I dropped out of UNT's ceramics program in early '98. I'd started studying work by heavy-hitters in the field and then, Ken Price. I knew, looking at his intuitive, almost galactic-summoning shapes that I was just an off-key karaoke singer in a world of legitimate musicians. I immediately switched my major. So yeah, I might be a little biased in my interpretation of Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective, the new show opening Saturday at the Nasher. Homeboy changed my entire life.
What you cannot understand until you see Price's work, assembled and justly arranged as it is here, is the sum and scale of the items. When he began his career in the '50s, he worked intimately, with a focus on jug-like vessels and petite cups. The life that would eventually spring from those - the grandly bending, sensual tubes, eggs and geometric links that bridge them all - grow larger in scale, but remain focused on connectivity and human interaction.
Walking through you see their joyful evolution into free-form, jazzy 3d sculpted paintings - sanded down to expose bacterial-like underlying circles of color. Soon you understand, these later pieces were fired and painted dozens of times, then buffed. They don't require glaze: they are layers upon layers of color. From a distant exterior summary, they seem like primordial creatures on a psychedelic planet. Up close, they look like a beautifully vibrant Petri dish.
They go, quite unconventionally, from new to old, and a journey through sparks more elation than two Lexipro dissolved in a glass of champagne. Seriously, you cannot stop smiling while taking it all in.
Something you notice from the start is that while each piece is clay throughout, there's no crafty or domestic ties that immediately brandish them as "ceramics" or "pottery." They are wistful examples of culture, representing the most idyllic side of experimental shifts over the last 50 years, as told by form. It's for that reason that curator Stephanie Barron chose to offer his legacy exhibition in reverse, with Price's most recent, larger-scale, work greeting you as you enter the atrium-like lobby.
"You would see it as ceramics," she says, referring to our natural mental filing of clay cups and vessels that would have occurred if she'd organized it chronologically. "From that point on, you'd attribute the expectations of what that provokes."
She isn't talking trash about ceramics as an artform, quite the opposite. Price's early work, which are most closely related to the species, remained some of his favorites. "I really like the spirit that's in those pieces, from around 1958 and 1959," he said in a 1980 interview with Michele D. De Angelus of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. "It's like this real youthful thing."
But for much of Price's life he was miscategorized by the media and some peers as a potter, mostly due to a tangential opus that occupied a decade of work in tribute to Mexican folk pottery in the 1970s. Parts of his reputation as a sculptor didn't bounce back. This show, especially considering its inclusion at the Nasher as one of three U.S. stops, is a chance to remedy that, postmortem.
Approaching them, these abstract, wild creations at the show's back end is a gift. You close with Price at his most playful, although let's face it, the whole exhibition is a giddy free-for-all. And the layout, well. It's worthy of its own separate narrative.
Price was already ill with cancer when Stephanie and the L.A.C.M.A. approached him for the retrospective, and organizing the thing took three years to complete. They knew, early on, that to properly showcase Price's 50 year-long lifetime of work would be a real bitch.
They'd be dealing with dozens of pieces, many of which are small by museum sculptural standards. They'd need to give them space and extreme design in presentation to keep the thing from looking like a garage sale. Fortunately, Frank O. Gehry - yeah, that guy - is a longtime collector, friend and admirer of Price. He immediately accepted Stephanie's invitation to design the show, and he did it in an architectural fashion mimicking Price's sculptures.
I know. It's amazing.
A giant wood and glass showroom sits in the middle of the larger upstairs gallery. It's a bit like a terrarium, offering a habitat-like viewing of several of Price's later globby sculptures. Gehry modeled it as an exponentially larger, but otherwise identical, replica of Price's earlier display boxes, which you see in the section of "slate cups." He's built windows, walls and assorted pillars - all with the guidance of Price - to properly display the items at the Nasher. And while his giant terrarium is designed to break down and move to the next museum, Gehry designed the rest specifically to compliment Piano's space. And it took almost three years of meetings with Price, analyzing architectural models, to achieve it.
"Everybody ramped up their game because they knew Ken was ill," says Stephanie as we move through the exhibition. "Gehry spent two and a half years on this; he could have built an entire building in that time."
They bided by Price's every demand, like that work be illuminated directly from above - which, it turns out, correctly causes each layer of color to sparkle, while giving a sundial of shapely shadows. Even the height and materials in the podiums were finally left up to Ken. He passed away a few months before the show opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but he never stopped experimenting or taking risks.
Two of his final works are included in the exhibition, even though they barely fit with the rest. They're large, bowing resin-like tubes, folded upon themselves. Part of me wasn't ready to love them as much as the others, but they're so bold -- so willing to keep moving forward and venture into the next stage, so completely unafraid of death, that I couldn't help but embrace both of them, and what they represent.
Do yourself a favor before you see this exhibition; buy a membership to the Nasher. I'm telling you this as a friend: you'll want to visit this show repeatedly while it's here. It's cheaper and more effective than therapy. It runs through May 12.