These two works by Ken Price, currently the subject of a major sculptural retrospective at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, reveal the artist's sculptural ingenuity from the beginning of his career. Executed when expansive and industrially-wrought sculpture reigned supreme in the art world, Price's intimately-scaled sculptures of painted clay helped to explode the distinction between art and craft.
1960 marked the artist's first year after leaving art school, when he began rising to the center of the avant-garde art scene alongside friends Robert Irwin, John McCracken and Ed Ruscha. Untitled and The Pill illustrate the young artist-in his early twenties-as he explores questions of scale, surface and color, as he lays the groundwork for his inimitable career, currently being honored at the Metropolitan Museum's comprehensive exhibition, Ken Price: A Retrospective.
Throughout the 1950s, Price took surfing trips down the Pacific coastline with friends Larry Bell and Billy Al Bengston. Stopping at the Mexican border, Price found inspiration in the ceramics he saw there, "always making a point to visit the curio stores in [Tijuana], because they had great potteryjust looking was a great education in earthenware pottery" (K. Price, "Personal Influences." Ceramics Monthly, September 1994, p. 31).
But it was only after meeting the legendary sculptor Peter Voulkos, that Price became inspired to work exclusively in clay. Together, they devoted themselves to ceramics, exploding the distinction between art and craft: "We've been cited as the people who broke away from the crafts hierarchy and substituted so-called 'total freedom.' Actually we were a group of people who were committed to clay as a material and wanted to use it in ways that had something to do with our time and place" (ibid. p. 31).
Untitled is a defining work in Price's oeuvre, as it was made in 1957, the year of the artist major shift to ceramics as an art student, and comes from the collection Voulkos, who inspired the change. With its grand, columnar shape and glazed, earth-tone exterior, it oscillates between the biomorphic and the geometric, the geological and the architectural.
Executed in 1960, The Pill--a tablet-sized sculpture painted in flat, even stripes, colored in purple, yellow and red--introduces the artist's signature scale that was utterly original. Executed in 1960, the work coincides with Price's first solo show at the legendary Ferus Gallery, just months after graduating art school. Elfin in scale, The Pill exudes a nervy, spectacular confidence. The artist was known to quote the like-minded Joseph Cornell, who stated, "tiny is the last refuge of the enormous."