October 22, 2017


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Lot 87: Ken Price

Lot 87: Ken Price


Acrylic on fired ceramic
7.25" x 7.25" x 7.25"; (18 x 18 x 18 cm)
Together with exhibition box and copy of invoice from L.A. Louver Gallery dated February 27, 2004
Provenance: L.A. Louver Gallery, Los Angeles, California; Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the above, 2004)
Exhibited: "Ken Price Sculpture," L.A. Louver Gallery, Los Angeles, March 4-April 10, 2004
Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000
Price Realized: $75,000
Inventory Id: 26087

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Pioneering artist Ken Price (1935–2012) revolutionized the course of American ceramics from the 1950s onwards. Born in Los Angeles, Price had a quintessential Californian childhood, spending most of his days surfing at the beach. As a teenager Price already identified as an artist, taking music classes with the likes of jazz giant Chet Baker and art classes at the Chouinard Art Institute. After graduating with a B.F.A. from the University of Southern California in 1956, Price studied at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design) under Peter Voulkos, the acclaimed father of the American "Craft-to-Art" movement. Together with Voulkos, Price stretched the definition of sculpture by confronting the prejudice that pigeonholed clay works as pure craft. Rejecting the traditional restraints placed on the ceramic arts at the level of technique, function, and form, Price took an innovative approach to clay as a medium in its own right, capable of producing deeply gestural sculpture. Like Voulkos, Price challenged the traditional assumption that ceramics served a purely utilitarian end, as opposed to "high art" with its devotion to pure form. Under Voulkos' tutelage Price also devised a unique approach to sculpture that pitted form and color against one another and, along with other artists on both coasts — including Donald Judd, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, John McCracken, Larry Bell, John Chamberlain, Craig Kauffman, and Dan Flavin — Price often engaged heavy lacquers and enamels used in industrial manufacturing, ultimately fomenting a revolution in sculpture as a whole.

Price produced a diverse oeuvre that, in addition to sculpture, included drawings, watercolors, prints, and drawings. The latter was central to Price's artistic practice from the beginning."I think sculptors learn to draw so that they can see what they've been visualizing," he once hypothesized. "Most sculptors can draw pretty well, and they draw in illusionistic space, because if you can't draw it, you can't see it." As a sculptor, what Price most often thought about was space, proportion, and dimension. He was captivated by cups, eggs, and other objects having both an interior and exterior, which he frequently featured as the subjects in artworks, such as his 1963 Liquitex-on-board, Specimen (G2103.13) (Lot 88). What Price creates on the flat service is, in essence, a three-dimensional object. With their vibrant color palette and whimsical subject matter, Price's drawings both complement and elucidate his sculptures.

Like many of his contemporaries, Price also drew inspiration from the experimental zeitgeist of the 1950s American subculture that embraced and intermingled influences as diverse as Asian philosophies, free-form jazz, and an iteration of Abstract Expressionism that turned tradition on its head. Price allowed the expressionistic nature of clay to come to life as he worked quickly and intuitively to stimulate new ideas. Along with other West Coast artists, including Voulkos and John Mason, Price embraced extemporaneity in the creation of his ceramics. In more ways than one, it might be said that these artists did for ceramics what the beat poets did for verse, freeing it from rigid forms and engaging spontaneity and intuition as guiding forces in their work. Taking an approach to clay that allowed for accident and chance, Price exchanged artistic agency for a kind of collaboration with the material itself. "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," he once said.

In 1959, Price completed the master's program at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred in just one year. Afterwards, he moved back to Los Angeles to exhibit his work at the now legendary Ferus Gallery, where he achieved immediate success with his diminutive, yet precisely finished sculptures. Price engaged monumentality in his work, but not in any traditional sense of the word. He primarily devoted his energy to the production of intimate pieces, which he himself designated as "hand-scaled." Although small in scale, these works often engage monumentality in an entirely novel manner. In such works, it is distilled and implied, rather than overtly deployed. Sculptures such as Price's 1960-1961 mixed-media piece, The Astronauts in the Water (Lot 90), for instance, reduce and distill titanic subjects — the universe and the awe-inspiring transport of humans into outer space, in this case — to minuscule dimensions, so that they operate in a similar vein as the diminutive, boxed works of Joseph Cornell, whose maxim "tiny is the last refuge of the enormous," the artist often quoted.

"The two most powerful sizes," Price wrote,"are very small and very large." Towards the end of his career, beginning in the late 1990s and continuing through his death, Price started producing a series of haunting, ambiguously erotic sculptures decidedly larger in scale, but he never departed from the bulbous, dripping biomorphic forms and richly acidic colors that defined his earlier work. And in works such as his 2004 drawing, Volcanic Dust (Lot 89), we find the same equally realistic and fantastic, subtly disturbing and joyfully cartoonish forms that are already evident in earlier works, such as his two 1981 screen prints, Detective Room and Orange Grove (from The Plain of Smokes ) (Lot 90).

While spontaneity played a decisive role in his practice throughout his long career, later in his life Price was also a fastidious adherent of the protocols of craft. His process was painstakingly work-intensive, often involving an obsessive, unorthodox application of copious coats of paint which he sanded in order to realize highly glossy surfaces of mottled, polychromatic hues, as found in the oozing contours of his later sculptures, such as his 2004 work, McShann (Lot 87). These later, creature -like sculptures could just as easily fit the description the artist used to describe earlier works as reminiscent of "mountain peaks, breasts, eggs, worms, worm trails, the damp undersides of things, intestines, veins and the like, "an aesthetic that Price would continue to grow into throughout his career.

Barron, Stephanie. Ken Price: A Retrospective. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013.
Dreishpoon, Douglas, ed. Ken Price: Slow Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962-2010. Drawing Center, 2013.
Hopps, Walter and Lebow, Edward. Ken Price. Menil Collection, 1992.
Price, Ken. Ken Price: Specimen Rocks. Matthew Marks Gallery, 2014.
Smith, Roberta. “Ken Price, Sculptor Whose Artworks Helped Elevate Ceramics, Dies at 77.” Art & Design sec. The New York Times. 24 Feb. 2012. Web.