Fredrik Nilsen's brilliantly detailed catalog photographs take… (Fredrik Nilsen / LACMA )
When L.A. photographer Fredrik Nilsen traveled to Taos to visit Ken Price last September, a few months before the artist died of throat and tongue cancer, he did not know what to expect.
Although Nilsen had traveled within New Mexico a bit before, he had never spent time in Taos, let alone on the dramatic 7,500-foot-high mesa where Price had a home and studio with 360-degree views. He had never met the ceramic artist, who first came to fame through the Ferus Gallery in L.A. in the 1960s before moving with his wife, Happy, to New Mexico. And he had not seen pictures of his studio.
"It was incredible — there were boxes of clay, piles of gloves, stacks of sandpaper and dozens of works in progress," Nilsen said. "I walked in and practically had to sit down. It felt to me like it must have felt walking into a Renaissance master's studio."
PHOTOS: Ken Price Retrospective at LACMA
Price, then 76, was weak enough that he did not want to be photographed straight-on, so Nilsen asked for his permission to shoot him from behind watching baseball on TV, a habit of the artist while working. They talked about the Dodgers. Because it was hard for Price to speak, their conversations were brief.
But by that time Nilsen was already getting to know Price in another way. A photographer known for his work with art and artists like Mike Kelley, Nilsen had spent much of 2011 crisscrossing the country to document dozens of Price's sculptures for the catalog accompanying the artist's big retrospective, which opens at LACMA on Sept. 16. (The show later travels to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.)
Along with shoots at LACMA, Nilsen also visited various storage facilities and back rooms at SFMOMA, the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C. And he entered the homes of private collectors on both coasts. In the end, he photographed all but two of the 93 sculptures in the show. In those cases, he sent off a style sheet with instructions to guide the photographer who did the shoot.
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The result is an exhibition catalog full of large, brilliantly detailed images that reflect the full range of Price's boldly colored ceramics: from the rough-hewn surfaces of his late '50s and '60s pieces to his slicker geometric volumes of the '80s to his celebrated recent work: voluptuous and playful biomorphic forms on which he layered different colors of acrylic paint so that sanding creates a mottled, multi-hued effect.
Nilsen describes these later works, often called "blobs" by the most articulate of art critics, as animalistic in their energy. "It's hard not to anthropomorphize them — they seem like sea creatures or some sort of sci-fi entities." And catalog readers will have the chance to see some of these beings reproduced not just from one but multiple angles.
The show's curator, Stephanie Barron, accompanied Nilsen and his assistant on almost all of the shoots, suggesting different angles and approaches. She also brought this sort of attention, even devotion, to other aspects of the show, creating what she calls "a dream team" to work on a project that had an added urgency and intensity because of Price's illness.
PHOTOS: Ken Price Retrospective at LACMA
Early on Barron asked architect Frank Gehry, an old friend of Price, to collaborate by doing the exhibition design. (A basic goal: to make sure Price's sculptures, many of which are small enough to fit on a bookshelf, do not get dwarfed by the cavernous space of LACMA's Resnick Pavilion.) For book design Barron turned to Lorraine Wild, a leading designer, who in turn thought of Nilsen for the photography.
"I've done a lot of books in more than 35 years as a curator, and I've never had the luxury of approaching [art]works the way we did for this catalog," said Barron, who noted that LACMA received an "early and significant" grant from the Shifting Foundation for the book's production. "Being able to get one photographer to shoot everything is very rare."
It also gave Barron the chance to look at the works in a focused, uninterrupted way and time to think about exhibition display. She remembers being struck by some sculptural details, like how the "windows" of some of Price's more architectural pieces relate to the Taos pueblos. Also, she said, "it was about halfway through the photo shoots that I had an epiphany that the way to present the show was in reverse chronological order."
This decision to lead with the new and end with the old, in exhibition and catalog layout alike, appealed to the artist, she said, for obvious reasons: "Any artist doing a retrospective is most interested in their recent work and least interested in their old work."