Bauhaus Meets Venice Beach
The New York Times
March 19, 2010
“Josef Albers/Ken Price,” a thrilling exhibition at the Brooke Alexander Gallery in SoHo, can make you feel as if your eyes were attached to a bigger, more perceptive brain. It brings together the work of two great artists in a way that enables you to see both more clearly.
The pairing is a natural, except that no one had thought to do it, let alone in such depth, until now. The idea took root over a decade ago, when Brooke Alexander learned that for many years Ken Price, the brilliant ceramic sculptor, had only one work by another artist hanging in his studio in Venice, Calif.: a print by Josef Albers (1888-1976), the German-born abstract painter, Bauhaus instructor and color theorist.
Mr. Alexander spent more than two years assembling works and lining up loans. By a combination of plan and luck, his show serves as the centerpiece and touchstone for a veritable Albers/Price fest that is also playing out in four other galleries around town.
The dovetailing of these two artists may not be immediately obvious. Mr. Albers, who left Germany for the Eastern United States in 1933, is best known for corralling pulsating colors into the straight-edged nesting geometries of his compact “Homage to the Square” paintings. Mr. Price, who was born in Los Angeles in 1935 and has spent most of his life out West, has similarly focused on highly retinal color, first in glazes and more recently in layered, jewel-like acrylics both matte and metallic. But his latest efforts are exuberantly suggestive biomorphic forms devoid of straight lines, whose surfaces are pocked with tiny goose bumps and divots of layered colors. (There is an exquisite Fabergé aspect to Mr. Price’s work, though lately it’s achieved with a modernist randomness that relates to Pollock.)
While Mr. Albers is considered one of the forefathers of Minimalism, Mr. Price — despite sharing the emphasis on a work’s wholeness with Minimalist contemporaries like Larry Bell, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin — has always been its prodigal deviant. His pieces are wildly contaminated with Pop, Surrealism, kitsch and the psycho-sexual.
The installation at Brooke Alexander deftly mingles mini-surveys of about two dozen works by each artist: paintings, prints and early photographs from 1933 to 1969 by Mr. Albers and sculptures, watercolors and prints from around 1959 to 2008 by Mr. Price. The passion for the inexhaustible possibilities of color is the strongest link here, but the profusion of dots to be connected, of shared interests, inspirations and references, is close to mind boggling. Naming some may help: adobe houses, pre-Colombian pyramids and architecture in general; rocks variously hand cut, au naturel and trompe l’eoil; dark mysterious doorways and other apertures; interior volumes and interior décor; cities ancient and modern; art high and low; harsh light and velvet shadows.
One of the show’s first revelations is that Mr. Price’s sculptures — which are sanded down to reveal fine pores of color within color — exploit concentric contrasts not unlike the squares within squares of an Albers Homage, if irregularly and minutely. The installation drives the point home by juxtaposing works with similar palettes, so that Mr. Albers’s paintings seem to announce from afar the color combinations to be seen, closer up, in a Price surface. And you’ll see Mr. Price progress toward his fine-pored mottling in geometric works like the marvelous, faceted, rocklike “Ming” and “Bolivar” from 1998, whose dark openings cradled in planes of smooth color echo Mr. Albers’s nested squares. You’ll also newly appreciate the deliberate textures of the Albers paintings — often executed on the reverse, rough sides of masonite panels.
Both artists found inspiration south of the border. The importance of a trip Mr. Albers made to Mexico around 1935 emerges in several photographs. One shows the dark, elaborately framed window of an adobe house next to one of his “Variant” paintings, this one from 1955, whose composition evokes a flat-topped adobe structure with two doors. Other photographs suggest the impassive forms of the pyramid at Tenayuca as an inspiration for the immovable frontality of Mr. Albers’s compositions.
As for Mr. Price, his “Cityscape Bowl” (1991) revisits the Mexican tourist wares quoted in his “Happy’s Curios” series of the 1970s (named for his wife, Happy Price). But instead of the scenes of adobe houses and sombrero-wearing peasants of the curios, this vessel is decorated with blank-faced Los Angeles office buildings. Such crisscrossing references are common in Mr. Price’s work. Looking at the four patchworks of festive, geometric shapes of “From Happy’s Curios,” a posterlike painting on paper from 1973, you suddenly see that each composition centers on a single dark green shape that reads as the monumental opening to a cave or some other inner sanctum. Similarly, the aperture at the top of the especially geometric sculpture, “Baby Blue” (1990) might well lead to a sacrificial chamber.
This exhibition also reminds us that Mr. Albers’s art is not always geometric, and that Mr. Price’s is occasionally symmetrical. The sinuous lines of Mr. Albers’s silvery, nearly automatist dry point “Velocidad” (1940) reiterates the lavender agitation of bumps that is Mr. Price’s “Gonzalo” (2008). And the carefully stacked, but somewhat fused forms of Mr. Price’s “Mululu” (2004) and the smaller “Hefty” (2005) have the regularity of a pyramid’s staircase. (The assembled biomorphic Prices suggest three basic vernaculars: single shapes often absurdly stretched into assorted intimations of gesture and body parts; piles of discrete blobs, like the magnificent “Long Shot” of 2004; and fused smaller blobs, as with “Gonzalo.”)
As far as I’m concerned this superb show could be maintained in perpetuity, courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation or some such. It should be required viewing for anyone hailing from the fraught curatorial profession. Its overarching theme is that abstraction is reality-based, distilled from lived experience, and actualized through highly personal approaches to process and materials. It’s a lesson in life as much as art.
Chelsea also offers more extended views of Mr. Price’s art, present and past. The Matthew Marks Gallery on West 22nd Street is displaying a dozen impressive new pieces, including three exceptionally large works that show him experimenting with the scale of his mottling, and also returning to the monochrome. The biomorphic blobs here — less irregular and squishy than before — are usually either quasi-sausages or Mallomar shapes. In pieces like “Maureen” and the all-gold “Lying Around,” such forms combine to verge on the figurative.
Nyehaus on West 20th Street, in concert with the Franklin Parrasch Gallery in Midtown, is showing a revelatory selection of early Price “egg” and “cup” sculptures and drawings, against walls painted Pricean colors of deep pink, lavender and yellow. The show indicates early interests in the erotic, Bauhaus geometry and Duchamp (especially in an homage to his “Female Fig Leaf”). It also includes what may be one of the first blobs, a penile, fecal, goose-bumped, wormlike, oddly headless form from 1966 on a stepped plinth that is beautifully multicolored and titled “Specimen CP2625. 13.” A different juggling of repulsive and irresistible is found in the 1967 “Wart Cup,” whose blooms of lush color are punctuated by worrisome growths.
At Parrasch on West 57th Street, which has shown Mr. Price’s work since the mid-1990s, die-hard fans can view (by appointment) a presentation of several decades’ worth of show announcements, catalogs, magazines and illustrated books, along with a short, engrossing film of Mr. Price making a recent piece, start to finish. It adds the finishing touches to the sense of an artist who never doubted the expressive power of fired clay and who has only gotten better.
Meanwhile, back in SoHo, the Peter Blum Gallery corrects the visual balance of power with a headlong plunge into Mr. Albers’s career: a display of “Formulation: Articulation,” a portfolio of 127 silk-screens from 1972. It sums up many of his lifelong interests, starting with a folded geometric design that he etched in glass in 1931 while still teaching at the Bauhaus, and concluding with the “Homage to the Square” motifs.
The prints’ back and forth between straight-edged and biomorphic motifs is another link with Mr. Price’s work. And Albers’s explanations for each image further illuminate their connection. Sometimes his words justify his reputation as a pedagogue. (“Here I ask you to follow the thick and thin lines to the right and back to the left.”) But more often they indicate his real-world inspirations, especially when he describes the colors of his Homages and other motifs in terms of weather, buildings, water and times of day. Titled “Statements of Content,” his notations reinforce the revelations of the Albers/Price show nearby, offering us abstraction as an art of everyday life.