Ken Price: 1935—2012

By: Bill Whaley
26 February, 2012


A personal remembrance

(The Author at the Harwood. Photo: Paul O’Connor)

“Authentic means real, genuine, and true. It means making work that’s valid. It’s up to each individual to figure out how this is done. One way to be valid is to try to make work that reflects your own beliefs, memories, fears, dreams, and fantasies. This doesn’t mean necessarily making yourself the subject of the work.”

“Individual experience may be limited, but it’s specific, and I think it’s easier to be true with specifics than it is with generalities. If you could be faithful to you own point of view, who knows, it might end up being the perfect representation of our time and place. This is taking the small view, which puts you with the poets, not the philosophers. This position could insulate you from the art world trends and fashions. People ask, `Can you do your own thing and still be successful?” What I’m saying is that doing your own thing may be the only way to be successful.’” –Ken Price, Horse Fly, Interview, October 1999

When I received a notice from Kenny’s daughter Romy, the tears followed. I didn’t know how much I loved him. Sure, we all admire his singular artistic vision—the incessant impish humor we all see in the cups, the ceramic sculpture, and the erotic drawings—the incredible tenacity of the spirit in the studio. But, too, he has a certain wholeness as human being that is an undeniable example to us all.

During a conversation with his son-in-law, Carl Colonius we talked about the wisdom and the example of the man, so human, so much a manifestation of the mutual support that is his family—Happy, Romy, Sydney, Jackson and the kids. Out there at the studio and the house on Honda Mesa, long side the highway there’s this amazing cottage industry, carefully nurtured and expressed in the best kind of familial love.

Thanks to a recent piece by Roberta Smith in The New York Times, I was reminded of when Kenny and Happy arrived in Taos, 1971—or was it Happy and Kenny—hard to think of them separately. Briefly, they rented a house from Hueri and Fred Fair just up the hill from our tiny house built of ammunition boxes in Canon. We succeeded as tenants to Tally Richards, who had moved to town to open the Gallery of Contemporary Art. Happy appeared at the door one morning, a seeming city Mom, worried and anxious for her two children, the laundry and cooking chores because the shared-well had run dry during the drought. We hauled water from Jim Farrell’s Conoco station at the entrance to the Plaza and suggested she do the same. Years later Happy reminded me of how mean we’d been. No doubt we were–you know how we are sometimes.

Yesterday, my old friend Steve White and I were talking and he mentioned all the holidays we spent at Happy and Ken’s Cruz Alta house, where as Steve said, “She took care of all the bachelors with no place to go.” By then Jack was wearing a Dodger’s cap and carrying a baseball glove and you could hardly see the Christmas Tree, surrounded as it was by packages stacked floor to ceiling. Romy and Sydney were turning into young women.

We played cards at night and carried on during the day. Once, Happy and Kenny showed up at my place and said let’s go to Casa Cordova. There was some kind of gambling night benefit. We got lucky at the craps table, couldn’t lose, and soon cleaned them out of tickets and prizes. They ran us off. I thought of that the other night when we many of us reconvened at Philip Bareiss’s gallery for a poker tournament to raise money for Paul O’Connor’s’ Taos Portraits, which features 60 members of the Taos art world, including Kenny. Kenny donated a piece for the affair and Happy bought a ticket so Jackson could sit in and play at the tournament.

Kenny’s life has bookends for me in Taos–1971—2012. In between there was much camaraderie and some difficulties, more so in the 70s and early 80s as we all shared lives and struggles, art, real estate, complicated relationships among friends—in short your typical long-lived community experience. Back then I didn’t know much about Kenny’s career as an artist. I read something from time to time or heard about him from Tally or Larry and visited the studio—especially at the Mariposa Building (Prudential Schantz today).

Once Kenny and Larry and a couple of us were sitting around Larry’s big table on the second floor above the vacuum tank. One of them, Larry I think, had just returned from LA or New York. Probably Larry.

Maybe Kenny asked (but it could have been Larry): “See any good art?”

“Ohnnn,” shrugs and mumbles, cocks his head sideways a little. A kind of coded monosyllabic conversation ensued between the two, which enigmatic phrases meant little to me. Grunts and nods. Occasionally a name popped out like Billy Al Bengston or Ed Rusha, I don’t know. For years I heard these and other names. During my research for Paul’s book, which I edited, I stumbled into “The Cool School,” a film on DVD at Video Casa about the rise of the LA Art Scene during the sixties. The documentary featured Kenny, Larry, Dennis, and all those names I’d heard about for years. Finally, I understood the context of the achievement and the excitement of the nascent art era in LA.

Kenny helped with work for benefit auctions and Happy sat on the TAA board, helping in big ways and small when I managed the TCA in the 70s. We stuffed a lot of envelopes on my back porch upstairs at the Harwood apartments one year—twice due to a catalog snafu. Once Kenny and Larry bid a couple hundred dollars for a screening of “The Black Cat” at a benefit auction, which I promised but couldn’t deliver on because I couldn’t find a print. I still owe them for that one. This was long before the advent of video and DVDs.

Kenny and I used to compare notes on surfing and skiing about the “zone” you get into when everything’s going right. He was in on the ground floor of surfing in the 50s, and, Carl told me a prestigious surf magazine will soon publish a piece about the contributions he made to developing the fin on the big boards of that era. Until I read the piece in The New York Times, I didn’t know he came by his engineering prowess honestly. His father had much to do with creating the mold for the modern Popsicle. Think of the similarities in shape between a melting Popsicle and some of his work. I didn’t know he studied trumpet with Chet Baker. He chose art over jazz for good reason, including the potential for survival—given the untoward habits of jazz musicians of that era.

Kenny once counseled me with a simple story after I made a humiliating spectacle of myself over a woman. He said he experienced a similar reaction in the past and began breaking up his art due to the drama. That brief story probably amounted to a three-sentence paragraph and was over in less than a minute but I remembered it for nigh on 32 years. I felt less guilty, more human, and clarified my priorities thanks to his wisdom.

The last time we had lunch together, me with a fork, him with a tube, we mostly talked about baseball. I was very proud of my 2010 San Francisco Giants and he lamented the state of the LA Dodgers. Kenny once got semi-conned by a mutual acquaintance and signed a document to produce x number of drawings for x dollars without reading the fine print because he was interrupted during a televised Dodgers game. They were in the play-offs or the World Series and he wanted to get back to the ball game–he always knew who was on first.

We all think of Kenny’s impish humor and integrity—his humanity. Truly we miss him. He was the best of men.

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