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Art world responds to death of Kenneth Price

February 24, 2012 |  2:43 pm

The art community mourns the loss of ceramics artist Kenneth Price who died early Friday at his home in Taos, N.M.
The art world is mourning the loss of artist Kenneth Price, who died early Friday at his home in Taos, N.M. He was 77.

The Los Angeles-born artist, who had struggled with tongue and throat cancer, is to be the subject of a 50-year retrospective opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in September. In honor of the artist, LACMA, which owns 40 works by Price, plans to put his 2011 piece "Zizi" on view in the lobby of its Ahmanson Building on Monday. It has also updated its exhibition website with some of Price's photos. 

"Price was unwavering in his approach and resolute in his practice while the art world around him was intent upon other forms and directions," LACMA curator Stephanie Barron wrote in a memo to staff. "He was relentless and determined, even during his prolonged illness. Through it all he managed to make incredible, joyful work that is at once subtle and brave, serious and sly."

Barron, who is curating the upcoming retrospective, added that Price had been involved with the planning and publication of the show until two weeks ago. "He had approved the installation design, read every word of the catalogue, made suggestions about the nature of the illustrations, given us notes on the height of each sculpture we will display, and even how he would like them illuminated," she said. "At least there will be a chance to celebrate his life in six months with the show and catalogue."

Billy Al Bengston, who said he met Price at Doheny State Beach in 1953 (both were surfers, who went by the nicknames Moondoggy and the Pricer, respectively), shared studios and a friendship with Price over the years. Bengston called him "a magnificent, avant-garde surfer" and "one of the hardest-working artists you could ever meet."

"It used to be that making ceramics meant being a good potter who could pull a handle and make a pitcher not drip, but Kenny really broke the mold," Bengston said. "He had almost a jeweler's approach -- you don't have to go across the room to look at his work. You have to go close to look at them, then you realize they are compressions of different sculptural attitudes in diminutive size."

Ceramics expert Garth Clark recently penned an article about Price and was planning to visit the artist. "A few months ago the owner of local ceramics supply store told me that he had just ordered a ton of clay," Clark wrote by email.

"Price was our bridge between ceramics and contemporary art," Clark noted. "He always showed in the fine arts world and eschewed the ceramics marketplace, which was a smart tactic, but it took him a long time to make it into the high canon, breaking through the clay ceiling that once hovered over the medium."

Santa Monica gallery owner Frank LLoyd, who co-curated the current Scripps College exhibition, "Clay's Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price and Peter Voulkos: 1956-1968," hailed Price as one of the "three giants of the movement, working at the top of their game."

"They all came of age during the 1960s," Lloyd said, "a period of rapid change in perception of what you could do with an individual medium. Ceramics had a particular history, and they each broke out of that tradition and also sought individual expression through it."

"For instance," Lloyd said, "Ken often talked about the use of clay in order to make sensuous art, and I think he had a lot of what we might call idiosyncratic imagery and primal forms incorporated into his work. But he's distinguished particularly by his integration of color and form. He had an intimate scale and an attention to color that I don't think are equaled in contemporary sculpture. I also admire his work in watercolor and printmaking -- it's important to look at him as a multi-dimensional artist."

Writer Dave Hickey, who knew Price for 40 years, organized a 2001 Site Santa Fe show, "Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism," that compared Price sculptures with Ellsworth Kelly paintings.

"That's the best thing I've ever done in my life," Hickey said of the exhibition. "Kenny is one of the three people I've ever known who really didn’t give a  [damn]; the other two were Waylon Jennings and Dean Martin. They did what they did; [Price's] work was very pure."


Kenneth Price, artist who transformed traditional ceramics, dies

"Small" Is Stunning: A single gallery of Ken Price's work traces his road to brilliant fusion

-- Jori Finkel and Jamie Wetherbe 

Photo: Kenneth Price. Credit: L.A. Louver