Ken Price was fascinated by cups and vessels, and while his retrospective at the Met showcases many of them, there’s a funny irony in experiencing that obsession of his at the Drawing Center: depth and interiority can only be suggested, not seen, in these works on paper. And while the late artist's celebrated cups can be seen in drawings throughout the show—nestled in coral, on the backs of turtles, and straddled by frogs, often in his signatur metallic gold, bright mauve, and pink chinoiserie patterns—the real attraction is the chance to see Price tackling a wide range of subjects not commonly found in his work.
The centerpiece of the show, for instance, is Price’s scroll K.P.'s Journey to the East (1962), which tells the story of his formative trip to Japan in cartoon drawings with witty captions. (One haiku: “I SPY / BONSAI /IN A PIE?”) It makes for a fitting entry into his drawings, modest in size but huge in imaginative ambition. This attention to sense of place also resonates in his depictions of Taos, New Mexico, and then Los Angeles.
Particularly striking are his interpretations of Los Angeles, where he was born and raised. In the 1950s, he first began studying ceramics while taking surfing trips along the coast, then left to earn an M.F.A. in New York. By the time he returned to L.A., the city's art scene—rich in the currents of West Coast conceptualism and Finish Fetish— was in full swing. He later departed for sojourns in New Mexico and Massachusetts, but returned to L.A. in the '90s.
In L.A. BowlDowntown (1991) a mesh of buildings and hillside houses create the pattern circling the outside of a dish. Similar sun-soaked images, infected by the hazy pinkish hues of his home, use planes of color defined by white space. The L.A. Riots appear as a TV on legs with wheels, showing a burning car in blazing orange.
His “dress rehearsals”—drawings of sculptures in nature or abstractions of later realized works—are similarly dramatic, appearing as squiggly, organic forms just out of reach.
“The two most powerful sizes,” Price once wrote, “are very small and very large. Small scale has both the connection of intimacy, and the fantasy of heroic proportions, since pieces slightly under hand-size are so easy to visualize as being monumental.” This exhibition, which shows the artist stretching beyond his normal intimate sculptural scale, suggests that in his drawings he found another powerful size that lies in between.