Agreeable Objects: On Ken Price

By Alex Kitnick, Eli DinerJanuary 6, 2013

Agreeable Objects: On Ken Price

Ken Price Sculpture by Stephanie Barron

Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective can be viewed at LACMA through January 6, 2013.


ONE OF THE CENTERPIECES of the UCLA campus, between the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Broad Art Center, is the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, named for a former chancellor who had the idea for it. The sculpture garden was modeled on the one at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, albeit more in spirit than in form — in Los Angeles you don’t get a rectangle like an outdoor living room, stepped and terraced and travertined, like you do in New York. Rather, you enter something a bit more rolling and pastoral, with frayed edges and curved borders. Where MoMA’s garden shifts with the times, and stays abreast of taste and trends, moreover, UCLA’s maintains a permanent collection of classic 20th century sculpture, most of it bronze, some of it steel, and, by L.A. standards, all looking like it’s been there for a rather long time. There’s The Standing Man by Rodin, a great, brushed Cubi by David Smith, and a host of other things by artists less well known, such as Sorel Etrog’s Mother and Child. Taken together, the works in the garden speak that rather strong universalizing language of modern art.

Ken Price, 100% Pure, 2005 © Ken Price, photo © Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of LACMA

Near the Garden’s south edge there’s a sculpture by Jean Arp that always seems a bit dirtier and more tarnished than the others; it’s one of our favorites. Standing about head high, it makes a claim on the figurative with its folds and bumps, its swellings and bulge, without becoming quite what one would call a body. Before we looked at its placard we liked to imagine that it was called “The Schnoz,” but, in fact, it has an even better name, Hybrid Fruit Called Pagoda, from 1934. Apart from the irreverent incongruities characteristic of Surrealism (Arp could write — a bit wistfully even — about the feet of morning, noon and evening traipsing around “pickled buttocks”), the work’s title calls attention to itself by bringing in the act of naming — it’s a hybrid fruit, but it’s called pagoda. The possibilities of titling — limitless and arbitrary, decisive or playful — on which Arp’s appellation lingers suggests the ways that abstract forms chaotically (re)connect with the world. In any case, we were walking by this sculpture the other day, and having just seen the Ken Price show at LACMA, we were struck by the similarity between Arp’s work and a number of the curving, suggestive, “biomorphic” forms on view in the Resnick Pavilion. Price’s Mountain Balls (2006), for example, or his Altoon (2005), are also kinds of hybrid fruits: sweet, fatty, full of cartilage and no bone. (Though we’re not sure we’d want to call them pagodas, there are other Price works that would fit the bill.) If you want to get into differences though, the differences are color, surface, and the stuff from which Price’s works are made. Most of his sculptures are ceramic, their surfaces are often pocked (though they’re simultaneously smooth, smooth, smooth), and his colors are always hot, hot, hot: reds, pinks, yellows, and turquoise blues fusing and diffusing into a kind of psychedelic psoriasis. Price started making his work at the end of the 1950s but it was in the early 1960s, the moment of Pop Art, when he really hit his stride. Despite their hot colors and what some have called their Finish Fetish, however, Price’s work isn’t that. What we think it is, in fact, is “Pop Arp”: a heightening, burnishing, eroticizing, and occasional sublimation of the modern.

It was not always that way, however. Before he got slick, Price was rough. Before taking languid and bulbous form, his works were ovate, and then angular and architectural. But regardless of form, at least part of the drift of Price’s career can be glimpsed through his own strategies for titling works. Though he professed wariness about the effects of titles, insisting that “naming and categorizing leads away from the experience of the work itself towards language about it, turning individual pieces into examples of a type,” Price too — if perhaps without Arp’s self-referential exuberance — yielded to the inescapability of language. The untitled objects of the late 1950s were supplanted by a succession of works named for colors beginning in the early 1960s. Then came novelty names for novelty cups: Snail Cup, Blind Sea Turtle Cup, Oyster Bay Rock Cup. The series Specimens in the mid-1960s and Curios a decade later perhaps marked a potter’s ironizing of that problem of category and type, while in the 1980s Price went headlong into the abstraction name game, calling works after objects (to which they often bore little resemblance) and nonmaterial phenomena: Flag, The Wedge, Echo, Phobia. In the final decades of his career, Price introduced a new kind of title: characters. These include artists he’d known or admired, like Altoon and Magritte; cartoonish personae, including Bub, Whitey and Sourpuss; and a couple ripped loosely from the pages of 19th century novels: The Hunchback of Venice (presumably California) and Little D (presumably Dorrit).

Almost since the beginning, the work had undeniable personality, making the parade of round characters through his late career feel inevitable, even belated. Their appearance also encourages a literary adjunct to sculptural and craft perspectives on Price’s dialectic of surface and depth. Yet that familiar feature of postmodern fiction — the disavowal of character interiority in favor of surface effects — at first glance would seem unanalogous with Price’s protagonists whose depths are as pronounced as their entrancing surfaces. Indeed, with the exception of Lee Bontecou, no sculptor of Price’s generation drew such persistently ingoing attention. But whereas Bontecou’s viewer is confronted by foregrounded blind spots, metallic teeth, and a void erupting into the heart of her sculptures, Price’s is enticed inward through curious little openings: organically styled orifices, suggesting mouths and anuses and the first fissures of hatching eggs, or else clean and geometric apertures like dark little color fields. But there’s only emptiness to be glimpsed through these openings. The insides remain inaccessible — pure suggestion — a hindrance emphasized by works like L. Red (1963) and Orange (1961), where protrusions ooze and jut out through the openings, returning our gaze to the surface. Even when, in the early 2000s, Price initiated his final series of sculptures, sealed and smooth all the way around, their plump, ballooning forms denoted the empty volumes within. What to make of Price’s tantalizing hints of a world inside, his characters’ apparent but elusive interior lives? “Looking at Kenny’s work,” Robert Irwin commented, “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.” Beneath the surface, another surface.

But Price’s openings and cavities also function in another way. They serve as reminders that ceramics are often used to create vessels, and thus link to a long lineage of pottery. And yet despite this, throughout his career, Price seemed vexed by the inheritance of use-value that his works carried, the primal function of clay as a material with which to craft and carry. The very title of LACMA’s exhibition, Ken Price: Sculpture, speaks to the artist’s strong desire to place himself in a story of modern art characterized by a strict partition of disciplines rather than a narrative of craft, which is, by definition, hybrid: functional and aesthetic at the same time. The best way to make this argument is to begin at the end of Price’s career, when he made things that make more sense on plinths and pedestals than shelves and cupboards. Even moving backwards, however, one frequently encountered moments when the craft connotations of ceramics broke out like a bad dream repressed, while Price’s rationalizing and distancing tactics tell us as much as the recurrent nightmare. Cups become unwieldy, impractical, even caricatural, as if to mock the very notion of drinking. Objects get tucked away inside Joseph Cornell style boxes. And, in the mid-1970s, the great kitsch conundrum: “Happy’s Curios.” Here was a whole set of exquisitely rendered South-of-the-Border tourist-trap tchotchkes, set back in the quotation marks of a wunderkammer.

But, of course, beginnings are more instructive than endings, and elements of Price’s training in ceramics and emergence as an artist would reverberate throughout his career, which ended with the artist’s passing just months before the opening of the LACMA retrospective. He studied at several schools around Los Angeles in the late 1950s, including USC, L.A. City College, and Otis College of Art and Design, where he worked with the influential teacher Peter Voulkos, before heading back east to do his time at the famed Ceramics School at Alfred University in upstate New York. Alongside John Mason, Voulkos might have come closest of any ceramicist at the time to working as an Abstract Expressionist, which is to say that he not only worked his clay roughly and expressionistically, creating big blue jean banners of clay across the wall, but that he also saw his calling less as that of a craftsman than as that of an artist. (Like Price, he, too, got what he wished: his seamy Soleares (1959), a big ceramic mass slathered in browns and blacks, keeps company with Calder and Hepworth in the Murphy Sculpture Garden.) Such an idea was decisive for Price, and though his first works, such as Avocado Mountain (1959), often took the shape of enormous vessels, one would be less inclined to fill them with grain than to admire their mass, volume, and glaze. The oily pittiness associated with the avocado is multiplied here several fold. It’s a ritual vessel for California pagan fun.

Much of this story is told in the recent publication Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price, Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968, which attempts to show ceramics at this moment switching out the shackles of craft for the mechanics of construction. For Price, however, the move out of craft initially lead less toward the tectonic than the embryonic; taking the egg as his emblem, he tried to start ceramics again. Soon enough, Price left the possible use-value of ceramics aside completely, finding it instead as a way to form exquisite and entrancing objects, what one might even call sculptures. Cruising around with the Ferus Gallery crowd (artists and dealers including John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, Irving Blum, Walter Hopps, and Robert Irwin), Price, too, was looking for a way to condense cool into something concrete. His first efforts in this vein were tiny, colored egg-like forms out of which you might expect some small reptile to emerge. Rather than a full birth, however, what’s typically given is a slimy glazed appendage flopping out of a cracked shell. Beyond the shared interest in surface that he maintained with artists such as Billy Al Bengston, who lacquered his paintings like one might build up a paint job on a motorcycle, one also finds significant connections by placing Price’s “peepers” alongside the polymorphous perversity of John Altoon. Often seen as the odd man out, Altoon might have more in common with his peers than we previously imagined; he took lines on walks to transform them into cocks, subsequently hanging them out to dry. In Price, too, one also finds anxiety where least expected (even if the artist portrayed himself as a laid-back Angeleno, longboarding into the sunset). Again and again in his practice, sensuality is taken right up to its breaking point.

This heady mix of anxiety and sexuality, of course, leads us back to a story of modern art — right where Price wanted to be — and yet it was precisely this mix that he was never quite fully able to sustain. When visiting LACMA’s exhibition, we couldn’t help but see Price’s achievement in relation to another milestone of modern art, Alberto Giacometti’s Disagreeable Object of 1924. If much of Price’s late sculptures evoke this work, however, it seems to do so only to deny it. Where Giacometti’s monstrous phallus — a strange toy that also calls to our hands — blisters with additional protrusions, spike-like, that would make penetration impossible, if not extremely unpleasant, Price presents us with what we want to call “Agreeable Objects”: objects completely shorn of disagreeable additions. Price wanted things to work, to both turn us on and get us off, and perhaps in this sense, his oeuvre might ultimately be said to share a logic closer to design than the tradition of craft with which he is typically associated.

But did this repression of anxiety via untrammelled sensuality not ultimately lead to the scatological, the ultimate hot gift? Exhibited this past fall at Matthew Marks in West Hollywood, Price’s Bulgogi (2006-2011), an almost one ton mass of bronze alloy named after the mountainous trays of beef slivers served at Korean barbeque, looked very much like a tribute to the morning after: an enormous pile of [the reader may fill in the blank]. Price had finally left ceramics behind, as well as its accompanying void. Beany and lumpy and burnt golden brown, the sculpture sat pristinely in the middle of the gallery’s windowless white cube lit by the California light pouring in from the skylights above like a kind of Pieta of poop. It was the crowning achievement for an artist who always sought to bring the low high, to turn craft into art; it had a kind of irony despite itself. “Sculpture at last!” the work seemed to say. Shifting scale, the work stopped speaking to the body or the specter of use, and rather declared itself an icon fit for display, ready for the sculpture garden. The sacrifices we make for art!


LARB Contributors

Alex Kitnick is a writer and teacher currently living in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Texte zur Kunst, October, and May.

Eli Diner is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA.


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