Ken Price, whose small, worldly, exquisitely finished abstract sculptures in glazed or painted clay exploded the distinction between art and craft and established him as one of the outstanding artists of postwar America, died on Friday at his home in Arroyo Hondo, N.M., outside Taos. He was 77.
His family said that the cause was cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2008.
Mr. Price belonged to a talent-rich generation of artists who emerged across the United States in the late 1950s and ’60s, responding to the innovations of Abstract Expressionism with innovations of their own. Until the last decade of his life, when he started working larger, his compressed, bravura objects rarely measured more than 10 or 20 inches on a side. Their forms oscillated between the bio-morphic and the geometric, the geological and the architectural. They reveled in synthetic color, unusual textures and carefully calibrated erotic innuendo. And they fit in at several points across the fertile landscape of American art of the last 50 or more years.
With artists like Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell and Craig Kauffman, Mr. Price was a progenitor of the Finish Fetish school of meticulous object-making that did so much to establish Los Angeles as an art capital. With artists from both coasts, including John Chamberlain, Donald Judd, John McCracken and Dan Flavin, he helped to usher vibrant color irrevocably into modern sculpture, often with the help of automobile lacquer and enamel.
But Mr. Price’s greatest achievement may have been to help foment a revolution in ceramics that was in many ways the true genesis of the Southern California art scene. Allied with the ceramic sculptors Peter Voulkos, who was briefly his teacher, and John Mason, he insisted on ceramics as high art â€” an argument that Mr. Price, a man of few but well-chosen words, left to his sculptures to articulate.
Mr. Price enjoyed sustained critical success, but his penchant for working small and his allegiance to clay sometimes obscured his originality. It became almost reflexive for critics and curators to write that his art was paradoxically celebrated yet under-appreciated.
In 2007, the American critic Dave Hickey called Mr. Price “the Glenn Gould of object-makers,” comparing him to the pianist as someone who was “predisposed to step away from the spotlight, similarly driven by meticulous eccentricities and beguiled, as Gould was, by the full, intimate grandeur of his practice.”
Only one museum survey of his work was held during Mr. Price’s lifetime â€” organized at the Menil Collection in Houston in 1992. A 50-year retrospective is to open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in September and travel to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013.
After his first three exhibitions in 1960, 1961 and 1964 at the legendary Ferus Gallery, the epicenter of Los Angeles cool, a succession of unusually loyal art galleries kept his work in sight with frequent shows, especially the James Corcoran Gallery and L.A. Louver in Los Angeles and the Willard, Franklin Parrasch and Matthew Marks galleries in New York.
If small, his works were still bold in every other way: color, internal scale, visceral effect and associative richness. Even their smallness exuded a nervy, David-against-Goliath confidence. Mr. Price liked to quote the artist Joseph Cornell, whose small boxed assemblages he admired: “Tiny is the last refuge of the enormous.”
Mr. Price first became known in the early 1960s for his so-called Eggs, intensely colored ovoids punctuated with small openings from which slimy-looking forms might protrude, suggesting fingers, phalluses, worms or perhaps entrails. At once beautiful and disturbing, abstract and overly specific, these objects were sometimes presented on pedestals that placed them, rather imperiously, at eye level, calling attention to their every shift in color, texture and shape, inside and out.
His subsequent efforts were stylistically diverse, but he rarely strayed far from the tensions he had achieved in his Eggs, between dazzling exteriors and mysterious interiors, foreshadowed by openings that could appear either soft and vaguely sexual or severely geometric, with the implied monumentality of the entrance to a Mayan temple.
As Mr. Price’s work evolved, he managed to synthesize, in series of works, from just about every 20th-century art style and several corners of popular culture, especially Surrealism but also Russian Constructivism, Japanese prints and Mexican tourist wares. The sculptures of Constantin Brancusi were particularly influential. Other inspirations included natural crystals, the jagged forms of the American Southwest and the coastline of Massachusetts, where he lived during the 1980s.
In his most extended series, he created numerous variations on the common tea cup. The earliest had snails for handles; the later ones, glazed with glossy primary colors, suggested abstract Bauhaus architecture. His first solo show in New York, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, consisted entirely of cups.
His svelte yet pneumatic forms could suggest cartoonish hands, abbreviated Loch Ness monsters or salacious tongues. Others conjured up jellyfish or rogue ocean waves, which Mr. Price, a surfer, knew well. He named one such piece Pacific. The announcement card for his 1961 show at Ferus featured a photograph of him on a surfboard, his arms extended exultantly skyward.
The critic Lucy R. Lippard identified Mr. Price as “something of a Surrealist, something of a purist, something of an expressionist, something of a naturalist.” Mr. Price himself remarked on the associational richness in his work in a letter to a friend in 1959. Referring to one of his mound-shaped sculptures â€” which preceded the Eggs and would form his 1960 Ferus debut â€” he wrote that making it kindled “fond memories of mountain peaks, breasts, eggs, worms, worm trails, the damp undersides of things, intestines, veins and the like.”
Kenneth Martin Price was born on Feb. 16, 1935, in West Hollywood in Los Angeles, the only child of Kenneth Albert Price and the former Joan Agnes Collins and the son and grandson of inventors. A grandfather had invented headlights, among other things, and his father had helped develop the Popsicle and double Popsicle for the Good Humor Ice Cream Company in the 1930s.
I remember the garage at our house being full of Popsicle molds and all kinds of interesting stuff,” Mr. Price recalled in a 2008 interview.
He grew up near the beach in Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades, where his parents designed and built a house. He surfed almost every day from the age of 15 to 30, briefly studied the trumpet with Chet Baker and thought of himself as an artist from an early age. He recalled that nature and Mexican folk pottery were central, early visual experiences, and once said that his idea of a perfect day was one spent drawing while listening to jazz.
While still in high school he took classes in cartooning and life drawing at the Chouinard Art Institute and later enrolled at Santa Monica City College. He enjoyed his first ceramics course there so much that he began taking classes at colleges and art schools all over Los Angeles.
By the time he earned his bachelor degree in fine arts from the University of Southern California in 1956, he was aware of Voulkos, who was applying the scale and gestural freedom of Abstract Expressionism to large clay forms. Voulkos’s conviction that ceramics was a full-blown art was a galvanizing antidote to what Mr. Price called the “crafts-dogma hell” he had encountered in other schools.
Along with Mr. Mason, he pursued graduate study with Voulkos at the Los Angeles County Institute of Art (now the Otis College of Art and Design) for about a year. But finding Voulkos’s influence oppressive after a while, he attended the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in western New York â€” famous for its traditional studio ceramics program â€” where he completed a two-year master’s program in one.
Back in Los Angeles, immersing himself in its burgeoning art scene, Mr. Price joined a kind of boys club of artists that included Mr. Bengston, Mr. Ruscha, Mr. Bell, John Altoon and Ed Kienholz and that used the Ferus Gallery as its base. He also drew inspiration from surveys of European modernism that featured the work of Hans Arp and Joan Miro, and from the Pasadena Museum of Art’s 1963 retrospective of the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose smaller sculptures often exerted an ambiguous sexual charge. In 1962, he spent six months traveling in Japan, visiting potteries and master potters, enthralled by a country where, he observed, “everyone uses a handmade teacup if they can afford it.”
In 1968, Mr. Price married Happy Ward, who survives him, along with three children, all of whom work for him in some capacity: two step-daughters, Romy Colonius and Sydney McDonnell; a son, Jackson Price, and nine grandchildren. The family moved to Taos, in 1971, first into a vacation home that he owned with Mr. Bell and eventually into the house and studio in Arroyo Hondo, which he and his wife designed.
Rather than ignore the protocols of craft, as Voulkos tended to, Mr. Price made its intimations of control, patience and obsession implicit in his work. Especially after the mid-1980s, it sometimes seemed that each new series introduced a new way of applying and showcasing color. He began painting his forms with scores of thin layers of bright acrylic paint that he then sanded down in patches, revealing multiple hues. Undulant surfaces treated this way suggested rough-hewn stones or meteors from a Technicolor world. On smoother forms the process could yield tiny pore-like starbursts of contrasting colors, to startlingly skin-like effect.
In his last years Mr. Price turned to making larger but still eminently blobby, loquacious pieces in bronze, continuing the process of layering color and sanding. He also continued to resist explaining his work’s meaning. As he said in a talk delivered at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Tex., in 2005, “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,” he added, “or that it means what I say it means. And nothing I say can improve the way it looks.”
â€œKen Price, Sculptor Whose Artworks Helped Elevate Ceramics, Dies at 77â€³, The New York Times obituary of the artist, by Roberta Smith, published February 24, 2012
Biography from the Archives of AskART.