For the first time, the Nasher Sculpture Center is presenting a retrospective of an artist’s complete career. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports Ken Price’s sculptures are wild and colorful. But they also presented the Nasher with a problem.
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Dave Hickey is a famously lively cultural critic, a former arts editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and a recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. He knew and admired Ken Price — he even asked if he could contribute an essay to the exhibition catalog, something he’d never done before. But until recently, Hickey didn’t know Price and he had grown up a few blocks from each other in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles — down near the ocean. A few years apart, they attended the same schools, loved the same jazz, learned to surf.
In fact, Hickey says, that shared Southern California background explains a lot about Price’s ceramic sculptures. They’re colorful and slyly playful. They can be beautifully precise; at the same time, Price’s art can be deliberately funny-looking – like a bright fish out of water.
Price’s work “has a real taste for the weirdness of where the water hits the land,” Hickey says. “The odd shapes of things you find down at the beach: jellyfish, funny dead sharks, all this stuff. Ken was a surfer, and if you’re a surfer, you’ve picked up handfuls of Ken Price your whole life.”
In particular, the shapes of many of Price’s sculptures are biomorphic. They suggest hermit crabs or plant tendrils or oozing sludge or squiggly worms. But their wild colors seem to have come straight off customized hot rods. They don’t occur in nature, notes Hickey, and that’s one reason Price’s sculptures can look so odd: “The shape is biomorphic but the color is California.” (left: L. Blue, 1961, ceramic painted with lacquer and acrylic.)
Price often lay down up to 70 coats of paint in different colors. He sanded down through them to create a highly-detailed, pebbled surface that looks like polished granite. Hickey says it’s an adaptation of an old surfboard painting technique. But anyone who’s prepped furniture for repainting has seen a simple version of this same layered marbling. Multiply that effect seven or eight times with skyrocket colors and you get the unreal, vividly spotted surfaces of Price’s later works.
Those works are fired and painted clay — they’re not fired and glazed, which seals the clay and makes the colors permanent. Instead, Price’s paint is often light-sensitive.
Which presented a problem. The Nasher committed to hosting the Price exhibition long before it discovered last year that the nearby Museum Tower is reflecting sunlight directly into its galleries and garden. The Nasher and the condo tower remain locked in a dispute over what should be done to resolve the issue.
Not shielding Price’s sculptures from the sun wasn’t an option. Private patrons and galleries and other museums loan artworks to shows — thus, they come with specific ‘lender restrictions,’ requirements about heat, humidity and light. So the Nasher installed sunlight-reducing mesh panels on the glass ceiling in one gallery. This also meant that the exhibition, which was designed by architect Frank Gehry, a close friend of Price’s, had to be reconfigured — with both Gehry’s display cases and the invading sunlight in mind.
Nasher director Jeremy Strick says the mesh panels are a temporary, unsatisfying fix to the Nasher’s ongoing dilemma. Obviously, they don’t protect the garden. They also cast the one gallery into shadow – in contrast to the airy natural light in the rest of the Nasher. Step into the shaded gallery, and it’s clear: People who argue that, as a solution to the Museum Tower problem, the Nasher should simply put up a screen over the ceiling don’t realize what an advantage architect Renzo Piano’s ceiling has given the Nasher. It disperses and softens sunlight without losing clarity and illumination; it makes almost anything look good.
Strick says that’s why he started working on a possible exhibition of Price’s work almost as soon as he arrived at the Nasher in 2009: He knew it would look “extraordinarily beautiful in the Nasher. I thought this was a building made for the display of that work.” (left: Ken Price in his Taos studio, 2004.)
Only three venues will host this career retrospective: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it originated, the Nasher and the Met in New York. Before he died of throat cancer last year, Price stipulated any touring show must include New York. That was partly a matter of showing he’d finally gained respect. New York has tended to overlook any number of West Coast artists, like Price.
And it didn’t help that he worked in clay. Until recently, ceramic artworks tended to get lumped together as pottery. They were seen as a functional craft, not an art. And as is evident in his early pieces from the ’60s and ’70s, Price worked through the conventions of Japanese and Mexican pottery — but with his own twists: adding snails to coffee cups, making a store-like shelf of ‘curios’ into a whimsical installation. Later, he used jagged slabs of clay to build what he still referred to as “cups” but which looked like the aftermaths of mini-earthquakes.
Plus, Price worked on a small scale — hand-sized, as Hickey says. Massive sculptures impose themselves on viewers as grand and important. In comparison, Price’s can seem toy-like — more “domestic than institutional,” says Strick. It wasn’t until he had a bigger kiln in Taos that the scale of his works began to enlarge, becoming torso-sized.
All in all, Hickey says, working in ceramics over the past few decades was like writing software. “It’s not a much-respected endeavor. And it took a long time to survive that. But – Kenny didn’t care.”
Price worked diligently at his art for 50 years. He was one of those people who “worked straight on through life,” Hickey says. Price could do that because “he had it all.” Price was good-looking, talented and came from a well-off family.
“That sounds trivial,” Hickey explains with a laugh, “but what it means is you start off with a deep self-confidence. And there’s no particular reason you should pay attention to anybody.”
Still, Price cared enough about his art that the Nasher exhibition’s official title is something of a declaration: Ken Price Sculpture.