New York

View of “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective,” 2013, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Foreground, from left: Little D, 2011; Ordell, 2011–12;Venus, 2000.

View of “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective,” 2013, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Foreground, from left: Little D, 2011; Ordell, 2011–12;Venus, 2000.

Ken Price

The Drawing Center / Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of “Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective,” 2013, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Foreground, from left: Little D, 2011; Ordell, 2011–12;Venus, 2000.

AN ICONIC KEN PRICE SCULPTURE finds its way into a pool in his 1968 collage Floating Turtle Cup; sketched onto a found photograph of a naked woman wearing a tiara, it seems to be swimming by her, trailing in its wake a scribbled note: SEE IF TURTLE CUPS WILL FLOAT? SHOTS IN POOL—. A kindred ceramic vessel makes an appearance in the drawing Sea Turtle Cup from the following year, wherePrice’s experiment in animating his sculptures deepens: See if cups will become turtles? Oblivious to us, and to the enormous cup with handle protruding out of its shell, a turtle glides orthogonally by in a graphite ocean, white circles bubbling up from the mug as if the creature is breathing through it. The question of what is natural pervades Price’s work—from his first animal earthenware, to the ambiguously biomorphic sculptures that defined the bulk of his career, to the eerie landscapes that dominate his later drawings. In its unsettling beauty, Price’s oeuvre recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous declaration that art itself is a kind of sublimation of the natural world. “Thus is Art a nature passed through the alembic of man,” Emerson wrote in his 1836 meditation “Nature”; and thus is art passed through the vessel of reptile, sometimes holding tequila.

Price, who died in February after five prolific decades sculpting clay, was an artist’s artist, always a little under the radar and a little off the grid, whether working in Los Angeles or New Mexico. From the start of his career, prominent critics followed his ceramics with enthusiasm—Red, 1961, even graced the cover of Artforum in 1963—and as recently as 2006, he enjoyed a major drawing show at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. Still, Price was hardly a household name.

But he was suddenly everywhere this past summer in New York. A blazing heat wave was the perfect backdrop for the oozing, igneous shimmer of Price’s compact sculpture retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the artist’s friend architect Frank Gehry designed the beautiful show, curated by Stephanie Barron, which traveled from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas); the puckish menagerie of ectotherms, both sculpted and drawn, in “Ken Price: Zoo” at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery (which exhibited Price regularly through the 1990s); and the desert vistas and scenes of spewing lava downtown at “Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962–2010,” the first survey of Price’s drawings, organized by the Drawing Center(curated by Douglas Dreishpoon of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo). Exhibiting Price’s personal taxonomies of the physical world across varied stages of his career and different modes of production, all three shows produced that most Emersonian of reactions: delight.

The messy, annotated energy of Price’s initial sketches—most depicting extant or forthcoming ceramics—suggests a fervent, even scientific curiosity about every warty bulge and sensual orifice of his sculptures. Drawings activated these specimens into breathing, mating beings: deputies (here is Emerson again) of the world. Beginning in the ’80s, Price’s sculptures seem crafted in reverse, as if approaching a state of natural formation: Imagine minerals burnished for millennia discovered one day while walking the dog (Big Load, 1988), or geological samples extracted from planets where exotic atmospheres catalyze delirious textures and colors, such as Bub, 2010.

If these later sculptures introduce us to appealing alien surfaces, Price’s drawings from this same period engage in an uncanny intimacy with the landscape around us. The breakdown in metaphor instigated by the ceramics—where a piece is described as like five things, precisely because it is like nothing—becomes, in the drawings, a radical versatility. The efficient graphic crispness of his late acrylic and inks, given their own gallery in the Drawing Center’s thoughtful hanging, renders a mountain the same as a wave; the whirling vortices in the center of The Hermit’s Cave and The Bottomless Pit from 2008 are simultaneously opening and closing. Both are evocative of the disembodied void of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” and here we are not really so far from the scenery of British Enlightenment painter Joseph Wright of Derby, by way of The Simpsons.

Shades of environmental noir were everywhere at the Drawing Center. And when Price introduces not only a touch of pop Americana but a sense of unease, of landscape as compromised or even hostile, he creates a true kind of American sublime. In Taos Talking Picture, 2000, identical cars park at a drive-in theater under a roiling sunset blotted by dark clouds. On the screen, a reclining Gauguinesque woman looks warily over a bare shoulder while tufted plants stretch toward the horizon as a hundred small fires. (Think Georgia O’Keeffe on acid, or Cormac McCarthy with a sense of humor.) LA is a decorative screen in the windows of Price’s blank interiors from the early ’90s, and as a backdrop for the Hockney­esque bathroom scene in illustrations commissioned by environmentalist poet Harvey Mudd. In Dangerously Clean Water, 1993, it’s the factory that’s threatened by its setting. And in the Talisman to Avert Falling/Crashing drawings from 1997, buses plunge off hairpin cliffs and giant skeletons loom over cars already smashed at the bottom of mountain passes. Price updates transcendentalism for a postnature ecology: With the worst right in front of us, we can carry on with the unknown.

A wonderful detail from the earliest work at the Drawing Center, the ten-foot scroll K. P.’s Journey to the East, 1962, has Ken Price-san (the suffix a Japanese honorific allowing for a mischievous play on the art/artisan division between sculpture and pottery) hoping to uncover the poet Basho’s wisdom inscribed on a garden stone, but “unfortunately a turtle was sitting on the poem during Price-san’s visit.” One definition of the sublime posits that what we seek is already in our presence.

“Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962–2010” is currently on view (through Jan. 19, 2014) at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; travels to Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, NM, Feb. 22–May 4, 2014.

Prudence Peiffer is a senior editor of Artforum.