IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Transformative artist Ken Price dies in NM at 77

Ken Price, an internationally known artist whose glazed and painted clay blurred the lines between ceramics and sculpture, is being remembered for his humor, his love of natural shapes and for the long hours he spent in the studio perfecting what became a style all his own.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ken Price, an internationally known artist whose glazed and painted clay blurred the lines between ceramics and sculpture, is being remembered for his humor, his love of natural shapes and for the long hours he spent in the studio perfecting what became a style all his own.

Family and friends gathered at his studio in Taos to share their stories Sunday following his death Friday morning at his home in Taos. By Monday, the makeshift memorial of flowers and notes at The Harwood Museum of Art, where one of his installations is on exhibit, continued to grow.

A hand-written note tucked under one of the bouquets summed it up: "A life well lived..."

Price's death at age 77 was first reported by The Los Angeles Times. His family, friends and fellow artist Larry Bell confirmed Price's death for The Associated Press on Monday.

Price had struggled with tongue and throat cancer for several years, but friends said he continued working despite being ill.

Inside his studio, there were works in progress and current notes and drawings lying on his desk. His son Jackson said work still continues on fabricating some of the colors and forms proofed by Price over the last five years into large-scale outdoor sculptures.

"He was just one of those artists who just worked. That's what he did, that's what he lived and breathed," said Jina Brenneman, a ceramist herself and the curator at The Harwood. It was Price who inspired her to come to Taos.

His son agreed, calling him the master of clay.

"You would be hard pressed to find anybody who manipulates clay better than him anywhere in the world," Jackson Price said. "For aspiring artists, he's inspiring based on how prolific he is. He's worked every day for 50 years. That's what he did. He was into family and work."

The debate among art critics and historians about whether Price's colorful, organic pieces were more sculpture than ceramic art was not something that concerned him as he worked in his studios in Taos and Venice, Calif.

One of the reasons he was able to elevate ceramics to such a high level is because the medium eventually became an irrelevant part of his creative process, Brenneman said.

Bits of his personality, particularly his humor, also carried through to his work, said friend and fellow artist Larry Bell.

"The thing that was amazing about Kenny is how inventive he was with form and surface and color. He just invented these totally goofy shapes and then caressed them until they became just magnificent little objects," Bell said.

"He just kept working on extending that kind of direction — that very personal, intimate relationship with his material — until it took on an incredible life of its own," Bell said.

Price didn't see himself as a ceramist, but rather a sculptor, Bell said.

Before of his death, Price completed preparations for a 50-year retrospective scheduled to open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this fall.

In a post on its website, the museum said its entire community was saddened to learn of his death. It described his work as remarkable and innovative and said his pieces helped redefine the practice of contemporary sculpture.

From the spherical 1963 piece dubbed "L. Red" to "Zizi," which he completed in 2011, the classic elements of color and fluidity are always present in Price's work.

The range of color is what evolved over his career along with the endless shapes he had stored in his mind, his son said.

Born in Los Angeles in 1935, Price was known for his bright colors. Early on he used traditional means, such as glazing. He moved on to acrylic paint, which was enough to cause a stir among ceramic purists.

By the early 1960s, Price emerged as a seminal figure of the West Coast ceramic sculpture movement. His first solo exhibit was in 1960 at the famed Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, which nurtured Bell, Andy Warhol and other significant modern artists.

While Price's work has not been widely exhibited until relatively recently, the upcoming "Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective" will look at how his worked progressed over a career that spanned more than five decades. It will also explore the work of other artists who were inspired by him.

Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, told The Los Angeles Times: "Price's practice has remained resolutely original, challenging categorization and redefining contemporary sculpture."

At The Harwood in Taos, Price's "Death Shrine I" is on exhibition. The Mexican folk-inspired funerary alter sits behind a white picket fence. It's one of only three in existence and the only one on display for public viewing.

Brenneman called it an important installation within the history of Price's work. She gave up her office so that a new space could be created at the museum for the shrine.

Price also created prints, drawings and even mescal labels for his friend Ron Cooper.

Brenneman said whatever the medium, Price's work was always meticulous, refined and witty.

Price liked to read newspapers during breakfast and listen to jazz and baseball games while working in his studio. His only break during the day would be for lunch.

"He touched a lot of people," Jackson Price said. "It's a big loss but he left behind a lot of beautiful stuff for all of us to remember him by."

Price is survived by his wife, Happy Ward, their son Jackson and step-children Romy and Sydney.