The Ken Price retrospective at Hauser & Wirth, titled ‘A Survey of Sculptures and Drawings, 1959-2006’ offers the chance to view a wide variety of ceramics and works of paper from the artist’s career. I have seen the show multiple times and I hope to go again before the show closes (yes, it is that good).
Price was born and raised in Los Angeles where he also spent most of his life. He also spent time in New Mexico, New York and Massachusetts. Price repeatedly returned to California, however, and spent the last decades of his life between Taos, New Mexico and Los Angeles – both places had a profound influence on his work. Early on the artist studied under Peter Voulkos, best known for his abstract ceramic sculptures and for bridging the gap between ceramics as craft and ceramics as fine art. Price explored the medium of ceramics and the play between abstraction and figuration for the rest of his life, and was part of the group of artists that included Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and Ed Rushca that defined LA’s original art scene.
In the south gallery, drawings and ceramic works are grouped chronologically. Some of the drawings are preparatory sketches for the ceramics on display, offering us a rare glimpse into the artist’s thinking and making processes. My favorites are two ‘Untitled’ drawings from 1990 of sculptures similar to ‘Pastel’ (1995) and ‘The Lung’ (1988) in rooms that are as colorful as the sculptures. A series of ceramic cups from Price’s early career are also on display. The series came out of a trip Price took to Japan in the early 1960s and are whimsical and delightfully humorous objects. Also on display are works from ‘Happy’s Curious’, a decade long body of work. During this time Price explored methods and themes used in artisanal Mexican and southwestern pottery. There are also numerous drawings depicting southern California. It is through his particular use of colour that Price not only evokes the saturated Californian skies but also makes subjects such as a trailer or a factory seem sexy and exciting, in, for instance, ‘Paul’s Trailer’ (2005).
In the north gallery are ceramic forms largely from the artist’s later years. Price stopped using glaze in 1983 so in all his later works, layer upon layer of paint was applied and then sanded and or wiped down, then re-fired sometimes multiple times to achieve the final result. Blob-like forms with sharp openings evoke psychedelia, sci-fi and natural forms all at once. Dave Hickey, who wrote one the essays for Price’s last museum catalogue, described the works as ‘on the line between bewitching and ludicrous’, an apt summary of Price’s impressive practice.