Ken Price, Inventive and Irreverent Sculptor, Dies at 77

Mr. Price in his studio in Venice, Calif., in 1992. (Courtesy the Price Family and Matthew Marks Gallery)

Los Angeles artist Ken Price, whose playful, often-mysterious, vibrantly colored ceramic works stand as one of postwar American art’s singular achievements, has died at the age of 77, at his home in Taos, N.M., according to the Los Angeles Times. He had reportedly been suffering from tongue and throat cancer.

According to the Times, Mr. Price had just finished work on a career-spanning retrospective set to appear at the Los Angeles County Museum of the Art later this year, which will then tour, next year, to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition is being designed by architect Frank Gehry.

> Click to see works by Ken Price.

Mr. Price was perhaps best known for ceramic sculptures in which oozing and flowing forms were suddenly, perhaps only momentarily, frozen, and thickly coated with dozens of layers of psychedelic neon colors. Times critic Michael Kimmelman compared various examples to “molten lava,” “a hot fudge sundae” and an “octopus” in a 2003 review.

The artist generally refrained from commenting on the meaning of his work. “What I’m shooting for is for something to look right,” he told The New York Times in 2010.

Soho dealer Brooke Alexander, who also showed the artist’s work, released a statement saying, “As a major innovator in the field of sculpture, and contemporary art, he will be missed, as will his brilliant colors and wonderful shapes.”

Born in L.A., Mr. Price was an exhibiting artist for half a century, though he found wide acclaim only later in life. Even on the occasion of a 2003 show at Matthew Marks Gallery, which represented him in New York, critic Peter Schjeldahl declared that he was “not as well known in New York as he should be.”

The artist’s first solo show was at L.A.’s storied Ferus Gallery, in 1960. In New York, he showed at the Willard Gallery for most of his career, before signing with Marks about 10 years ago. His show there won wide acclaim. In 2006, Roberta Smith argued that “some local museum should drop everything and give Mr. Price’s scintillating, polymorphous ceramic sculptures the retrospective they deserve.”

Mr. Price had one-person shows at the LACMA, the Menil Collection, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Chinati Foundation, in Marfa, Texas, and the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston.

His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Norton Simon Museum of Art, Tate Britain and numerous other museums.

Mr. Price also made drawings and prints with figurative imagery, which skewed toward the bizarre and surreal. One particularly memorable drawing showed nude women bowing down before a gigantic, vaguely phallic pink sculpture on a beach. And then there were his mugs, which he fired in the same brilliant colors as his sculptures and bedecked with peculiar shapes and animals. Artist Vija Celmins said in a 2010 interview that, when she saw them, “That was when I thought, my God, this guy is terrific.”

Ken Price, Inventive and Irreverent Sculptor, Dies at 77