Fashionably Utilitarian

Ken Price Cups from the Collection of Patricia Faure

Choreographer and model Toni Basil modeling with a Ken Price cup,
photographed by Patricia Faure in 1972

On a surfing trip to Mexico in the 1950s, Ken Price became enamored with the folk pottery that populated Tijuana’s shops and vendor carts. Along with textural and geometric appeal, each piece bore inadvertent traces of its maker’s hand. By the early 1960s, Price had travelled to Japan and similarly was taken by the culture’s reverence for fine craftsmanship. Having trained under revolutionary sculptor Peter Voulkos, who preached the dissolution of boundaries between fine art and craft, Price set to interpreting the clay artistry that had long been dismissed by the art establishment.

Read as a reaction to the gestural style and scale of Voulkos’s works, Price turned to the creation of more intimate objects. In the late 1950s, Price began experimenting with ceramic cups. According to Price, the cup innately held “a set of formal restrictions” and “a preordained structure” as an essential utilitarian item, which designated it as a ready “vehicle for ideas.” Price also took interest in the primal nature of the object, as he identified a nurturing femininity in the action of “putting warm liquid in your mouth.”

Price applied a wide array of decorative styles to his objects – these ranged from biomorphic shapes reminiscent of undersea creatures to cleaner studies of color and shape. Known for always being in the right place at the right time, Faure seemed to make a habit of playfully capturing moments that would inevitably take on meaningful cultural significance. In a series of photographs from 1972, Faure situated Price’s cups, physically and culturally, amidst the haute stardom of model Penny Hawks, and Toni Basil and Helena Kallianiotes, who had appeared together in the film Five Easy Pieces two years earlier.

Through Faure’s classic fashion photography framing, Price’s fixation on elevating utilitarian objects could be compared to the revolution in fashion, where designers were similarly testing the boundaries between fine art and design with avant-garde experimentations like Rudi Gernreich’s Unisex Line, for which Faure shot the campaign in 1970.

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

Ken Price

Ken Price

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.

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