Hauser & Wirth's Ken Price:A Survey of Sculptures and Drawings, 1959-2006 exhibition ended yesterday. When I visited last week it was surprisingly busy - and surprisingly large - for one of these free Mayfair things. Spread over two sites on Savile Row it was an introduction to an artist I'd hitherto been unaware of. My ignorance had been less than blissful.
Price, who died in New Mexico in 2012, was born in Los Angeles in 1935 and studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, Otis Art Institute, and University of Southern California (where he received his degree) - all in his home city. In his youth he developed an interest in surfing (like many an Angeleno) and Mexican pottery (which was probably less common).
Visits to Tijuana curio stores stoked his interest further as did the work, and ideas, of abstract expressionist ceramic sculptor Peter Volkous who was teaching at the Otis. At that time there wasn't much of a contemporary art scene in L.A. and Price, whose ceramics served no function and thus held little interest for the craft community, struggled initially to make a name for himself as this quote illustrates:-
“When I started out in L.A. in the late fifties there was no art scene at all really. I mean there was an art scene in New York but there wasn’t one in L.A. There were hardly any galleries. The museum was downtown and it didn’t endorse contemporary art. And there were only about three viable art publications. The local newspaper critics didn’t like us at all. There weren’t any collectors, really very few. We made few sales and for little money when we made them."
Artists like Ed Ruscha and Edward Kienholz eventually built up a Los Angeles art scene and Price became a beneficiary of this new found interest throughout the sixties. His 'revolutionary' shift from the traditional concept of ceramics as purely functional to the realms of art object has led to claims of him being 'one of the most influential figures of 20c ceramic art'. It's a bold claim but it's one the show goes some way to backing up.
The soft, sensual palette he employs looks intoxicating in the dimmed lights of the galleries and the curvaceous nature of some of the works almost tempts you to reach out and caress them. Kiki (2003, above) may have been given a female name but there's something rather obviously male about it too. Pastel (1995, below) looks like a shell that's been retrieved from the depths of the ocean and polished up. Its cavity suggests another dimension and it's one of many of Price's works that lend themselves to the description 'erotic biomoprhism'.
Cups, jugs, and ewers were also a big deal for Price. The untitled works, above and below, all date from the 70s when he was living in Taos, New Mexico with his wife, the satisfyingly named Happy, and engaging with local folk artists from either side of the border (wonder how that'd work with a giant fuck off wall between the two nations). Price determined to use commercially available material so as to identify himself more with the folk than the high art world. I think he made a wise decision. His lovingly glazed vessels are a joy to gaze at. Again I wanted to touch them. Perhaps I just like touching things.
1987's Ultra-Purple comes from a time when Ken and Happy were living near New Bedford, Massachusetts. Its more angular form, however, is no less appealing than an early work like 1959's Avocado Mountain, Untitled #7 almost looks like a deconstructed Rubik's cube and in fact was created the same year, 1974, that Erno Rubik launched his puzzle on to the world.
If you like cocks but didn't find Kiki quite phallic enough for you how about 1968's Von Buyros Snail Cups. If you don't like looking at drawings of penises just imagine they're actually the titular gastropods.
Specimen G5228 (1971, above) and 1999's Untitled show that Price was not just a dab hand with the pottery but an accomplished painter and watercolourist too. The debt to Hokusai and the Japanese woodblock tradition is obvious and Price did indeed spend six months in Japan in 1962.
Carmen (1974) could almost be out of a Robert Crumb illustration whereas the quiet calm of the below Untitled work (1972-1977) seems to effortlessly pay heed to both Japanese and Mexican traditions at the same time. I uploaded this picture to my Facebook page and it got 7 likes. Which is quite a lot for a picture that doesn't have any children in it!
The chimneys spewing out smoke, fire, and pollution echo Ruscha's gas station infernos and are equally enticing. You'd think such sights would be repulsive yet there's something utterly bewitching about them. Price has rendered something that may traditionally have been seen as an eyesore with as much loving care as he's applied to making Unit 6, his selection of brightly painted jigsaw decorated bowls (below), or the geometrically precise From Happy's Curios (named, in a nice touch, for his wife) from 1973. He's a man of many talents and it was a pleasure to, belatedly, make acquaintance with his oeuvre.