Price was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Price’s earliest aspirations were to be an artist, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an artist. Even when I was a kid I would make drawings and little books, and cartoons..,” he states. Price enrolled in his first art ceramics course at Santa Monica City College in 1954, where he quickly embraced a formal craft tradition as espoused by Marguerite Wildenhain. He subsequently studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, before receiving his BFA degree from the University of Southern California in 1956.
In the 1950s Price lived along the Pacific coastline, where his interest in surfing and Mexican pottery developed. During surfing trips in Southern California, Price and his friends, “always made a point of hitting the curio stores in [Tijuana], because they had great pottery. …just looking was a great education in earthenware pottery.” Price’s ceramic work at USC could be characterized as functional vessels derived from a folk pottery tradition. As a student at USC, Price spent time visiting the ceramics studio at the Otis Art Institute where ceramic artist Peter Voulkos was teaching. Price has often cited Voulkos as his strongest single influence as a student. After finishing his degree at USC, Price spent a portion of the next year as a graduate student at Otis. There he studied (under Voulkos) with Billy Al Bengston, John Mason, Mike Frimkess, Paul Soldner, Henry Takemoto and Jerry Rothman. Price writes about the group at Otis: “We’ve been cited as the people who broke away from the crafts hierarchy and substituted so-called ‘total freedom!’ Actually we were a group of people who were committed to clay as a material and wanted to use it in ways that had something to do with our time and place.”
In 1958, Price left Otis for Alfred University (with a six month detour in the Army Reserves). “I went to Alfred to try and develop some low-fire, brightly colored glazes, but also to try and get away from the influence of Voulkos, which was very strong on me.” During his time at Alfred, Price was able to formulate some of the glazes he desired, using a lead base. In 1959, Price returned to Los Angeles having received an MFA in Ceramics from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.
Price describes Los Angeles upon his return and the beginnings of the L.A. art scene: “When I started out in L.A. in the late fifties there was no art scene at all really. I mean there was an art scene in New York, but there wasn’t one in L.A. There were hardly any galleries. The museum was downtown and it didn’t endorse contemporary art. And there were only about three viable art publications. The local newspaper critics didn’t like us at all. There weren’t any collectors, really very few. We made few sales, and for little money when we made them. But the people I knew were totally committed. And so was I. I was confused about a lot of things at that time, but not about being an artist. I knew that’s what I had to be. And then later, around the mid-sixties, the whole scene cooked up: galleries, museums, foundations, art schools, and you know, lots more artists.”
Price’s first solo show came at the Ferus Gallery in 1960 where he quickly became part of a developing art movement that included artists such as Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, John Altoon, John McCracken, Robert Irwin and Ed Ruscha, among many others. Price would have three solo shows during the short time Ferus was open, and by the mid-1960s Price was a fixture in the west coast art scene. Aside from six months Price spent in Japan in 1962, Price would remain in Los Angeles until 1970, when he and his wife, Happy, relocated to Taos, New Mexico.
Having arrived in Taos, Price’s attention shifted to Mexican folk pottery once again (as it had in the 1950s). “After settling in Taos, Price began to identify with the folk artists who make roadside monuments and the artisans who produce pottery in villages all over Mexico. He determined to make a body of work, using commercial material and readily available preparations, that was true in spirit to the folk/cottage industry sensibility, that was ‘easy, offhand but utterly assured characteristic’ of ‘low art’ pottery.” The resulting project, “Happy’s Curios,” which Price spent nearly six years working on (the bulk of the decade), culminated with a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1978. During the early and late 1970s (before and after the “Happy’s Curios” project) Price developed his signature “geometric cup” series. In the early 1980s (around 1982), Ken and family moved from Taos to Southeastern Massachusetts. “We wanted to get out of Taos for a variety of reasons, and had visited a friend in Massachusetts who lived right on the Atlantic Ocean. It was really beautiful, so we moved there and stayed for about eight years.” Working in his studio near New Bedford, Massachusetts, Price concentrated on developing his sculptural forms, and allowed his production of cup forms to wane.
Price returned to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, after spending twenty years away. In 1992, he was given his first retrospective, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1993 Price joined the Faculty at USC, as an art ceramics professor – and remained an instructor there for ten years. At the time of his death in 2012, at 77, he lived and worked in both Venice, California and Taos, New Mexico. His son, Jackson Price, served him as an assistant. In September 2012, Price was the subject of a 50-year retrospective opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In honor of the artist, the museum has displayed his 2011 piece “Zizi” in the lobby of its Ahmanson Building.
- February, 16, 1935
- Los Angeles, California
- February, 24, 2012
- Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico