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Remembering: Ken Price
Ken Price, one of the most influential ceramicists of his generation, died on Friday, February 24th, at his home in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, outside Taos. He was 77.
Price started out in painting at the University of Southern California. After studying briefly with Peter Voulkos at the Los Angeles County Institute of Art (currently known as Otis College of Art and Design), Price attended Alfred University in western New York, where he received his graduate degree in ceramics. Back in Los Angeles, Price submerged himself in the city’s vibrant art scene and became a fixture at the ultra-hip Ferus Gallery, where he had his first solo exhibition in 1960. Inspired by the natural environment and Mexican folk pottery that surrounded him as a youth in southern California, as well as Native American culture in the Southwest, Price’s work was unique because of the vibrant colors and unusual forms. In the early 1960s he worked in series and produced objects shaped like lumps, domes, and eggs; many of his earliest cups feature creatures – most notably snails – on the base. These geometric cups, simultaneously abstract and literal, were some of the first functional/non-functional ceramic objects.
In 1971, Price moved from Los Angeles to Taos. While in Taos, he created one of his best-recognized series, “Happy’s Curios” (named after his wife, Happy), which was exhibited in 1978 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The installation took Price four years to produce and featured multiple wooden cabinets displaying groups of matching pots or ceramic tiles that were largely inspired by roadside stands and storefront curio shops of the Southwest. The installation was seen as an important representation of the complexities of display and production of “folk” objects.
Throughout his later career, Price continued to experiment with color, and he expanded the size of his sculpture - with some works growing to more than 7 feet. In the 1980s, he began painting his forms with thin layers of bright acrylic paint that he then sanded down in patches, illuminating multiple hues. In the 2000s he used this same process on bronze.
With a career that defied many of the restrictions placed on other artists working in clay, Price is largely recognized as the first post-modern ceramicist, defining and redefining ceramic sculpture. Throughout his iconoclastic career, Price was an innovator, and his work was bolder than most of the traditional ceramics of his time.
Recognized as a member of the College of Fellows by the American Craft Council in 1993, Price reached a broad audience both within the craft world and in the larger art market. His objects are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Some of his most recent works and exhibitions were held at the Matthew Marks Gallery and the Brooke Alexander Gallery in New York, and at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Before his death, Price completed preparations for a retrospective scheduled to open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this fall and travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Price will be one of only two ceramic artists to have career retrospectives exhibited at the MET.
A man of few words when it came to discussing his work, he had this to say in a talk delivered in 2005 at the Chinati Foundation: “My primary satisfaction comes from making the work, and my idea of success is getting it to look right….I can’t prove my art’s any good or that it means what I say it means. And nothing I say can improve the way it looks.”