Taos

Ken Price: Death Shrine I at the Harwood Museum of Art

Ken Price is best known for his psychedelic ceramic sculptures: abstractions layered in paint and sanded to pristine finishes. His piece Death Shrine I (1972–1976), permanently installed at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, is an unexpected departure from this canon. The shrine is a facet of Price’s Happy’s Curios project, and is one of three such installations inspired by the iconography of Día de Muertos. Death Shrine I, the only piece from the series currently on public view, is part of a contemporary collection at the Harwood, donated in 2013 by artist and collector Gus Foster. The collection crystallizes the relationship between Taos and Los Angeles within a museum honoring northern New Mexico’s long history as an artist colony.[1] In the early 1970s, Price semi-permanently moved from his hometown Los Angeles to the ambient Taos. He was the first among his cohorts; Foster, Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Ron Davis, Lee Mullican, and others soon followed.

Ken Price. Death Shrine I, 1972-76; dimensions variable. Courtesy of Ken Price Studio.

Ken Price. Death Shrine I, 1972-76; dimensions variable. Courtesy of Ken Price Studio.

In Taos, Price embarked on his six-year-long project Happy’s Curios, which pays homage to Mexican folk pottery through the process of rigorous replication. His spirited pieces, handmade ceramic cups, plates, and servingware, were thoughtfully displayed in custom-built wood cabinets. Through Happy’s Curios, Price genuinely sought to represent the thoughtful yet nonchalant craftsmanship of the pottery he admired. It was one of the first projects in which qualities of the Southwest were interpreted in his work. Later, his drawings and watercolors were hallucinatory takes on the landscape. Even when the connection is less direct, as with his ceramic abstractions, Price’s organic shapes and color palette seem inspired by the exaggerated topography and intense sunsets of northern New Mexico. Taos, where the Rocky Mountains collide with canyonland, drew artists like Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe.

Perhaps Happy’s Curios depended on Price’s move to Taos, where he could engage in fantasy. In fact, he had planned on renting a storefront for his pottery: an installation set in harmony to the folk curio shops in northern New Mexico. In 1978, Price’s project was exhibited at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Maurice Tuchman, who curated the exhibition, described Price’s process as transcendent.[2] Price identified with a certain sensibility, work ethic, and demeanor in the village pottery artisans. Through the assimilation of material and process, Price desired his work to emerge with authenticity. Thus, Happy’s Curios has been appropriately characterized as being autobiographical. Despite the LACMA exhibition, Price felt the Happy’s Curios project was never completed. Contributing factors may have been financial, but it was likely due to the lead. Price was poisoned by the traditional glazing process and had to seek medical treatment.[3]

Ken Price. Study for Death Shrine, 1975; acrylic paint, graphite, ink; 8.5 x 11 in. Courtesy of Harwood Museum of Art.

As a young artist, Price was drawn to folk ceramics in the roadside stands and souvenir shops he visited while surfing in Mexico. He was particularly interested in pre-Hispanic pottery from the Tlaquepaque region, near Guadalajara.[4] These pieces appealed to him in their duality: utilitarian forms with glazed renderings that are as meticulous as they are mellow. Price’s curios are plates, cups, pitchers, and bowls made in Tlaquepaque tradition, complete with laid-back motifs (think dreamy Mexican seascapes and adobe pueblos with long afternoon shadows). Displayed in custom-built wood cabinets, or on the rare occasion in a death shrine, the works’ installation points to the everyday and the romantic.

Death Shrine I is an arrangement of handmade ceremonial objects and furniture behind a white picket fence in a dimly lit room. A ceramic ewer with a painting of a sugar skull is centered on a pedestal-cum-altar. Variations on the toothy, grinning skull are repeated throughout the installation: on the triad of plates hanging on the back wall, on the cups adorning the centerpiece, and in the poster with a running skeleton. Each rendering is decidedly earnest. The unlit wood candelabras and pink satin stool sheathed in clear vinyl is an invitation to sit and wait.

The shrine is as celebratory as it is austere, marked with Price’s tone of serious play. Take his handwritten list of “Ceramic Objects in Death Shrine 2,” found in the Happy’s Curios catalog: “1. Vase at top of interior unit, pressed skull with red glaze-cross side handles – 3 ⅝” x 6” x 3 ½” / white paper flowers.”[5] His casual aesthetic was deliberate and exacting.

Ken Price. Untitled (List of Objects to Include in Death Shrine 2), c. 1972-76; pen on paper. Courtesy of Ken Price Studio.

Ken Price. Untitled (List of Objects to Include in Death Shrine 2), c. 1972-76; pen on paper. Courtesy of Ken Price Studio.

Price’s shrine elevates the status of pottery to that of the sacred and ceremonial. It’s a departure from the work I know. Instead of showing me the profound sculptural potential of ceramics, he pays tribute to a tradition of handmade Mexican folk pottery, humbled no doubt.

For a Californian, Taos is a straight shot. Just take the 10 over to the 15 toward Barstow. Keep right at the fork for the 40 all the way to the 25 for Santa Fe, hop on the 84, and from there just get off at Ranchitos Road. It’s a breezy 900-mile jog to the Land of Enchantment.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Happy Price, Romy Colonius, Gus Foster, and the Harwood Museum of Art.

[1] Susan Longhenry, “Lightning in a Bottle,“ The Gus Foster Collection: Artist as Collector (Taos: Harwood Museum of Art of the University of New Mexico, 2014), 1–88.

[2] Maurice Tuchman, “Introduction,” Ken Price: Happy’s Curios: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 4–July 2, 1978 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1978).

[3] Gus Foster, telephone interview with the author, September 15, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Maurice Tuchman, “Introduction,” Ken Price: Happy’s Curios: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 4–July 2, 1978 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1978).

Ken Price: Death Shrine I is on permanent view at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico.

Share