Monday, December 9, 2013

Ken Price - a remarkable sculptor AND painter

Late Sept, I was fortunate to see the 50-year Retrospective of Ken Price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  My impression of what is and what could be sculpture art has forever changed. 

This one year traveling retrospective show began a year earlier at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The planning for the show started much earlier dated back in 2009.  Price himself was personally involved in the details of putting up the show.  Sadly, he passed away in Feb 2012 before the show was open and the retrospective became a memorial show.  But we can be certain is that the lighting, the placement, the selection and arrangement of his works is exactly how Price had wanted to communicate with us.

I didn’t know who Ken Price was nor did I know anything about his work prior to seeing this retrospective of his.   For that matter, I didn’t know much about sculpture art beyond what are typically displayed and shown in major museums, public spaces, and sculpture parks.   Yes, I have been shaken by so many powerful realistic figures by Rodin.  Yes, I have been admiring the semi-abstract monochromatic figural forms of Henry Moore’s and Constantin Brâncuși’s.  Yes, the 3-dimensional excursions of top modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Miró displayed the prowess of these unusual talents. Yes, I have also been awed by abstract gigantic contemporary works from massive monotone minimalist steels of Richard Serra to intricate and delicate union of ordinary daily objects by Sarah Sze.  But none of them makes me pause, turn back, look, and think again, like Price did.  And Price’s works are like no one before him.

Ken Price’s retrospective was arranged in reverse chronological order to deliver the max punch.  However as I unknowingly entered the gallery from the opposite door, I ended up viewing his works in chronological order like most retrospectives. I retraced his foot steps forward and took in his breakthroughs bit by bit.  As one enters the first (or more correctly, the last) room of the gallery, one is met with his early glazed ceramics.  They range from simple cups and mugs to more abstract pieces. Some of cups and mugs incorporated realistic figures like snail and turtle.  A particularly interesting one is his 1968 Blind Sea Turtle Cup in a wooden tray filled with sand (photo to the right).  Not sure what the word Blind refers to but the arrangement reminds me of Japanese Zen garden.  Can the sea turtle see where he is going or he just instinctively knew, oblivious of the big cup he is carrying?

Some of the ceramics like his 1968-69 nose cups are more abstract (photo at the right).  Opposite of the cup handle, there is an extruding nose form which makes the cup more ambiguous – is it a cup or a kettle? Next to the gallery walls in cabinets and shelves are Price’s series Happy Curious: ceramic vessels that display strong influence of North American Indian’s in terms of color, form, feature as well as pattern.  One can imagine these works must be inspired by Price’s first visit to Taos in New Mexico to where he eventually relocated.

I learned there and then from my sculptor friend that ceramics had not been taken as a serious art until Ken Price, his lifelong friend Billy Al Bengston and their teacher Peter Voulkos changed this traditional view for good with their works.  To challenge a long tradition is never a small feat even for independent minded originals like Ken Price.  To understand what it was like, Price once said “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.”

Ken Price’s early works gave us some hints of his explorations and discoveries in his career later.  He showed that ceramics can be art in its own right.  While the technique of much of his early works was the traditional glazed ceramics, their colors and compositions on the vessels are often just like what one finds in abstract paintings.   Indeed, colors do not have to flow or fuse into each other like many traditional ceramics that seek fluidity and harmony.  Rather, orange, pink, and green can occupy their own space and interact with each other that clearly demonstrated Price’s urge to break free from the tradition.

There are also a few peculiar works including one at the center of the room that draws every visitor’s attention.  These are small ceramic works sitting on cushions and large pedestals.  The choice of the color, form and the title of the series Specimen speak directly to its sexual and erotic content.  On display in the next room are a number of works from his series egg in about the same period.  They are all shaped like eggs.  The sexual message from Specimen continues as some of the eggs have slug and tongue looking form(s) coming out of interior of the egg.   There are abstract paintings on the eggs.  The colors are bright and saturated, predominantly in primary colors.  These are now ceramics painted with lacquer and acrylics.  By not glazing the ceramics and painting them instead, Price appeared to have freed himself and found more degrees of freedom in his creative process working with ceramics. 

Many of Price’s early non-glazed works had distinct features of landscape and architectures although the titles suggest some of them were abstract cups (see photo at left).   The elements often come with smooth flat surface juxtaposed like Lego and puzzles to form a particular shape.  The material is still clay; some are glazed ceramics and some are fired and painted clay.   Each surface has a monochromatic but saturated color which contrast and emphasize each other.  When pushing this idea to the limit, some of the works can be argued to exhibit influence of cubism.  For example, Price’s 1983 abstract figural works entitled 
1914 (photo at right) and 1917 remind me of Duchamp’s Nude descending a Staircase.  

In a way, it is good that Price did not go in that direction any further.  Instead he completely stopped using glazing and made the most unique and amazing sculpture works in next thirty years of his life till his death.  Price returned with a vengeance to the lumps, bumps and blobs that he started with in 1950’s as seen his 1959 work Avocado Mountain (see photo at right).

With fired and painted clay, Price started the conversations of smooth painterly and rough lumpy surfaces like in his 1986 The Pinkest and the Heaviest (photo at left) and his 1987 work Orange.  The conversation did not end at the surface and curves; colors are as critical.  Often the choice is complementary colors like in his 1995 work Patel (see photo at right) or primary like in his 1989 work Untitled.   Added to the mystery, most of these works have a void where multiple flat surfaces met that begs the question that is it a physical hole or a visual illusion?  It also brings back the images of his specimen and eggs 20 sitting feet away as some of which also have black holes.  It turns out that they are indeed physical void and there is no illusion about it.  Is he humoring us or is he telling us that the inside and outside of a 3-D sculpture is equally meaningful and important? 

As Price leaping forward, flat surface disappeared and eventually the holes were gone as well.  What is left are connected and interacting forms like in his 2005 100% Pure and 2011 Zizi (photos above; can you guess from the titles which is which?).  The size has grown considerably after he built a large kiln in his studio.  No matter from which angle you are looking at, these forms are graceful, simple with yet “fast and slow” curves and unexpected folds.  His 2000 Hunchback of Venice (photo at right) in particular, allows one view the sculpture from the bottom as well which is truly an unusual experience.  In fact many of them them are so inviting that one feels like to hug them. 

The magic did not end there.  Even more astonishing is the complexity and interaction of colors presented on their surfacesStanding at distance, it produces an effect not unlike what pointillism did over one hundred years ago.  Standing close to the surface, one sees incredibly rich shapes of varying, dazzling and dancing colors (see the closed-up photo at right of a portion of Price's 2008 sculpture Vona)).

The particular technique was developed and perfected by Price over the last ten years or so of his life. He created sequenced color charts and painted layers of acrylics on the surface with black at the bottom layer.  Some of the works have as many as 15 colors with 5 layers each.  He then repeatedly fired and removed parts of the top layers of colors selectively to reveal the colors of layers underneath. The removal was accomplished by sanding down the surface, or using Q-tips or cloth soaked in denatured alcohol to dissolve the paint.  The resulting colors and patterns are so rich and dynamic that the works appear to be made by not mortals but natural forces.

What is amazing is the sense of the depth of the object delivered by such painted surfaces.  Robert Irwin had the following to say: “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.

Price did explore the effect of light like painters also.  He employed iridescent surface and used translucent Murano paints that have reflective glass particles to address the question “is reflection property of light or in color itself?”   Throughout his life, Price worked almost exclusively with clay. By making his clay sculpture appear to be made of colors, Price has succeeded in ridding off the demon when he began his career that “sculpture wasn’t supposed to be colored”.  He also firmly delineated the art from craft: “A craftsman knows what he’s going to make and an artist doesn’t know what he’s going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like”.

As I chew on more and more with his works, I suddenly realized that, with our limited vocabulary, Price is actually both a sculptor and a painter.  The former has traditionally deal with form, shape, curve, texture, and volume while the latter with perspective, shape, color, value, and light.  By treating color and light as an integral part of sculpture, Price has created essentially, in language of painters, a whole new type of canvas in 3-D (through topological transformation, in Mathematician’s language) and made painted on them additively and subtractively.  There was no one like him before and I am certain his works will be remembered and treasured forever.

Talk to you soon!

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