Critics’ Picks

Ken Price, Zizi, 2011, fired and painted clay, 16 1/2 x 24 x 17".

Los Angeles

Ken Price

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
5905 Wilshire Boulevard
September 16–January 6

In a year that has been irrevocably marked by the much-chewed-over upheavals at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, LACMA’s stellar “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective” will appear to be either a beacon for a brighter future or a dirge for a lost past, depending on your dispensation. Of course, the fact that the retrospective for the beloved sculptor is a just-barely posthumous one—Ken Price died at seventy-seven only a handful of months shy of the exhibition’s opening—casts a bit of a pall over the proceedings, but the show brims over with such frolicsome, bebopping exuberance that it’s impossible to remain morose.

Curated by Stephanie Barron with exhibition design by Price’s longtime friend Frank Gehry, the exhibition unfolds in roughly reverse chronological order. Beginning with an excellent selection of Price’s biomorphic fired-clay forms—whose brilliantly hued surfaces are pocked with innumerable fissures of concentrically layered color, resulting from a painstaking process of paint layering and abrasion that became a signature of his work after 1995—and stretching back through half a century of variously organic, geometric, and geological clay and ceramic works, the show makes a clear case that Price took up his mentor Peter Voulkos’s quest to legitimate ceramics as an art form, and made good. But as important as Price’s claim staking for his medium was, the most pertinent takeaway from his retrospective is far less parochial. Here we see the career of an artist who went his own way, whose existence amid the cool-handed likes of Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and others of the Finish Fetish ilk seems both inexplicable and somehow inevitable. The result was work that deftly dodged categorization and pricked the ever-inflating balloon of high cultural sanctimony, while remaining affecting, intimate, and, above all, proudly and obdurately weird.