Ken Price 1935–2012

February 27, 2012

Los Angeles artist Ken Price died early Friday morning, February 24, at the age of 77 in his home in Taos, after a long battle with cancer. (See articles in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and New York magazine.) He had hoped to live long enough to see his retrospective, which I am organizing for LACMA. The exhibition, designed by Ken’s longtime friend Frank Gehry, opens here September 16, and then travels to the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Ken was involved with us in planning the show and the publication until two weeks before his death. 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. His passing leaves a great void for his friends, family and the art world. At least there will be a chance to celebrate his life in seven months with the show and catalogue. Until then, we have updated the exhibition’s web page with a group of images and a beautiful selection of photos of Ken.

Ken Price beginning to sculpt a form for his project Happy’s Curios, 1972-77, photograph by Sarah Spongberg, © Ken Price

For more than fifty years, Ken Price made remarkable and innovative works that have redefined contemporary sculptural practice.  Beginning in the late 1950s, together with Peter Voulkos and John Mason, he helped to push the ambitions of working with clay well beyond traditionally assigned roles. From his 1960s suggestively oozing eggs to the highly colorful, architectural works of the 1980s, his early sculptures, modest in scale by comparison with prevailing abstract expressionist work, reflect his lifelong interest in precision and finish. In the late 1990s, Price began a new series of mottled sculptures, whose surface is composed of roughly seventy layers of paint that he painstakingly sanded, each stratum uncovered as he varied the pressure of his sanding.  The result is a lyrical composition of colors held mystically together in a layered arrangement that is unmistakably anthropomorphic. Subtly erotic and molten-like slumps, these haunting, intimate sculptures occupy a unique place in American sculpture. LACMA owns forty works by Ken Price, including Zizi (2011), which is from his last group of sculptures. In honor of his amazing and unparalleled career, Zizi will be on view in the lobby of the Ahmanson Building starting today.

Ken Price, Zizi, 2011, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Modern and Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund and gift of Matthew Marks, © Ken Price, photograph © Fredrik Nilsen

Price was unwavering in his approach and resolute in his practice while the art world around him was intent upon other forms and directions. 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. Price’s absolute mastery of color, form, and surface has established the certainty that a new generation of artists can to continue to push the possibilities of sculpture.

Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator and Department Head, Modern Art


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