Every once in a while you encounter a show that feels, well, perfect. Where the work is exquisite and the container for presenting it is up to the job. This doesn’t happen frequently but it did on Sunday at the Metropolitan Museum’s installation of work by Ken Price. I was so moved by this exhibit that I felt ill equipped to write about it. It has taken me two days to even attempt to capture what is so moving about this work.
I wrote about Price here* when he passed away last year which followed closely upon Pacific Standard Time**, a Getty-funded mega-exhibit that filled 200 venues in Southern California with art from that region between 1945-1980. The reconsideration of West Coast art as a result of that undertaking is writ large in New York right now with James Turrell at the Guggenheim, a Robert Irwin installation at the Whitney, “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970″ at the Bronx Museum, and the crowning jewel, Ken Price at the Met.
I have admired Price’s work for some time, and I loved that so much of it is small. (More intimate-sized art has always been of interest to me.) But I didn’t know enough back then to be a rabid fan like so many of his friends including Frank Gehry, Robert Irwin, Lucy Lippard, Billy Al Bengston and Dave Hickey, many of whom are included in the show catalog, Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective. Some believe it was the small scale of Price’s work that kept him out of the art world limelight where size and epic drama are highly valued. Regardless of the reason, that has all changed now.
Walking into this exhibit is to be in the company of works that completely transcend the sculpture/painting dichotomy. These are both and yet neither. This is work that has created its own category, that exists in its own self-defined space. Every object feels authentic, as an entity that emerged from its own complete necessity to be (to quote Roberta Smith‘s now famous dictum.) The shapes and the surfaces are so intimately conjoined that your eye is taken in at every level. Call them paintings that have jumped their borders into 3D as well as sculptures craving painterly form. The surfaces of his work are complex and compelling, from a distance as well as at nose length. He had a sense of how to combine form and color that is unlike anyone else. (Long ago Lucy Lippard said, “it is a fact rather than a value judgment that no one else, on the east or west coast, is working like Kenneth Price.”)
His works speak to the playful and the sensual but they do not provoke or scream. They are quiet of voice and yet so confidently strong. Whether the small cups from early in his career or his technically challenging large format works from later in his life, they all have a presence. They are like those individuals you meet from time to time who are decidedly peculiar but so comfortable in their eccentricity that you willingly let yourself be drawn in and delighted.
The catalog is gorgeous and worth buying even if you can’t get to the show. Dave Hickey’s essay is particularly memorable since he and Price grew up within a few blocks of each other in Pacific Palisades and share a similar California coming of age culture. Hickey being Hickey, his essay is also full of wise and clever insights about the work:
Price works with his hands and, almost invariably, presents the world with work that, for all its beauty, bears with it a frisson of discomfort and disorientation—work whose undeniable mastery seems to evoke an unknown and slightly alien master…These objects, for all their elegance and chromatic elan, are not vessels at all, or clay at all, or anything in particular beyond things that exist, in Price’s words, “on the line between bewitching and ludicrous.”
Regarding Price’s approach to art making:
There are, of course, actual downsides to working small, strange and far away, up in the high country outside of Taos, but Price has kept his own counsel on these. He tells his friends that he thinks of his time on earth in the studio as a gift, so why ask for more?… “Kenny is very pure,” Billy [Al Bengston] says, “and very stubborn, a poet and a philosopher. He doesn’t care about fame or money.”
Work on this exhibit began with LACMA curator Stephanie Barron while Price was still battling cancer. The layout of the show in every detail was designed with the help of his good friend Frank Gehry. The lighting, the height of each piece, the relationship of one work to another—I wouldn’t and couldn’t change a thing.
The exhibit runs through September 22.
**Posts on Pacific Standard Time: