimated in the later, more abstract work. (For those wanting more, the Drawing Center has a simultaneous retrospective of Price’s works on paper, through Aug. 18.)
Price was associated with the Ferus Gallery in the early ’60s. The Ferus, which was run by Walter Hopps and Irving Blum, exhibited work by East Coast stars, such as Andy Warhol, even as it cultivated a West Coast aesthetic, showing Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, and gallery cofounder Ed Kienholz, among others.
Hopps once brought Marcel Duchamp, unannounced, to Price’s studio: “That was fun,” remembered Price. “We ate pizza from Papa Tony’s Pizza in Ventura.”
In the early 1970s, after Price moved with his family to Taos, and then again in the 1980s, Price pushed back hard against the conventions of ceramic craft. He made a series of “architectural cups” between 1972 and ’74, which operated as vessels but had detached cubes with sides painted in bright, different colors scattered around their base. This followed on from a series of more fragile, textured forms with separate planes resembling colored slate with crumbly edges.
The explicit interest in architecture was revived in the early ’80s with works that look like early Frank Gehry models. As in Gehry, the sense of fun — the joy of putting this here and making that go like that and putting this alongside that, none of it for any special reason, just because it looks good — meets a sensitivity to surface that is suave and cosmopolitan in its finish.
Price moved again, this time east, to Nonquitt, near New Bedford. He needed, he explained, to dry out, and to do that, had to escape his drinking buddies. The plan worked; he never drank again. But, with the sun no longer setting luridly over either ocean or desert (a major influence, surely, on Price’s sense of color) he was out of his element on the East Coast, and returned to California in 1991.
Price kept racking up changes in his work, which became more and more dynamic in its interplay between inside and outside (dark apertures, suggestive concavities), and more and more audacious with color.
From the mid-1990s, he had found what looks, in retrospect, like his true métier. That’s not to discount anything that came earlier. It’s just to acknowledge the pulsating conviction behind the work of the past two decades.
These works come in biomorphic shapes that sometimes bristle with lumpy protuberances, other times spread, spill, or rise with the elastic viscosity of molasses against gravity. Some feel inspired by the whorls and recesses of human ears. Others recall slipstreamed sea creatures, like rays. And others still evoke drooping flowers or garish gourds.
The surfaces of these new works are not glazed but painted in multiple layers of different hues, some metallic, others iridescent, others unnamable in their exotic artificiality. Price penetrated back through the layers, at first with cloths soaked in alcohol, then, as his technique developed, with sandpaper.
The mottled effects, which Price heightened with dots of paint applied with Q-tips, are ravishing, and constitute perhaps the greatest technical innovation of his career. For it is color, more even than form (although Price makes them seem indivisible) that makes these works so otherworldly, so arresting.
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.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.