Art In Conversation
KEN PRICE with Douglas Dreishpoon
New YorkMatthew Marks Gallery
November 3 – December 22
An imperceptible shadow crossed the blue sky on August 5, 2005, the day Ken Price and I sat on the porch of his new home in Arroyo Hondo to talk about his life’s work. Price’s unconventional sculpture captivated my imagination more than twenty years ago when I saw it in New York at the Willard Gallery on East 72nd Street: a tiny forest of finely sliced and brashly painted amorphic mounds, so outrageous and yet so right. Years later, during the summer of 2000, our mutual friend Alexandra Benjamin introduced us on the first of many trips I made to New Mexico to interview visual artists, musicians, poets, environmentalists, actors, and writers.1 Alex and I visited Ken and his wife Happy at their spacious apartment off the town plaza above what had been the local cinema. The afternoon we spent lounging on their deck, basking in the waning rays of a Taos sun, remains memorable. So does the conversation we videotaped in Arroyo Hondo five years later, a prelude to the drawings survey that graced The Drawing Center in 2012, the same year that Ken, having defied the scourge of throat cancer for four protean years, left us.
Price never compromised his creativity or life style, so inextricably bound they were. Close friends like Ed Moses and Larry Bell, having closely observed his unstinting work ethic and cool demeanor, knew he was something special. “Ken was the miracle,” Moses told me straight up when we met at the painter’s home in Venice, California, in April 2010. And to Bell, who initially followed Price to Taos, “He personified the kind of focus that was just on the work and didn’t have anything to do with intellect or politics. It was a total sensate experience being around the guy,” the sculptor recalled, “and never having to talk about art. I probably learned how a sculpture should sit from the way his cups unequivocally occupied a little place. Like nothing I’d ever seen.” You learn a lot about someone from their trustworthy comrades.
We talked about a lot of things—art, education, surfing, music, teaching, family—during our 90-minute session, things that reaffirmed how fickle the art world can sometimes be, and what it takes, year after year, come hell or high water, to reach the finish line with your integrity intact. Price kept his priorities straight even when insidious diversions temporarily deflected his progress. Revisiting this transcript for publication took me back to that propitious day, when the sculptor, clearly at the top of his game, reminisced with understated confidence and optimism.
Douglas Dreishpoon (Rail): Here we are, Ken, sitting on the porch of your home and studio complex in Arroyo Hondo. Having seen what’s in the studio, let’s begin in the present. You’re on a nice roll.
Ken Price: Yes, it’s happening and feels right. I think that I’m finally at the point where I can rely on my intuition. I’ve got this idiom that’s wide open. I can make a lot of changes, a lot of lateral moves without having to repeat the same thing over and over again.
Rail: How would you describe the idiom?
Price: Biomorphic sculpture, I guess.
Rail: Regardless of how you choose to describe these polychromatic blobs, your process enables you to explore a steady stream of ideas.
Price: Yeah, as I’m working along, I don’t always know where I’m going. Everything I do presents different possibilities and reveals things that aren’t so good, too, because they’re not necessarily working. I may pick one idea over another to pursue, but there’s no way to predict. I’m open and confident, not too worried about what I’m doing or where I’m going. It’s the perfect situation for me. All I have to do is to be patient; possibilities present themselves.
Rail: Sounds like a fertile place to be given your long-time rapport with clay. There are differences, however, between hand-building, wheel-turning, and casting. You’ve consistently gravitated towards hand-built objects.
Price: That’s true.
Rail: You also threw on the wheel early on.
Price: Yeah, but not for a long time. Actually, I just used the wheel, though I haven’t made something that could be called a ceramic object for about twelve years. I use to make cups for fun, lots of them, different styles, but when I gave up booze and coffee, I lost any connection with the cup. I’d been making fine art sculpture all along, so I got more and more interested in that. And for my little kind of fun thing, with nothing riding on it, I made drawings.
Rail:Happy’s Curios was chock full of cups and plates, basically utilitarian ware.2
Price: Those clay objects were all utilitarian, actually, made to be utilized. They all had the right weight and scale.
Rail: You began Happy’s Curios after you arrived in Taos [in 1971].
Price: True, but the idea began a lot earlier, during the 1950s, when I was surfing and making road trips south of the border. We went down to Tijuana (in those days a real marketplace for Mexican folk art). They didn’t make special tourist-oriented stuff. They would ship pottery from places like Tonalá, Guadalajara, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Tijuana, and Juarez. Nothing special was made for the tourists. You could go to the curio stores and see tons of work from all over Mexico that was really great. That was the high point in the folk-arts tradition, before the fear of lead poisoning made it illegal to import these objects into the United States. When they started to make substandard stoneware pottery, that was the end. When I got to Taos and saw the Sleeping Boy curio store full of ’50s Mexican pottery, I decided to make an installational piece. My version of the curio store is really a failed installation.
Rail: That project literally obsessed you for more than seven years. Did you intend it to be such a monumental—at times Sisyphean undertaking—or did it just evolve that way?
Price: When I began Happy’s Curios, I thought it would take a year, maybe two, to complete. I set out to make everything myself. I wanted it to be in the spirit of Mexican pottery. The process turned out to be a lot harder than I anticipated. I would make a bunch of stuff on the wheel in different ways, and if I got one that I liked, I would make a tie, as if it came from a local Mexican village. Then I would throw a bunch of duplicates, which turned out to be very difficult. I called it self-forgery: the art of making the same object over and over again, usually in quadruplets.
Rail: If you look closely, each piece is a little different.
Price: They’re all individually made, so yes, each one is a little different. Anyway, the project got out of hand. There was no place to show it. I should have bought a storefront to build it in, but I wasn’t together enough to pull it off. I was really broke, too. I took what money I had and rented a big studio at the Mariposa building [in town next to the post office] and set up what I’d done in there. Some dealers came to look. Jim Corcoran flew in from LA and really liked it. He wanted to send the whole thing to Europe but that never happened. That possibility, though, was an incentive to try and finish up. I still ended up breaking it up into units (cabinets and shrines filled with vases, plates, cups, and sometimes adorned with ribbons and plants), because that was the only way to resolve it. When Happy’s Curios was shown at LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1978], the units were installed in their own sections, not as a continuous bombardment of imagery, which is how I initially envisioned it.3
Rail: How did you discover Taos? Where did you first live?
Price: We came to Taos with a bunch of LA friends to visit Dennis Hopper.4 Then we came back and bought a house in Talpa, which eventually became Larry Bell’s. We bought that place fifty-fifty with a collector, Jim Meeker, from Fort Worth, Texas. We spent all of our money working on that house and never got to live in it. But we stayed in Taos. We lived up in Cañon. I had a studio in a little building north of El Prado. We eventually moved into the house next to that one, but it wasn’t big enough for our family, so we bought another place on Cruz Alta Road.
Rail: What’s the magnetism of Taos?
Price: That’s hard to answer. It’s a great place for artists, certain kinds. It’s not for everybody. It’s a magical place, conducive to creativity. I also love Venice, California, a very different kind of place. I grew up on the beach, surfing.
Rail: Any correlation between surfing and making sculpture?
Price: When I was surfing, I saw a lot of things in nature, especially at Rincon Beach, incredible rocks of all shapes and sizes, some full of worm holes, really beautiful.5 I took notice of that. Surfing was an esoteric sport in those days. There were no surfing magazines, films, groupies, nothing—just a bunch of oddball, creative people. If you saw a person with a surfboard on their car, you’d stop and ask them where they were from. After the release of Gidget [in 1959], the scene exploded.6 Now there’s people surfing every little break up and down the coast.
Rail: What was your favorite beach?
Rail: Were you out there early in the morning?
Price: In those days you didn’t have to get there early if you slept on the beach. I’d wake up about 11:00 in the morning. Surfers would already be there.
Rail: Were you making art then?
Price: I was always making art in one way or another. I wanted to be an artist as far back as I can remember.
Rail: Was your family sympathetic?
Price: Until they realized that I was really serious about it. They even took me, when I was a kid, to see painters’ studios. I was fascinated by the tubes of paint and all those brushes.
Rail: Had you thought about painting?
Price: Not really. I just wanted to make art. I didn’t really think about being a painter or a sculptor or anything for that matter. I was more into cartooning, making little cartoon books. I was the cartoonist for the high school paper [at University High School] and for the college yearbook [at Santa Monica City College]. When I was at the Los Angeles City College [in 1954], I took only one ceramics course [with Bernard Kester]. I had seen an article in Arts and Architecture magazine that featured some guy who made vessels and drew on them. I wanted to do the same thing. I realized that I really loved working in three-dimensions. From then on I made lots of objects—sculptures and pottery—all kinds of stuff.7
Rail: Clay has always been your primary material.
Price: Yeah, clay’s the main. I’ve made a lot of stuff out of plaster, and wood, too. Clay is a great material, because you can do so many different things with it. It has its own laws and limits. I figured out ways of doing things with clay that required the sponaneous invention of new techniques. Solving technical challenges became more front and center when I started teaching inexperienced students how to throw.
Rail: You taught at the University of Southern California from 1991 to 2001. Were those mainly throwing and forming classes?
Price: They were all kinds of courses related to pottery. I had all kinds of students, too, a lot of them novices when it came to throwing pots.
Rail: Did you get a lot out of teaching?
Price: I learned a lot. Basically I had to reeducate myself about the art world, about what was actually going on. I didn’t think that highly of conceptual art, though it was interesting to be in academia and to see how everyone acted as though they were a critic. I realized how subjective the teaching of art could be, and how theory could supersede the primacy of making. There are no objective criteria. What’s offered up as fact is actually opinion. The art work becomes, in essence, its own universe. A lot of students were really upset about the situation. I was the one who defended them, because I was the practicing artist. I would say to some of my colleagues, “Why do you expect this student to give up ambiguity in order to name and categorize?” Students would thank me. I learned a lot from those circumstances.8
Rail: You learned a lot from Peter Voulkos, too. It was a small group that studied with him [at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (later Otis Art Institute) in 1955-56].
Price: Voulkos was hired when he was the king of the traditional crafts-oriented ceramic world. His stuff was heads and shoulders above everybody else’s. By the time he got to Otis, though, he was breaking out, making pottery more and more like Picasso and Miró. Eventually he just made sculpture. We were there watching the transformation take place. The administration built a new building. A lot of interesting students showed up, but they wouldn’t let them in because they didn’t have the right prerequisites, which was too bad. It would have been an amazing scene. But as it was, everybody there was really serious and most of us went on to become professional artists. Voulkos’s way of teaching was empirical: he came to the studio and worked with all of us present. He had this magical touch for clay—bigger and better and faster—amazing to behold, fantastic.
There were no credits. We’d work ‘til about 2:00 in the morning and then we’d have breakfast at Ollie Hamond’s restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. We were regulars there, along with off-duty cops, Bekins Van & Storage guys, and prostitutes. Afterwards we’d sleep ‘til noon, come back to the studio, and work again ‘til 2:00. We’d mix up the clay together—50% Lincoln fireclay and 50% clay. [John] Mason and Voulkos were both making huge things. Mason was making these big wall murals. After mixing up the clay, we’d roll this huge clay mound into the center of the studio on a big flat and start taking it off of that. When the batch was all gone, we’d stop and mix up more. [Billy Al] Bengston and I would race to get some of the clay. We were making small stuff compared to the others. Voulkos was a really good teacher, friendly and patient, very tolerant, even when we made work that looked like his.
Rail: Talk to me about your first show at the Ferus Gallery [in the spring of 1960].9 What was shown then?
Ken Price, Blue, Black, and Red, 1990. Fired and painted clay, 7 x 6 x 6 inches. © Estate of Ken Price, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.
Price: Some little pieces in boxes that superficially resembled [Joseph] Cornell, and a few mound sculptures, glazed and hand-built, with lids. There were also some small cups in boxes and a bunch of drawings.
Rail: Was the Ferus group congenial?
Price: We were friendly competitors but, yes, congenial. Some of my closest, life-long friends were part of that group. There wasn’t much happening in L.A. at that time [during the late 1950s]. There was no real art scene then.
Rail: Walter Hopps was involved with the Gallery at that point.
Price: Yeah, he co-owned it with Ed Kienholz, who eventually sold his share to Irving Blum. When Walter became director of the Pasadena Art Museum [in 1964], his affiliation with the Ferus was seen as a conflict of interest, but he secretly remained half owner for quite a while before selling the whole thing to Irving. When Irving took over, we didn’t think that some of his choices were that interesting, though he did show Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. He was the first to show Andy’s Campbell Soup Cans. And the show he did with Johns—of sculpt-metal lightbulbs, flashlights, flags and small paintings—was sensational. He also showed [Giorgio] Morandi and Cornell.
Rail: Did people come to the gallery?
Price: Not a hell of a lot. Most of the galleries were on La Cienega. Openings were on Monday nights, once a month, and everybody would come out. Nobody would buy anything, but it was a great party, with lots of people walking up and down the street. Some galleries served free wine and really bad cheese. It was a good scene for meeting girls. We hung out at Barney’s Beanery, which later became a famous bar, though at that time it was just a hole-in-the wall place.
Rail: What was it like knowing Hopps?
Price: It was interesting. He’d come by my studio about 4:00 in the morning, and we’d go to a nearby coffee shop. I was a night person. So was he. Walter was miles ahead of me in terms of what he knew, with a genuine love for authentic art and for offbeat and eccentric people. Because of the kind of guy he was, Marcel Duchamp decided to have his retrospective with him [at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1964], when every other museum in the world wanted to do it. Walter went out of his way to find Duchamp in New York. Marcel left little clues around. Nobody knew where he was, but Walter followed down those clues and came knocking on his door. One time, when I was living in Ventura, there was a knock on my door. I said, “Who is it?” And someone said, “Marcel Duchamp.” So I opened the door and there he was. I said, “Well, come in.” Then I looked out the door and saw Walter about two blocks away, sticking his head out from around a building. They had been visiting Beatrice Wood, Duchamp’s former mistress, up in Ojai. That was a memorable encounter. We ate pizza at Papa Tony’s in Ventura.
Walter put me in a five-person sculpture show [New American Sculpture in 1964] at the Pasadena Museum, along with Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain, H. C. Westermann, and Edward Higgins. I was really honored to be in that show. Walter was a whiz kid with great eyes and a photographic memory. You’d show him something, anything, and he’d memorize it.
Rail: I have to ask you about the trumpet. Were you playing music at the same time you were surfing?
Price: When I started surfing, I sold my trumpet. I was never that serious about having a professional career in music. I just liked playing. I took piano lessons from a woman whose son was killed in Okinawa. He had played the trumpet, which always sat on top of the piano during my lessons. One day she said, “Why don’t you try this?” So I did and liked it. But it wasn’t the right instrument for me, really, because you have to be a certain kind of person.
Rail: How so?
Price: You have to stand out front, blow loud, and lead the band.
Rail: You studied with Chet Baker.10 How did you get to him?
Price: I just went up to him on the bandstand one night, when he was at the Haig [638 South Kenmore Avenue in Hollywood] playing with Gerry Mulligan, and I said, “Do you give trumpet lessons?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well, could I take a trumpet lesson?” And he said, “Okay, come on over.” He was living in this place in Hollywood with Carson Smith [bass player; older brother of composer Putter Smith] and a couple of other guys in this really strange apartment. That was the first time I smoked marijuana. I was about fourteen or fifteen. Chet was a natural musician who played by ear. He didn’t always know the chords to a tune. He’d sometimes make terrible mistakes, then turn these into beautiful passages.
Rail: Improvisation drives your own creative process. Everything you do builds on what you’ve already done and might do. Working empirically keeps the perceptual doors wide open.
Price: It’s a very intuitive process tempered by the conscious mind. You can feel yourself doing it, like a quick, instantaneous spot check. It’s hard to say how it works, because you can’t focus on that reflex and make something at the same time.
Rail: When you designed the studio here in Arroyo Hondo, what did you have in mind for your dream space?
Price: A room scaled to the size I like to work in, and another, bigger room, well lit, so I can see the pieces when they’re finished. Before now, I couldn’t really see what certain pieces looked like until they were installed in a gallery. There’s also a room, with lights over the tables, to paint the pieces in. I also designed the studio with garage doors that can easily open during the spring and summer. It’s great to have the studio so nearby. I can get up in the middle of the night, if I want to, and go out there.
Rail: Over the course of 45 years, you’ve consistently made small sculpture. Do you envision going big at some point?
Price: I do envision going big someday. Sculpture of an intimate size draws the viewer in for a closer look, and there should be a payoff when that happens. One’s relationship to a smaller piece can be magical. I’d actually like people to be able to touch the work, so they can experience its textures and marks and realize that the thing is made out of layers of painted color that are integral, not just applied.
Rail: How does a piece find its polychromed skin?
Price: First, I make them; then I surface them; then I fire them; and then I paint and sand them. My son, Jackson, and an L.A. friend of his, Brian Law, paint the pieces using fourteen colors that I select. If the first color scheme doesn’t look right, you have another chance to go deeper. Then if that doesn’t look right, we paint the whole thing over again—another fourteen colors with five or six coats per color, brushed on evenly. I’m always trying new colors. Some work, some don’t. You can change the predominant color by sanding it. Sometimes I end up sanding the first top colors all the way off. There’s no formula, no system. I put grains in the clay and raise them up. Then we put thin coats of paint over the grains. The grains hold the paint and create the nodes. Surface and color should look like they’re inseparable.
Rail: When do you draw? Is there a particular day for drawing?
Price: I draw whenever I can. When I have a drawing show coming up, I draw all the time.
Rail: You got on a roll with the volcano drawings [2002-2005].
Price: Yeah, I’ve come off the volcano [laughs]. Now, I’m drawing New Mexico trailers in the landscape. I make the skies first using watercolor. There’s no way of knowing how they’ll come out as they dry. Miraculous little things happen; it’s all luck. Drawing was always a private activity for me, with nothing riding on it. Now, with the work being shown publically, my expectations for it have changed. I still learn a lot from the drawings, even the ones that disturb me. I’ve learned not to throw these away. I just put them in a drawer for awhile. When I pull them out again, I see them differently.
Rail: Where do you think you’ll be five years?
Price: Have no idea. Right here, I hope, making some stuff. I feel good, physically. I’m in a productive period. I call it my golden period, because I have the technical facility to accommodate ideas right away. I call it the highway to the unconscious, and that’s where I like to be. In that place where you’re receptive, your mind goes quiet, and before too long all kinds of possibilities come.
- Between 2000 and 2009, the Mandelman-Ribak Foundation sponsored a series of forty-four interviews that now constitute the Taos Oral History Project. The Project’s initial concept called for a series of videotaped interviews with individuals who had been associated with the Taos Moderns, a group of artists living in Taos during the 1940s and 1950s. As the Project evolved, its objectives broadened to encompass subsequent generations, the influx of artists and writers who came to Taos in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as individuals who contributed to the culture and arts. All of these sessions, videotaped and transcribed, are now part of the Beatrice Mandelman and Louis Ribak Collection (MSS 1002). Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections, University of New Mexico Libraries, Albuquerque, NM.
- For a discussion of Happy’s Curios, see Douglas Dreishpoon, Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962-2010, Drawing Papers 105 (New York: The Drawing Center, 2013): 39-51.
- The publication produced by LACMA documents the installation in detail; see Maurice Tuchman, Ken Price: Happy’s Curios (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1978).
- When the Prices arrived in Taos—accompanied by Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, and Ed Ruscha—Hopper was ensconced at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, which he had bought and where he had recently completed post-production on The Last Movie. Hopper had discovered Taos four years earlier, in 1967, while scouting locations for Easy Rider, and after the movie’s release, he returned there to live and work. The scene at the Luhan House, played out as a poignant sequence in The Last Movie, could be described as a three-ring countercultural circus, as an ongoing entourage of notable and not-so-notable characters descended on the infamous Mud Palace. Hopper talked candidly about his life in Taos at the Harwood Museum on May 3, 2009, a year before he died—the last interview conducted for the Taos Oral Archives Project.
- Rincon, located at the Ventura and Santa Barbara County line in Southern California and known as the “Queen of the Coast,” is renowned for its well-formed waves and long rides.
- Directed by Paul Wendkos and starring Sandra Dee, James Darren, and Cliff Robertson, Gidget was a Hollywood-conceived romance about a teenage girl’s initiation into California surf culture. The film received one award nomination, lead to numerous sequel films and a television series, and inspired the “beach party film” genre.
- For a timeline of Price’s diverse educational history, see Lauren Bergman’s “Chronology” in Stephanie Barron’s Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012): 214-259.
- Price tended to demur when it came to explaining his work. “Usually it’s not possible to find out someone’s true intentions from what they say,” he wrote in an email to the author in 2003. “The idea of understanding or judging artwork in relation to the artist’s stated purpose is known as the ‘intentional fallacy.’” As it turns out, he had a lot to say, particularly during his stint at the USC, when he considered what it meant to make art as opposed to theorizing about it, and wrote extensive notes—some in essay form—that informed his teaching. Romy Colonius, who monitors Price’s archives in Taos, discovered volumes of notebooks and journals and brought these to my attention.
- Still one of the best primers for the Ferus Gallery is Kristine McKenna’s The Ferus Gallery: A Place to Begin (Gottingen, Germany: Steidl, 2009).
- Chet Baker joined the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952 and was a regular performer around Los Angeles at The Haig and the Tiffany Clubs. After being arrested and imprisoned on drug charges, he formed a quartet with a rotation of musicians who included Carson Smith, Bob Whitlock, Joe Mondragon, and Jimmy Bond (on bass), Russ Freeman on piano, and drummers Larry Bunker, Bob Neel, and Shelly Manne. Along with tenor players Mulligan and Art Pepper, Baker came to epitomize the cool, laid-back sound of West Coast jazz, both as a soloist and a singer.