Hands in that Stuff

Work table in my studio (Photo: Martine Bisagni)

John Yau has written a review of Ken Price*’s show at the Metropolitan on Hyperallergic, Ken Price’s Time. Yau made the point that he was not surprised that Price was on display at the Met rather than at any of the three major contemporary art institutions in New York—the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, or the Whitney Museum of American Art. According to Yau, all three have “openly declared their hostility toward the craft tradition to which Ken Price, who worked in ceramics, clearly belongs.”

From his review:

In fact, it is apparent to me that all three museums continue to embrace an old and destructive prejudice. As the art historian T. J. Clark has pointed out, painting also belongs to the craft tradition, which is one reason why New York museums have a pretty bad track record when it comes to supporting or examining anything contemporary made by hand, particularly if craft rather than deskilling is involved. They don’t want to break with the protocol set in place by Clement Greenberg, who was fond of the phrase, “as stupid as a painter.” If you apply that attitude to the question of what he would have thought of a sculptor working in clay, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what Price was up against in New York: How can you be intelligent (much less, conceptual) if you want to stick your hands in that stuff?

Yau makes a strong case about how this kind of thinking is a suppression of our primal connection to earthiness and what is essentially natural to our nature. Is it a sign of intellectual and economic superiority that we don’t get our hands dirty, that we leave that to other, less “developed” cultures? That may be part of the issue, but one thing is undeniable: The post WWII New York art world ignored West Coast-based ceramic sculptors Robert Arneson and Peter Voulkos (Price’s teacher and mentor) during their very active and productive lives. Better late than never.

His final paragraph is a lovely tribute to Price’s work (which, as my regular readers know, I adore):

At other times, the pieces seem so other that they appear to have come here from some distant galaxy or were something formed in one of the volcanoes that Price liked to draw. In their bright reds, and metallic sheens, they embody the heat of the kiln and the volcano, at once creative and cataclysmic. With their openings and voids, they refused to disclose themselves, becoming occult. Surface — they sing out, loud and clear — is not all. Shaping time, even as you know that you will eventually succumb to it, is a pleasure worth the labor.

*For more about Ken Price, see these posts on Slow Muse:

Art and Meaning, Price-wise

De Out and De In

Ken Price, the Glenn Gould of Object Makers

Ken Price, “Zizi” (2011),Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Photo: © Ken Price, photo © Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

2 Comment

  1. Loved this and loved the Hyperallergic article as well. It’s so interesting to me that such a dichotomy exists between the “earthly” and “heady” (conceptual/intellectual) in art. I’m not coming from that tradition, but from academia (humanities), where the need to not only acknowledge but nurture our awareness and feeling of being embodied and earthly is felt to be one of the only things that can put a stop to humanity’s runaway ambitions and destructiveness. (This is in many parts of the humanities, not the whole–and is not always lived, but at least is acknowledged.) I love “The Pinkest and the Heaviest” (1986)–where even our upright and seated position must be reminded whence it came. (If I can read it that way. 😉

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Melissa, thank you for this rich contribution to the discussion. Oh that the humanities could lead that charge…As for the earthy vs the heady, I am also hoping we can get more comfortable with the both/and, the paradox that is a higher form of truth IMHO. Thanks again.

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