“Of course we all might have hoped Ken Price would be alive long enough to be with us,” said Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Stephanie Barron at a memorial service for the artist on Wednesday. It was the evening of the opening of “Ken Price: A Retrospective” (through Jan. 6, 2013). The sculptor died in February, after two and a half years working with Barron and architect Frank Gehry, who designed the exhibition. The show will travel to the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Tex. (Feb. 9–May 12, 2013), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (June 18–Sept. 22, 2013).
A 600-seat auditorium was full with relatives, friends and fans of the sculptor, who, Barron pointed out, had a show at the Whitney Museum at the age of 34, but who remained less well known than his first-rate oeuvre would merit, perhaps because he worked in clay.
A choked-up Gehry took the stage, and began his remarks by saying, “Isn’t this, if you’ll excuse me, so fucking great?!”
Later, he told A.i.A., “I didn’t plan to say that, but when I got up there and looked out at the hall with all his friends, and people like Ed Ruscha, and his family . . . “
On stage, Gehry observed of Price at the end of his life, “I could see he was warming up for more. He was opening doors he hadn’t opened before. He got to the finish line with some pretty spectacular pieces. There’s going to be a lot of talk about where he was going. He’s not finished yet. Don’t count him out. He’s our Kenny.”
Artist Tony Berlant provoked laughs when he recalled that time spent with Price was, among other things, “time to compete with outrageous political conspiracy theories.” Touching on Price’s humility and his belief in a spiritual inspiration for his work, both of which emerged as themes over the course of the evening, Berlant quoted him as saying, “I only provide the labor.”
Artist Vija Celmins pointed out that Price’s move to Taos, N.Mex., provided a lushly beautiful landscape as well as new opportunities: “we would do criticisms of the sunsets in Taos,” she recalled, to laughter. She cited his respect for Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, and his feeling of responsibility to fully use his own gifts.
Ed Ruscha recalled that when he first saw Price’s work, in the early ‘60s, “it made my palms itch. It made me want to climb the wall.” He structured his remarks around a number of headlines from articles about Price over the years, one groan-inducingly called “The Price is Right.”
“His work might have been displayed on top of TV sets,” Ruscha said. “So he could honestly say his work had been seen on television.”
Ron Nagle, a fellow ceramic sculptor and musician, credited Price with finding poetry in pottery. “We’re so lucky to get to make stuff,” he quoted Price as saying. He found Price’s work so powerful, he said, that even when he first encountered it in a “crummy” slide projection, “I’d never felt anything like it.” Like many throughout the evening, he asserted that Price had never received his due. “If there’s anyone here from the MacArthur Foundation,” he said, “you really fucked up.”
Arts patron and television producer Joan Agajanian Quinn remembered meeting Price at the University of Southern California. “And now I’m really dating myself,” she said, “but it was 55 or 56 years ago.” Recalling the “naughty little drawings he and John Altoon made,” she pointed out that in her home, a Price drawing “of a drunken señor and his señorita is still turned to the wall.” Finally, she produced a vessel of Price’s that she had bought when he was a student, and presented it, to hearty applause, to Price’s widow, Happy.
Price’s son-in-law, Carl Colonius, stressed the artist’s modesty. Colonius recalled that when Price finally had a studio that was designed as such rather than simply adapted to the purpose, he called it “Studio Deluxe.” Even when Colonius was dating Price’s daughter, he said, he began to appreciate the widespread admiration for Price’s work only when he let a friend stay at Price’s home while the artist was away, and the friend admired the extensive collection of Ken Price sculptures in the living room.
In very brief and simple remarks, Jackson Price, the artist’s son, took the stage last, greeting the crowd, “Howdy.”
“I got to work for my father for 20 years,” he said. “There wasn’t a day that passed that I wasn’t convinced I was working for the greatest genius on earth.”
The main lesson he learned, he said, was that “Life can be unbelievably beautiful.”