Sunday, May 25, 2014

In Defense of Ken Price's Cups

Ken Garber, a friend since my Art History days at UCLA in the early 1970s, emailed me a defense of Ken Price's cups which I said were "too artsy-craftsy, and too cute." Ken (Garber, that is) did his thesis on California ceramics of the 1950s, and taught ceramics for many years. He's smart, funny and perceptive, so I was pleased I could convince him to write this more extensive guest post rather than a comment.

By Ken Garber

In terms of the first cup, from 1968, it seems to me to be fairly complex in the things it's referencing.
Ken Price, Snail Cup, 1968, glazed ceramic, 3 ½ inches high (private collection).
First, it seems to be a send-up of the "artsy-craftsy" tradition you refer to – he's turning the tradition of cup-making on its head.  This is a "cup" that could never be used: any liquid inside would tend to get caught inside; the handle would be very awkward to use; and the snail would probably poke you in the eye if you tried to drink out it.
Detail: Ken Price, Snail Cup, 1968.
Clearly this is a sculpture of a cup, not a cup.

The proportion of the snail to the rest of the cup, as well as the color relationships and surfaces suggest a ceramic hobbyist run amok.  The colors obviously work well together, but they also set my teeth on edge.

When I was first looking at it, the word "doofus" came to mind.  That big funky snail balanced by the overlarge tubular handle, and the cratered, chewed-gum orange glaze seem quite funny to me.  I don't think of Price as a Funk School artist like Arneson or Gilhooly, but I do think this piece bears some relationship to their sensibilities.
Robert Arneson, A Hollow Justice, 1971, glazed earthenware, 20 ¼ x 12 ½ x 14 inches (de Young Museum, San Francisco).
The way the orange glaze is applied to both the lower body of the piece as well as to its interior creates some spatial tension, and the change in color for the neck and handle creates some ambiguity as to the nature of the material composing them.

If the neck is cratered orange on the inside and smooth whatever-that-color-is on the outside, then what is its material nature?  The piece is really a complex little sculpture; "Ceci nest pas une tasse.” The cup served as a motif for Price in a way similar to the way bottles, etc. served the Cubists: as a starting point for abstract explorations.

When I looked at the second image in your post, the "Chinese Block," I was struck with how much like a cup it is.
Ken Price, Chinese Block, 1984, fired and painted clay, 4 1/2 x 5 1/4 x 4 1/2 inches (Matthew Marks).
The size and proportions are cup-like, and there seems to be a small opening at the top center (maybe not – can't really tell from photo).  Also, it looks from the photo as if the mass of the piece is lifted up on a small foot.

The juxtapositions of the geometric, man-made elements against the more "natural" stone-like ones are clearly something he was interested in through much of his work.  It also makes me think that this is the type of "cup" a Cubist artist might make.  Again, probably a stretch, but the way forms intersect with one another and the kinds of spatial relationships that the colors set up are suggestive to me.
Ken Price, Geometric Cup with Outriding Parts, 1974, glazed ceramic, 3.8 inches high (private collection).
Price was always innovative in the ways in which he responded to the tradition of pottery making. His large installation piece "Happy's Curios," which was first exhibited at the LA County Museum in 1978, used hand-painted ceramics displayed in a variety ways to evoke both the homes and marketplaces of the Southwest US and Mexico.
Installation view, Ken Price, Happy’s Curios, LACMA, 1978 (photo © Museum Associates/LACMA).

Ken Price, from the Happy Curios series, 1972-77, ceramic and wood, cabinet is 70 x 21 x 21 inches (LACMA).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Ken Price's cups do not cross the line from decorative to functional nearly enough to deserve the name (cups). I have always enjoyed experiencing Ken Price's surfaces, which are wonderfully sensual, but never wanted to drink from one of his "cups". - Phil Ehrens