By all accounts, Ken Price is a real artist. No dollar chasing, concept borrowing or gimmicky pan flashing, just a guy who has spent at least 60 hours a week in his studio for his entire life. “For me, the creative process is a deeply personal, subjective, private activity,” Price says. “I’m not trying to get critical distance. I want to get inside it as far as I can, and deal with the internal logic of the work itself.” To get there, he’ll often spend an entire day scraping clay – monotonous ups and downs with a spring steel rib. Never breaking focus. Never losing patience. Every inch deserves to be exact. Through his early egg-shaped designs to the functionally fantastic cups and pots to the boundary pushing exploration of color and the geometric vessel, Price has profoundly re-shaped the medium of ceramics as a whole. Clay as craft is a long-abandoned conversation thanks to the inventive sculptures and brilliant mind of Ken Price.
“Ceramics always seemed like a private void in the world of art,” according to renowned painter Ed Ruscha. “Ken Price brought the world of art to ceramics, making breathtaking chemistry between the two.” Known for an ever-evolving arsenal of eccentric shapes, along with their mottled myriad of color combinations, there’s never been a dull period in Price’s career. He has always taken chances, not because of some fetish to stay relevant, but because this artist has no choice. Forms are continuously heating up deep within his soul, waiting to explode like popcorn kernels. None look or feel the same, but they all have to get out. Once they do, searching for implicit meaning or an explicit agenda is fruitless. “My primary satisfaction comes from making the work,” Price says, “and my idea of success is getting it to look right. So if it looks right, if it has some kind of presence or energy, or comes alive, or has magic – those are all visual things, and it’s very hard to translate those into words.”
Ken Price’s home in Taos, New Mexico, is an insulated metal compound split in two… one side living quarters, the other a studio – both expansive and modern. The view outside causes a condition known as speechlessness, as the open plains and sagebrush fields of the Hondo Mesa stretch untouched towards the snowcapped Sange de Cristo Mountain Range. Long inhales of nature’s freshest air are welcomed involuntary reflexes. That clarity of mind and body is achieved in a much different way amidst the clutter of sculpture and constant rhythm of jazz music coming from Price’s studio. The raucous bass of Charles Mingus, the spirited sax of John Coltrane and nimble piano of Bud Powell bounce around the room, as forms in various phases of completion line tables, pedestals and the floor. Each has a story worth knowing… ‘Where do those signature holes lead, who’s the lumpy slug-like muse and how can clay wave so organically,’ one wonders? When it comes to answers, thankfully, this artist is stoically elusive. Longtime friend and legendary artist Billy Al Bengston looks at Price’s body of work this way, “There are many great soloists – all pleasant to listen to, but then there is that rare composer of music who stops you cold. There truly is nobody better that’s alive today, and there aren’t a lot of dead ones that are as good as Ken, either.”
Price has always been able to bathe in praise from peers, but fame and notoriety is something he’s never sought. In fact, he’s been dubbed the quiet “fifth Beatle” of the 1960’s L.A. Art Movement that produced such heavy-hitters as Ruscha, Bengston, Robert Irwin and Larry Bell. While the legacy of Ferus Gallery continues to explode, the importance of Ken Price’s artistic voice within it grows louder by the day – though certainly not by personal trumpet. Price has never cared much for marketing, selling or even fitting into an art scene. Never once has his focus shifted from clay to dough. While each of the renegade, surfer artists of the era found ways to push their mediums forward, Price has been the most prolific in doing so. That’s why, ultimately, critical and financial success caught up to him, because of the staggering output of original material that defines his career. “I have never known an artist who is as sublimely committed to their studio as Ken Price,” Ruscha says. “He would be in heaven if he never, ever, ever had to leave his studio.”
All that artistic energy was tested in a big way, recently, as cancer took Price’s throat, and, along with it, his ability to swallow. He had to physically re-learn how to speak, and all six of his daily meals now come from a feeding tube. The good news is that after gnarly treatment, the cancer is gone, and the even better news for Price, is that his creative drive is not. While doctor visits and twice-a-week Pilates sessions have altered the routine a bit, most of his hours are spent just as he likes them. “Once he recovered, he came back firing right where he left off, his forms always diversifying from themselves,” according to Jackson Price, his son and right-hand man in the studio for the last fifteen years.
When it comes to process, there is no ceramist quite like Ken Price. He is the Fred Astaire of clay. With grace and ease he dances the material into structural submission, molding it into various different parts, and then surgically piecing the sculpture together. Once assembled, he cuts the 50 pounds of clay in half and guts it before putting it back together again. Next comes the fine-tuning of the form. After the clay dries, Price painstakingly scrapes off unwanted edges with dozens of tiny tools that look like dental instruments. The sculptures are then smoothed with sponges, pulling the grog to the surface of the material. Finally the form is fired. They emerge from the kiln a brownish-gray and course to the touch. That visible, rough grog is a key component to the eventual coloration of the pieces.
Color is so important to the work, that Price built a lab in his studio to test paint properties and combinations. The tedious study begins by mixing the acrylics, creating hue tabs and then devising complicated schemes. As many as fifteen different shades are then slapped on the surface – five to six thin layers each over a 28 day period. Once dried, they are meticulously scrubbed with sandpaper, and as the grog disappears, a constellation of unrehearsed colors and stunning patterns is revealed. The resulting forms twist and meander organically while exuding an almost paranormal glow. The sublime sculptures beckon an experience, not an interpretation. “I find it humorous when people walk around museums with headphones being spoon fed what to think,” Price says. “The way to understand my work is to experience it physically.”
Creative juice drips unfiltered from Price’s DNA strands. Being an artist is all he’s ever wanted to be. “Even when I was a kid I would make drawings and little books, and cartoons and build forts,” he says. It should come as no surprise that most sets of teeth in the Price family were cut from creativity. His dad invented the twin Popsicle during the Great Depression, and before that, his grandfather helped design the first car headlights. Ken grew up in Pacific Palisades during the 1940’s and 50’s. Back then, that area of Los Angeles was undeveloped, and as a teenager he had wanderlust for nature. Streams, beaches, mountains – he absorbed it all, as long as he made it home before dinner. Ken had a paper route, and later sold cigarettes and candy from a local drug store. His family made it through WWII by growing their own fruits and vegetables. In high school, Ken was the cartoonist for the school newspaper. His ability earned him a scholarship to take art classes during the summer at Chouinard. The experience of going to a real art school at that age only solidified his career path.
Ken’s journey into the third-dimension began in a ceramics class at Santa Monica City College in 1953. His initial love affair with clay, however, was tempered by what he calls the “crafts-dogma hell” of the era. “When I grew up, sculpture wasn’t supposed to be colored. It was supposed to reflect the inherent material it was made out of. It was called ‘truth in materials,’ and there were lots of other tenants like it.” So clay as art, and clay as career, were both dead and buried notions until Ken met two very important influences – Billy Al Bengston and Peter Voulkos.
Ken first bumped into Billy Al during a surfing trip at Doheny Beach State Park. Ken was 18, Billy Al, 19. “He was the only person I had met at the time who was serious about being an artist, so we became friends,” Price says. The duo quickly earned notoriety for its talents, as well as its antics. They enrolled in a clay course together at L.A. City College, and as the slow work and boring approach dragged on, Ken and Billy Al decided to spice things up a bit. They broke into the classroom on a weekend and decided to have a throwing contest. Each made more than 100 pieces that day, using all of their own allotted clay, and everyone else’s, too. The teacher scoffed, they laughed and eventually found their artistic Elvis at Otis.
In 1957, after earning his degree at USC, Price (along with Bengston) went to the Otis Art Institute to check out a newly-hired, upstart professor named Peter Voulkos. His teaching method was to walk into the studio and just start cranking the clay. “He approached ceramics by a method I call ‘direct frontal onslaught,’” Price says. “He was open and powerful, but loose and relaxed, working in large scale with ease. He just blew our minds.” So much so that after a year of graduate work with Voulkos, Bengston became a painter and Price moved to New York and Alfred University to try and get rid of Voulkos’s influence on his art.
During his time at Alfred, Price found his own idiom, melding influences of European, Japanese and Mexican pottery with Miró, Jean Arp, Picasso and Voulkos. He also developed his own version of a lead glaze, opening the floodgates on what would become a lifelong investigation of color. When Price moved back to Los Angeles in 1959, he officially became a “professional,” joining Bengston and a handful of other very committed artists at a tiny lot on North La Cienega called Ferus Gallery. At the time, the museum downtown frowned on contemporary art, the local newspapers didn’t like them and sales were slow and cheap. Price and Bengston shared a crappy flat in the Bonnie Brae and often could only afford heads of lettuce, coffee and cigarettes for meals – a Snickers bar, if they were lucky. “I was confused about a lot of things at that time, but not about being an artist. I knew that’s what I had to be,” he says emphatically. By the mid-1960’s, things had started to change: galleries, museums and art foundations began cropping up, and Ken Price and the Ferus gang were at the center of a cultural revolution that officially put California art on the map.
The West Coasters had an all-chips-in artistic attitude, and Price, Bengston, Bell, Irwin, Ruscha, John Altoon, Craig Kauffman and Ed Moses challenged each other to do something real and new to be good. In the vein of Voulkous, Price found his authentic voice by refusing to view ceramics as a limited medium. Like his former instructor, he appreciated the functional aesthetics of the material, while unlocking its potential as fine art. But what Price brought to the worktable that nobody had before was an endless vault of unique and inventive forms, the technical fortitude to turn them into sculpture and the ability to form an explosive bond between fired clay and vivid color.
The earliest examples of this were his egg-shaped works of the 1960’s. They varied in size and texture; some were smooth ellipses, others featured indents, cutouts or multiple forms. Quite often, Price executed separate color value studies on the internal and external elements of a single sculpture. He hand-painted several layers of enamels, lacquers or acrylics to the surfaces, and then rubbed them out, creating subtle color changes, magical reflections and a translucent depth to the work. “Using color is one of the most challenging parts of my work because there’s no formula, or system, or theory of color that works on three-dimensional forms,” Price says. “You just have to go by feel, and experience, and luck.” Over the years, Price has also been fascinated with scale… from the wavy, globular sculptures that have stretched up to five feet in length to the complex shapes and shifting textures of his maquette-sized work.
The cup has also fascinated Ken Price. It’s a theme he’s revisited throughout his career, using the preordained structure of the object as a vehicle for wild ideas. His earliest efforts included plaster reptiles, amphibians, and even sultry female figures for handles. The cups later evolved into architectural wonders of geometry – rock, slate and crystal pieces comprised of dozens of planes, edges and brightly transparent colors.
Oftentimes, when a concept cannot be executed in the kiln – like the legs on a hermit crab cup – Price will draw it, instead. “I think sculptors learn to draw so that they can see what they’ve been visualizing. Most sculptors can draw pretty well, and they draw in illusionistic space, because if you can’t draw it, you can’t see it,” he says. His drawings are so much more than preparatory work, however, running the gamut from glorious seascapes to bland L.A. interiors. The drawings are imperfect, almost comic-like, and vibrate with humor. They’ve appeared in everything from poetry books by Harvey Mudd and Charles Bukowski to a Ry Cooder album cover and the labels of Del Maguey tequila bottles.
As Ken Price’s work got more adventurous, so did his social life. The Ferus gang was known to play as hard as it worked, and all that drinking wasn’t doing Ken any good. It took a chance encounter with a woman named Happy to save his liver and complete his soul. Price was with Bengston when they bumped into the brunette beauty at a party in L.A. For Ken, it was love at first sight, even though it would be a full year before he’d lay eyes on her a second time. Forty-three years of marriage, three children, and nine grandkids later – in more ways than one, Happy taught Ken how to be happy. “She probably had a lot to do with him selling work, too,” Jackson Price says, “because I don’t think he’d ever go out and sell work. He’s always been an amazing artist, but there’s that whole other side of being an artist, and Happy pulled him out of his studio and brought him out to functions.”
Price’s six-year long installation project called Happy’s Curios served as an epic, artistic tribute and thank you to his wife. The obsessive homage to Mexican pottery was Price’s magnum opus. He fell in love with the style during surfing trips to Tijuana, and after moving to Taos in 1971, Price stumbled into a curios store full of 1950’s-era Tonalá and Oaxaca pottery. His idea was to design, craft and curate an entire store full of his own Mexican-inspired art. “It was kind of a fantasy,” he recalls humbly. “It was supposed to be a small store with some billboards outside and a storefront window, and inside would be this bombardment of images and colors. I figured it would take me about a year, maybe two, to make it.” Instead, it took six, and left him completely broke. In the end, he’d made enough tequila cups, bowls, plates, weavings and erotic drawings to fill a village, but ultimately, Happy’s Curios fell short of Price’s ambition. “I hadn’t thought it all the way through,” he says. “I hadn’t realized that in order to make this thing, I would have to buy a store and build in it. So what I ended up doing was breaking it up into units.”
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art was the first to show one of those now legendary units, and in the fall of 2012, a portion of Happy’s Curios will return to LACMA, along with six decades of Ken Price’s groundbreaking work. The major retrospective will then travel to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas in 2013, before landing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York later that year. It’s the pinnacle in the career of this patient pioneer who has kept the creative juices flowing by maintaining his senses of defiance and humor. Just like the brilliant improvisation of the jazz music that echoes in his mind, Price’s sensual sculptures have the ability to make life more interesting and enjoyable. So, as the appreciation from the art world escalates, please don’t mind Ken Price if he skips the party. He’ll be in his studio working.