At first glance, you wouldn’t expect there to be much correspondence between the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and ceramic sculptor Ken Price. The flat, Pop style of Price’s drawings bear little resemblance to O’Keeffe’s fluid and more nuanced style of painting. Price’s sculptures are generally abstract. O’Keeffe’s paintings straddle a line between representation and abstraction but fall more firmly, overall, in the territory of the former.
But juxtaposing Price’s work with O’Keeffe’s can jump-start a conversation that broadens the view of these artists’ works. That’s part of the purpose for Contemporary Voices: Ken Price, on exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum through Oct. 23.
The exhibition includes Price’s works on paper as well as his sculptures. Price, who died in 2012 at the age of 77, lived in Taos with his wife, Happy Price, from 1970 until the early 1980s and traveled back and forth between Taos and Los Angeles near the end of his life. Happy still lives in Arroyo Hondo, as does his son Jackson Price, who worked as his father’s studio assistant for decades.
The O’Keeffe Museum is reaching a little bit beyond its comfort zone in this iteration of its ongoing Contemporary Voices series. Although Price does have a connection to New Mexico, his fame came first in the 1960s as part of the southern California art scene after he was given a major exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. It’s unlikely that O’Keeffe was an influence on the young artist, and Ariel Plotek, the O’Keeffe Museum’s curator of fine arts, told Pasatiempo that their paths had only crossed once. But the exhibition isn’t meant to show one artist’s influence on another. It’s about ways of seeing.
“In some cases, it’s a very formal relationship,” Plotek said of the artist pairing. “There are analogies of color, and of what I feel is a response to Northern New Mexico, which becomes so much of a feature of O’Keeffe’s work and Price’s.”
Price’s art was placed throughout the museum’s core exhibition, which is composed of nine sections, each of which deals with either a different time period or addresses specific themes in O’Keeffe’s body of work. That is not to say, however, that the Price show was retrofitted to a pre-existing display. When the core exhibit was reinstalled with new work in February, it was done with an eye toward how it would be organized with the Price show, already slated for a June opening.
For Plotek, the meat of the pairing is how the artists dealt with abstraction.
“The importance of abstraction is something that runs throughout O’Keeffe’s oeuvre from a very early date,” he said. “You find, in the work that she makes in New York City, that there is this movement along a spectrum between representation and the observation of nature, and these forms that are more a product of an imagination. Of course, these forms are also conditioned by things seen in nature: the human body, animals, and plants. She’s distilling those forms, reducing them to something that is no longer immediately recognizable. I think with Price, particularly in his late work where the forms become very organic, there is also this kind of reduction of certain motifs that he favored. For example, there is a piece in our show called Horace. You can see it either as the form of a tongue or perhaps like a snake that’s raised its head. There’s no doubt that it’s evocative of something.”
To say that Price’s sculptures are organic encompasses more than just their visual appearances. Sure, late-career sculptures he made, like Horace from 2000, do appear biomorphic — in this case like some kind of sentient, faceless creature raising its rudiments of a head from a swan-like neck. But “organic” is also a way to describe Price’s intuitive grasp of clay, its malleability, and the aesthetic possibilities that could be achieved in so mutable a medium.
Throughout his career, Price created pieces that ranged from the functionally inspired to the fully abstract and sculptural, and from sharp, geometric angular forms to sensuous, curvilinear ones. After moving to Taos, he started creating a body of work inspired by Mexican handcrafted pottery he collected while immersed in California’s surf culture. An avid surfer, his adventures brought him to Tijuana and Baja, among other locales, and he was taken with the small ceramic wares, painted with decorative motifs, that were made for the tourist trade in such locations.
“It was a kind of everyday craft aesthetic, but it was one that really appealed to Price,” Plotek said. “There was a period when the cup remained a form that he was exploring in real depth. The cup became kind of a pretext for sculpture.” But the pieces that inspired the series, which he called Happy’s Curios, after his wife, were not really intended as functional wares. “The tradition of ceramics is so much rooted in the vessel, and it often seems that it all starts with the vessel.” But with Price, the curator explained, “it’s a question of what can a vessel become.”
Works that would fall apart under the hands of a less skilled artist — one who wasn’t using some kind of armature to support the weight of their ceramic creations, such as using wire or metal rods to support the limbs of a figurative sculpture — Price balanced instinctively. It’s almost hard to believe that some of them are not made from fiberglass or even painted bronze. Price seemed attuned to the idiosyncrasies of the medium. He let the clay be clay.
But he eschewed glazing his ceramics and, in a way, was as much a painter as he was a sculptor. Instead of a canvas, though, the clay was his surface. Price is associated with the Finish Fetish movement, which included other Los Angeles-area artists (in fact, another term for it is the “L.A. Look”) who often worked in a minimalist style and gave their artworks a smooth, seamless finish. The Finish Fetish artists included those who established innovative fabrication techniques to produce their works, and they often employed or adapted industrial processes. But Price was always more hands-on.
The surfaces of his sculptures were always painted. Sometimes they were smooth and monochromatic, and sometimes opaline or speckled like agates — the result of applying multiple layers of different colors that were later sanded down. “That’s just one end of the spectrum,” Plotek said. “Sometimes the sculpture is given this relief, almost like it has goosebumps. They have these fleshy qualities.”
As suggestive as a Price sculpture can be, the forms — touching ever so tantalizingly on the representational — remain stubbornly abstract. It’s almost the opposite of what O’Keeffe was doing.
“I don’t know where that urge to make things came from,” Price said in a talk he gave at the opening of Ken Price Sculpture and Drawings 1994-2004, his exhibition at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, in 2004 (reproduced in the Chinati Foundation newsletter, volume 10). “I could have been born with it, or it could have very easily been some kind of psychological thing that happened when I was a kid. But I know I’m working from some kind of inner need to make the work. Some kind of a calling which would make me what Ad Reinhardt referred to as a ‘Call Artist.’ ”
To a degree, Price seems to have approached his works on paper in a similar way to how he crafted his sculptures, letting them be what they wanted to be. “He would do the skies first,” his son Jackson told Pasatiempo. “When he got a good sky, he would make a drawing in front of the sky. He was very inspired by the skies out here. He had a house on the Hondo Mesa out here, which just has breathtaking sunsets every day.” The works on paper on view in the museum have an intriguing “in-between” quality. The skies look atmospheric and naturalistic, but the foreground and mid-ground imagery are rendered in a more reductive way, in solid colors.
“He did drawings throughout his whole career,” Jackson said. “He’s known mainly as a sculptor, but his drawings have gotten more recognition over the last 10 years.”
Price was a prolific and dedicated artist. Jackson moved permanently to Taos after going back and forth to assist his father in his studios in New Mexico and Venice Beach, California. He worked for his father full-time.
“It was great to be contributing to something I was proud to be a part of, because I was a big fan of his work and believed in what he was doing,” he said. “There was a lot to learn from him. He was a genius beyond just his art. He was extremely well read. He’d wake up every morning and read two newspapers from front to back and he didn’t cut corners. It was cool to be a part of that. When he worked, he worked seven days a week and 16 hours a day. It was what he needed to do because it was his passion.” ◀
▼ Contemporary Voices: Ken Price
▼ Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson St., 505-946-1000, okeeffemuseum.org
▼ General admission $13 with discounts available; through Oct. 23