A Rare & Early Work by Ken Price

From the Collection of Peter Voulkos

This work originates from the one year in which Ken Price studied under Peter Voulkos at the Otis College of Art and Design and it was in Voulkos’ personal collection for many years. Voulkos had an enormous influence not only on Price, but on an entire generation of ceramic artists; many imitated Voulkos’ rough, earthy style, while others consciously created outside of his towering presence. The present lot illustrates the complex, tender nature of the student-mentor relationship, as well as the process of a young artist finding his distinctive style.

The present lot illustrates the complex, tender nature of the student-mentor relationship, as well as the process of a young artist finding his distinctive style.

Price characterized Voulkos’ methods as a “direct frontal onslaught.” While this work is far from that, it is much more totemic and outward-facing than the hushed, mysterious interiority of Price’s mature work. Voulkos’ influence is evident throughout this piece—raw clay shows through thin, earth-toned glazes, incised lines impart a direct, hand-worked quality and the ungainly, organic intuition for form that Voulkos is celebrated for is felt. Hallmarks of Price’s style emerge though; building form through color is paramount for Price and it is present in this work, just as much as it is in his acid-trip geological excavations and bright, biomorphic slimes from the decades to come. Also in this piece is the self-contained eccentricity Price’s work is known for—the blocks of color seem to be in conversation with each other, set apart from the world and its mundanities, and inviting you to join the curious territory it inhabits. One can imagine that Voulkos was fond of this particular work, seeing in it his monumental contributions to ceramics, as well as the burgeoning voice of an artist who would himself become one of the visionaries of the medium.

I make concrete objects that stay the same pretty much the whole time they exist, and you can go away, and you can come back, and maybe you’ve changed, but the object will still be the same.

Ken Price

Ken Price 1935–2012

Ken Price’s ceramic works inhabit the pastiche and nervous irreverence of Postmodernism, as well as the meticulous self-possession of Minimalism and earlier 20th century art movements. As a leader in elevating ceramics to fine art, Price created a vast body of work, captivating in its eccentricity and use of global ceramic traditions.

Born in Los Angeles in 1935, the Southern Californian landscape greatly influenced Price—he surfed nearly every day for over a decade—and his earliest visual memories were of wandering stalls of tourist trinkets and pottery in Tijuana. While in high school, he took art classes at Chouinard and received his BFA from the University of Southern California in 1956. He briefly studied with Peter Voulkos, whose monumental, brash works and influence were overpowering to the young Price—so much so that he left California to pursue an MFA at New York State College of Ceramics to develop his own voice.

Upon graduating in 1959, Price returned to Los Angeles, where, at the time, no real art scene existed. He became involved with the boisterous Ferus Gallery, where his first solo exhibition was held in 1960. Throughout the decade, he incorporated what would become his signature biomorphic, enigmatic and erotic forms into functional objects like plates and teacups. Price also honed his masterful execution of internal scale and ability to craft tension between surface texture and colors. He spent six months in Japan studying pottery in 1962 and incorporated what he learned into his own style; he continued this practice throughout his career, finding further inspiration in folk art and Southwestern and Mexican pottery.

Price lived and worked in Taos for the majority of the 1970s, in Massachusetts in the 1980s and returned to Los Angeles in 1992, splitting his time between Taos and the University of Southern California, where he was the head of the ceramics department until his death in 2012. Though he did not often speak about his art, Price liked to quote Joseph Cornell, saying: “Tiny is the last refuge for the enormous.” Only later in life did he begin working on a larger scale (most of his works never measured over twenty inches). Contained in Price’s pristine and seductive vessels are the many subconscious impulses that underlie the everydayness of our lives.