Ken Price Retrospective

September 30, 2013

By Ada Potter

Upon entering Ken Price’s retrospective exhibit, I was enthralled by the inventiveness of his objects. His forms seemed to simultaneously embrace their material roots, while utterly abandoning their physical conventions. These objects could only have been made out of clay. But without rejecting this material and it’s long history, Price made works that pushed clay into new realms of form and color.

Depending upon which way you enter, the exhibition unfolds chronologically, either illustrating a progression from early to late or starting at the end of his life leading back toward the beginning of his career. Early on Price was more explicitly engaged with the fine art/craft dichotomy in clay. He created vessels, cups with snail bodies and cubist tea sets, that register as semi-functional. But the works are displayed on pedestals and under vitrines to denote their fine art status. The later work does away with any semblance of function. As the pieces round and grow into organic, vital objects their status as art is clear. Their presence becomes more bewitching and enigmatic.

Price’s use of color is unique in that it feels fundamental or inherent to the object's form. It is in no way a second thought or additional element. The wall text quotes Robert Irwin, who says it best:

Kenny Price was the first and still the best contemporary sculptor to employ the full power of color: its physicality, its weight, density, and unique ability to articulate form and feelings. Looking at Kenny’s work, you were always touched by the color and the unique feeling that if you were to break one of his works in half, it would be the same intense color all the way through.

The acrylic paints, alcohol washes and industrial enamels he pioneered the use of, create a synergy of color and form unique in ceramic art.

Along with this radical use of color comes an almost painterly sense of surface. In a 1988 work Big Load, Price plays with the contrast between a roughly hewn exterior and a flawlessly smooth, cut-away to the interior. The exterior surface is pocked like an uncut crystal.  The blue paint has been sanded away in points of higher elevation to expose distinct layers of yellow and orange beneath. In the center of the cutaway is a flat black square that appears to recede into the hollow interior. It takes the viewer a moment to realize the black square is not a cut portal, but rather a painted element on the ceramic surface. The illusion hints at the interplay between painting, objecthood and space.  

The scale also plays an important role in the work and illustrates a shift over the course of his career. Starting off small, the earlier vessels are intimate. They feel as though they are meant to be held. While the later forms are more about a physical presence in space. For example, Big Load is definitely on a human scale and is not, by any means, monumental. Yet the object have a more substantial presence then the delicate snail cups. The work becomes less precious and more physical.

The New York art world seems to be giving west coast artists their due recently. Major museum retrospectives, like James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim, signals the incorporation of the west coast’s alternative history into the larger narrative of contemporary American art. This is a welcome re-evaluation and Ken Price should hold a prominent position in this re-telling.