Kenneth PRICE, Untitled Enlarge 1 /1

Kenneth PRICE

United States of America 1935 – 2012

Untitled 1979 Place made: United States of America
Materials & Technique: sculptures, glazed earthenware

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: overall (variable) 7.5 h x 25.0 w x 25.0 d cm A 7.5 h x 14.0 w x 12.0 d cm B 3.5 h x 6.5 w x 4.7 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1980
Accession No: NGA 80.465.A-B
  • Hansen Fuller Goldeen Gallery, San Francisco, the artist's dealer, 1979;
  • from whom bought by the Australian National Gallery, March 1980

I don't know what to call new pieces: sculpture, objects, ceramics? I just make them; somebody else can decide what they're called.

This was Price's response when asked in an interview whether 'sculpture' was the correct word to describe his recent work, such as Untitled (1979), from his Condominium series. Untitled is a geometric, polychromatic, glazed ceramic, in which the surfaces or planes define, and are defined by, the limited palette of colours. The thin white seams where the planes meet act to separate the surfaces as well as accentuate the geometric structure of the work. The small opening at the top of the larger piece, though integral to the work, has no functional purpose. It is perhaps a concession to the structure of a container, or the cup, which has been the recurrent object of Price's artistic investigation. A small 'satellite' element, unique in itself, is however conceptually bound to the larger piece. These two separate pieces display an interdependence that alludes to the relationship that exists between a cup and a saucer.

Price was a major figure in the West Coast ceramic movement from the 1950s, which the National Gallery sought to represent with Untitled, along with other works by, for example, Robert Arneson's Fragment of Western Civilisation 1972, and David Gilhooly's Two toad sloth 1978, The pillar of frog civilisation 1975, The ten commandments 1974, Turned on by confiscated erotic moose pottery 1977, Victoria's royal snack 1978 and Mao Tse toad II 1976.

The body of work of which Untitled is representative, was seen by art critics as expressing an affinity with early Modernism and in particular the Dutch avant-garde group De Stijl. The legitimacy of Price's art practice was established by drawing parallels between his geometric ceramics and, for example, Gerrit Rietveld's 'most sculptural, even architectural', Berlin chair 1923.

Any attempt to simply delimit Price's work in relation to art or craft, sculpture or pottery, is problematic, as his work effortlessly traverses these artificial divisions. When once asked, 'Does the craft world claim you?' Price replied:

They haven't. I don't know why, but I suspect it's because I've tried to use clay to make works of art rather that establish a 'line' or style of utilitarian ware. I show my work in art galleries. And although I have fairly good work habits I don't really operate like a craftsman.

Classifying Price's work per se does provide answers. In the context of the National Gallery of Australia's collection, for example, Untitled is perhaps best seen, like Joel Shapiro's Untitled (chair) 1974, as presenting an incisive critique of the presumed authority of near-contemporary monumental Modernist sculpture such as Mark Di Suvero's Ik ook 1971-72.

Steven Tonkin

  1. Ken Price quoted in, Joan Simon, 'An interview with Ken Price', Art in America, vol.68 no.1, January 1980, p.100
  2. See Edward Lebow, 'The ceramics of Ken Price' in Ken Price, Houston: The Menil Collection, 1992, p.35; quote from, Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1992, p.149
  3. Ken Price quoted in, Joan Simon, 'An interview with Ken Price', op cit., p.104

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra