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Review: Ken Price retrospective is a brilliant triumph

Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective

Through May 12

Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora St., Dallas


214-242-5100; www.nashersculpturecenter.org

Posted 8:12am on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013

Oozing globs of new life forms bubble up before succumbing to gravity and slumping back into a quivering vibrating puddle.

Their smooth surfaces are mottled with circular palettes of bright colored pools.

The blobs look as if they could pull themselves out of the primordial swamp if they could just break away and gain some height -- gain a solid shape as the colors burst into a profusion of flowers. But for now their life force is too weak and they levitate slightly over their pedestals with invisible means of support.

These are the sculptural ceramics of Ken Price, on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

"Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective" follows the career of the L.A.-born and Taos-based sculptor as he moved from small constructions to large organic shapes and, in doing so, shed any connection with the dreaded word "craft."

The installation at the Nasher was designed by Price's good friend architect Frank O. Gehry, who took inspiration from Price's small display cases and enlarged them to room-size vitrines that house Price's most vulnerable works. The glass-walled boxes give a jewelry store vibe to the gallery that is in keeping with the size and delicacy of the pieces.

Price died in 2012 as this retrospective was being organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After the Nasher, it travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nasher director Jeremy Strick had wanted a Price exhibition since before he came to the museum in 2009, so he was thrilled when this opportunity arose. "Price's sense of delight and his technical competence in making these sculptures is superb," he says.

The sensual forms gained in stature as Price neared the end of his life. Two of his largest pieces, from 2011 and 2012, are bronze; one is an iridescent bug-wing green, the other matte black. Their size is the dominant feature, but they pale when surrounded by the colorful globules that undulate and burble in the first-floor galleries.

The amorphous shapes that Price used have heads topping bodies reminiscent of cartoonist Al Capp's Shmoos and product designer Eva Zeisel's Century Collection salt and pepper shakers. They are playfully animated, nonthreatening happy creatures covered in smooth skin of multihued spots.

To achieve his coats of many colors, Price would paint his fired clay forms with as many as 70 layers of acrylic paint and then carefully sand the surfaces by hand to allow the various colors to emerge. Each piece was given a color chart to map the many intended layers of paint. While he chafed at the term "craft" applied to his art, his procedures were the product of a craftsman. He acknowledged this in 1993, saying, "A craftsman knows what he is going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like."

He knew well in advance the visual end result of each series.

What he didn't anticipate was the fervor for what became his most popular series, the small architectural constructions inspired by the indigenous architecture around Taos. It pleased both critics and collectors.

He said he could have spent the remainder of his life making the little stacked box-shaped constructions that he began in 1980, but the process was tedious and fraught with failure. Every edge of each geometric form was intentionally left unglazed to create a white outline. A slip of the glazing brush would ruin a work. Each layer of glaze he used, and many were needed to achieve the great depth of color, was a chance for disaster. He lost more pieces than he created, and the frustrations with this series moved him toward his tumor-esque lumps that have been dissected with precision to reveal a window into the core. It is all an illusion; what looks like the black heart of the interior is a carefully painted black square.

The first-floor galleries are loaded with dozens of Price's most spectacular last works, but it is downstairs that his journey is most evident. Here are some of his earliest pieces -- tiny cups that are more decorative than functional, beautiful but useless blobettes mounted on velvet pillows and little plops on carefully crafted wooden plinths that show his concerns with shapes and their presentation.

Here, too, is a showcase of pottery, an homage to Mexican ceramics that almost submarined his career. Just as he was being noticed as a sculptor in the early '70s, he became infatuated with the ceramic traditions from Mexico and he made cabinets called Happy's Curios that held cups, plates and vases that used the same palette as the Mexican imports and similar shapes. He bedeviled this art form for five years and it almost reduced his reputation to that of a crazy, misguided crafts-fair ceramicist.

He recovered slowly.

One of the more illuminating displays -- of Price's drawings -- is under the staircase. They are graphically bold and brilliantly colored. It is obvious that he envisioned the world in a spectrum of colors more intense than people actually see.

Fortunately, the viewer has to walk back through the galleries upstairs to get to the exit and travel through Price time in chronological sequence. The large pieces have even more resonance after seeing the path that brought the artist to this end work.

The retrospective is brilliant with bursts of color that charm the gray out of a late-winter's day. See it on a rain-sodden afternoon and leave feeling sunny.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @gailerobinson

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