In the summer of 2009 I started a graduate internship working at LACMA with Senior Curator of Modern Art Stephanie Barron, and I was tasked with gathering extensive research as well as building a database of Ken Price’s sculptures. I must admit that, although I had heard of Price and was familiar with his sumptuous, organic works from the 2000s, I had never seriously investigated his long and prolific career. Over the next three years, I became completely engrossed, transforming myself into a veritable encyclopedia of his sculptures and their whereabouts. As I more fully delved into the remarkable progression of his conceptual argument, his genius and unrelenting determination in the face of many of the art world’s prejudices—making small scale sculptures in ceramics and choosing to remain in Los Angeles and Taos, New Mexico, which were outside the mainstream art scene in New York—showed me the ultimate example of a truly revolutionary artist.
Ken Price, Cheeks, 1998, collection of Romy Colonius, © Ken Price, photo © Fredrik Nilsen
Early on, Stephanie asked architect Frank O. Gehry to be the exhibition’s designer and he unhesitatingly agreed. As a born and bred Angeleno, it is basically in my DNA to worship Gehry’s innovative architecture. Working with Stephanie (whose influential exhibitions have truly changed the nature of scholarship in the fields of Californian and German art), Frank, and Ken was basically like sneaking onto the Dream Team. When you add Lorraine Wild as the catalogue’s designer and Fredrik Nilsen as the photographer who shot every sculpture, I knew that this project was something truly special. In other words, I became entirely obsessed.
When Stephanie informed me in May 2011 that I would get to travel with the team to Taos to meet Ken, I was nervous. I felt like I already knew him through his sculptures and interviews, but I wondered if he would live up to how I had imagined him for the last two years. I can say without hesitation that Ken and his loving family exceeded any expectation I could have possibly had. There really is no way to describe his intelligence, clarity of vision, wonderful sense of humor, and his uncompromising fortitude to keep working despite his illness. I had to remind myself during this and later visits that I was in presence of one of the great figures of modern sculpture, which is evident when you look at the great artists who have passionately championed his career and came to the exhibition’s opening on September 12.
Back row, left to right: Michael Govan, Tony Berlant, Vija Celmins, Stephanie Barron, Doug Wheeler, Happy Price, Ron Cooper, Larry Bell, Ed Moses, Ron Nagle; Front row, left to right: Frank O. Gehry, Billy Al Bengston, David Hockney, Allen Jones. Photo by Stefanie Keenan
I’ll never forget that last afternoon I spent with Ken in September 2011. Fredrik and I had been working all day in his studio photographing works for the catalogue. At around 6:30 pm, Ken’s wife, Happy, came running into the studio asking us to drop what we were doing and come outside immediately. We walked out to the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen. Ken was sitting in a rocking chair on their porch taking it all in while Happy handed us the tequila cups he had made in the 1970s filled with Mezcal. As Fredrik frantically ran around with his camera to capture the sunset, the rest of us sat quietly sipping and watching the sky streak in a riot of colors, resembling the remarkable color combinations often seen in his sculpture.
The sunset from the Price’s front porch, September 2011, photo © Fredrik Nilsen
Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective hopes to show visitors his astonishing lifetime of work as well as to give a sense of the artist, whose whimsical, sly personality is so palpable in his sculptures. One of the ways we have been trying to achieve this is by bringing his love of jazz into our public programming. Ken learned how to play the trumpet from Chet Baker in the 1950s and, throughout his life, collected hundreds of records and created wonderful mix tapes, aptly titled strangely perfect names like “Ice Cream” and “Cocktail Furniture Revised.” We’ve put these tapes on the exhibition’s website, which you can download through iTunes.
The Price studio with a small section of his collection of jazz records, September 2011, works © Ken Price, photo © Fredrik Nilsen
Additionally, this Thursday, October 4, we have organized a concert by Brian Swartz and John Beasley, two great musicians who worked with Baker and Ken’s other favorite, Miles Davis. The exhibition (open late, from 5–9 pm) and the concert (7– 9 pm) are free and open to the public. Please come celebrate with us tomorrow!
Lauren Bergman, Assistant Curator, Modern Art