“The Most Original Contemporary American Art Ever”: Artists on the Work of Ken Price


Kenneth Price’s is a legacy that cries out to be demystified. Artists, critics, teachers, and curators have talked eagerly about what Price accomplished, but it seemed to be a struggle to articulate exactly what he meant to them. When he died in February 2012, reflections from critics like Jerry Saltz approached an almost spiritual tone. “Price’s feel for density makes his objects seem to emit compact force fields of binding energy,” Jerry Saltz wrote in Vulture. “I feel the self at play in the fields of bliss.”

Among his post-war peers, the Californian sculptor has been easy to praise and eulogize, but not to explain. On the occasion of Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective , which opens this week at the Met, Flavorwire spoke to artists Tony Marsh and Kathy Butterly, in the hopes of bringing the artist’s legacy back down to Earth.

Ken Price, Slate Cup, ca. 1972. Photograph by Fredrik Nilsen. Image courtesy LACMA.

Both artists can remember their first encounter with Price’s work in considerable detail. For Butterly, this took place at a show at Moore College of Art in 1987. “What impacted me about Ken’s work at this time was the scale he worked in and the colors he chose,” Butterly said. “He didn’t need to make a physically large form to make a powerful piece.”

For Marsh, the striking thing was simply how different the sculptures looked. “As I moved on, I learned that he was a student of Peter Voulkos, and his work has so much more bravado and scale — all kinds of things that are almost the opposite of Price’s work at the time. At the time, it felt like this was something completely different from what was the accepted norm.”

Ken Price, Big Load, 1988. Photograph by Fredrik Nilsen. Image courtesy LACMA.

Both Marsh and Butterly agreed that raising the status of clay as an artistic medium was a huge part of Price’s life and work.

“Ken Price really insisted that that was art,” Marsh said. “You see that a lot. He insisted that what he was doing was art. He really was never interested in being consumed by the craft movement, by pottery, or by potters.”

“While at grad school at UC Davis,” Butterly recounted, “I studied with Robert Arneson. He was very aware of the art worlds’ warped perception of clay being only a craft material. It was a visit by Viola Frey that changed my ideas about clay. Ken’s work (which I became [a fan] of after seeing Viola’s) totally reinforced my newfound passion.”

For Marsh, who lives in Long Beach, and Butterly, who attended graduate school at UC Davis, Price also meant a lot to the art scenes in Southern California and the Southwest, which were fertile but undeveloped when Price came of age.

Ken Price, Orange, 1987. Fired and painted clay. 16 x 15 x 10 ½ in.

“If you think about The Beatles’ music, those guys really embodied that moment, somehow their sound and their lyricism and their poetry was the embodiment of that moment. There’s something about Ken Price’s work that embodies that,” Marsh said. “His work has something to do with the sense of color and the sense of culture that people experienced. The sense of coloration, that’s really something Californian.”

“I think the contemporary art scene in LA is bigger than any one person gets credit for,” Marsh added, “but certainly people like Ken Price, in the ’50s, were doing things that did help people understand that Southern California should be taken seriously.”

Ken Price, 100% Pure, 2005.

“I think Ken and a bunch of other LA artists, like Ed Ruscha, made work which I would consider to be the most original contemporary American Art…ever,” Butterly said. “Inspired by a Southern California culture of surf boarding, hot rods and exotic landscapes. He made work which was totally unique and totally American.”