Betty Asher and Ken Price
I’ve been reading my way through huge piles of old catalogue essays, curatorial statements, and reviews about art in the 1960s. I have an interest in these things from a dealer’s point of view, to be sure. After all, many of the artists that we represent were very active during that period of time. The way that their work is presently perceived is often a result of the statements made by critics, curators and writers from the 1960s. But I have a personal interest in the art and artists of the 60s, since that is my “point of entry”. I grew up then, and cut my teeth on contemporary art at the old Pasadena Art Museum.
I never tire of Peter Schjeldahl, and whether I come across his writing in an old catalogue or a new article in the New Yorker, it is poetic and insightful. One of the best articles has the unfortunately over-used title “Feats of Clay” (anyone who reads a lot of ceramic artists’ resumes has seen that show title far too many times). The October 6, 2003 New Yorker essay’s subject is the ceramic art of Ken Price. I keep a copy around the gallery, and ruthlessly photocopy it for clients and collectors. At the beginning of the fourth paragraph, Schjeldahl states succinctly:
“Price has always been a tough sell in New York, and is practically unknown in Europe, owing to a hardwired prejudice in the art world against ceramics as a minor, retrograde medium. To overeducated eyes, a perceived relation of an art object to conventions of domestic function is corny unless pointedly ironic. Other cultures—Japanese and Chinese, Mexican and Southwest Native American—have not shared this bias. Alertness to those traditions is a richly civilized element of certain Californian sensibilities. Price’s art, witty and sophisticated while shunning irony, is grounded in the aesthetic quiddity of ceramics. Painting exercises the eye; sculpture echoes the body. Ceramics express and are addressed to the hand.”
It’s something that I read again today, after researching the Archives of American Art interview with Betty Asher, a formidable force in the history of Los Angeles Art. Betty Asher was an influential curator, collector, and dealer (in his appreciation for the Los Angeles Times, following Asher’s passing in 1994, critic Christopher Knight knowingly acknowledged her as a “triple threat”). Asher was one of the first people to collect Pop Art, as is often cited, but began collecting before that movement. She chronicled the many ventures of her collecting history in an interview with Thomas Garver for the Archives of American Art. I think it is a great way to begin to understand, indeed, the more sophisticated Californian sensibility, in which ceramics were given space in celebrated collections as well as significant galleries. Asher, of course, exhibited many artists whose primary medium was fired clay—such as Viola Frey, Marilyn Levine, and Richard Shaw, among others. That part of her collection must have stemmed from her familiarity with the work of Ken Price. Here’s the passage in the AAA interview:
“BETTY ASHER: Well, probably the first large painting I bought was a Lobdell, and it was a large black painting. And then I bought Bob Irwin and Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.
THOMAS H. GARVER: Now this is not the late fifties.
BETTY ASHER: That probably was early sixties, right. But late fifties was Lobdell. And I got interested in Kenny Price, and the entire group at Ferus, you know.”
I’ll be posting some examples of the Asher Faure Gallery’s integration of ceramics with painting and other sculpture—following along from the posts about Felix Landau, Ferus, and Janus Gallery.
(Note: Ken Price works shown: above, left: Untitled, 1961, glazed and painted ceramic, private collection, photo by Alan Shaffer, and above, right:Untitled Geometric Cup, 1972, glazed ceramic, private collection, photo by Alan Shaffer. Images in this post are copyrighted by Kenneth Price, and used with permission of the artist.)