Ken Price's Broken Cups

Commissioned directly by the architect Gene Summers, Ken Price created — and then broke — this series of ceramic cups for a custom installation at La Palme restaurant at the Summers-renovated Newporter Resort Hotel. Summers was personally taken with Price’s work, prints and ceramics that boasted an irreverent graphic style inflected with influences from both Los Angeles and the American Southwest, where Price first maintained a studio in 1970. When La Palme re-opened in the early 1980s, it was designed “as a showplace of sorts for the ceramics of Ken Price,” according to Orange Coast Magazine, and featured a turquoise wall with recessed, lighted niches that displayed Price’s vessels.

The cup itself was a longtime fascination for Price, who addressed the utilitarian form in countless ways throughout his career. Describing the cup as “a real kind of primal idiom,” Price would not only turn and paint his own ceramic cups but also rendered them in drawings and prints — in 1970, Gemini G.E.L. constructed a massive plaster cup so that Price could photograph a model posing with it, which would become the basis for his six-print Figurine Cup Series.

Left: Ken Price, Broken Cup on Table (1994), Right: Ken Price, Broken Nose Cups (1969)

While there seems to be little documentation about Price’s choice to make and break his cups for La Palme, the theme appears in at least several of his works on paper — both before and after the Summers commission.  In this sense, Broken Cups is a rare materialization of one particular chapter in Price’s ongoing investigation of the cup form. Arranged like archaeological artifacts, these cups have the distinction that they were both made and destroyed by the artist’s hand — and have lived to tell the tale.   

The cup essentially presents a set of formal restrictions—sort of a preordained structure...it can be used as a vehicle for ideas.

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.