New York

Ken Price

NYEHAUS/Matthew Marks Gallery/Brooke Alexander Gallery

Ken Price’s output has consistently opposed contemporary art traffic—whether, in the early 1960s, simply by having been made in Los Angeles or, lately, in its unabashed courting of pleasure (“joy,” he says, is the feeling he’s after), to say nothing of the perennial marginalization of ceramics and its cognates, craft and the decorative. Price figures as often in histories of pottery as in those of art, as demonstrated by the catalogues on view in a recent show of ephemera and design projects at Franklin Parrasch Gallery. It was Price’s moment in New York this spring; that exhibition, together with those at Nyehaus, Matthew Marks Gallery, and Brooke Alexander Gallery, constituted an all-out survey of his work, granting the critical handles and exposure it has long merited.

The show at Nyehaus—the gallery leading the East Coast charge for renewed attention to postwar LA art—mainly covered the early years, when the young Price, fresh from study with Peter Voulkos and exhibiting at the Ferus Gallery, developed his sui generis repertoire: little mounds and eggs of fired and painted clay, pitted with orifices from which sluglike innards spill; glazed ceramic mugs and cups, appended with animals, outgrowths resembling tumors, and, later, geometric offshoots; and a concomitant graphic practice in which the artist envisaged his sculptures and unharnessed their latent eroticism in risqué cartoons. Untitled (Snail Cup), 1968, confounds function and Surrealist whim, while the combination of pastel patina and wormy excrescence in Pink Egg, 1964, epitomizes Price’s singular alchemy of the pristine and the gross.

If the Nyehaus presentation, in a town house with walls painted funfair shades, recalled the post-funk/neo-Dada sensibility of ’60s Venice, California, the show at Matthew Marks specifically evoked the Finish Fetish aesthetic, whose shimmering surfaces persist in Price’s current work. A dozen of his gorgeously weird polymorphs rested on rectangular pedestals, their iridescently burnished skins at once testament to and denial of the labor-intensity of their making. Five coats each of up to fourteen colors of acrylic paint are applied in thin, even layers to bulbous masses of cast bronze or grainy, fired clay, and then sanded down, yielding an allover exterior of freckles of concentric rings of color that fairly pulsate. Biomorphic has long been the favorite shorthand descriptor for these forms, but anthropomorphic would be better: Whether the sausagelike stack of Percival, the coupling of lobe and stem in Maureen, or the erect curlicue of Weezie, all 2009, the sculptures seem possessed of eccentric personalities; encountered at eye level, they assume the force of human presence.

The real stunner of the season, though, was Brooke Alexander’s exhibition, which matched selections from four decades of Price’s career with paintings, photographs, and prints by Josef Albers. The pair are strange bedfellows, but several connections were immediately manifest, both morphological (for instance, the same palette generates the retinal reverb of Price’s Mululu, 2004, and Albers’s Homage to the Square: Zwischen Zwei Blau [Between Two Blues], 1955) and thematic (both artists looked south for inspiration, as evidenced here by Albers’s photographs of Aztec pyramids and Price’s various takeoffs on Mexican folk pottery). But other, subtler sympathies emerged in the thoughtful installation. Both artists use color as not only a surface effect but a structural agent, and a predetermined formal restriction (nested quadrilaterals for the senior artist, vessels for the junior) yields maximum expressive intensity. They also shared an inclination to push the constraints of their media: Price imparted painterly qualities to a sculpture such as Mickelos, 1987, for example, and Albers charted the third dimension in the planar reversals of the 1948 Multiplex woodcuts.

One collateral benefit of this juxtaposition was the refutation of the tenacious, irritating through line in the discourse on Price’s art that proposes it as a series of recondite objects resistant to interpretation (“The Blobs Aren’t Talking,” read the New York Times review headline). Price’s sculptures have plenty to say about any number of things, this show revealed; his work, moreover, seemed to leaven the austerity of Albers’s compositions and draw out their warmth. Albers’s interest in art resided in what he identified as “the discrepancy between the physical fact and the psychic effect”—and it is this gap that Price’s protean, hypnotic oeuvre animates brilliantly.

Lisa Turvey