Ken Price in Reverse

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The art of communication at the Met

The crowd around me breathed a sigh of relief as we walked into the last room of the Metropolitan Museum's Ken Price retrospective. "Oh, I like these!" said one woman, hurrying closer to a case of little ceramic cups. The whole room was full of small, shiny objects just begging to be touched, just begging you to smile at them.

The exhibit works in reverse chronological order ? Price's earliest works are at the end. Evidently the sculptor was more eager to please at the beginning of his career. In his works from the 1960s the textures are appealing, the objects look made to be palmed. The work is abstract but still related, however loosely, to ordinary objects: cups and staircases and familiar geometric shapes.

By the end of his life, Price's sculpture took on a chillier tone. The pieces, still bright and shiny, are too big to hold and too resolutely smooth to crack into. And so, we're presented with a sort of red octopus (Balls Congo), or with an orderly pile of red coils (Little D) or ? sometimes the names help us out ? a crater with one sunken eye, titled "Phobia." It's like looking at a room full of strange mummies, or endlessly suspended aliens. They all resist quick understanding, but they do deserve to be given a long look, because after a while their very stillness, their remote strangeness, becomes inviting, something to project yourself onto. You can see yourself in these works.

Of course, a whole exhibit full of nothing but yourself is a lonely prospect. Thankfully the Met kept this show on the small side. And thankfully, Price's earlier work is more generous to those of us who like to get out of ourselves now and then. His series of "geometrics," from the early 1980s, is a pleasure for the eyes. These look, satisfyingly, like ultra-modern buildings, or like staircases; they look like they are going somewhere. They're also a reminder of how very still the later pieces are. Or take Price's series of "egg" sculptures from the early 1960s, which, is a little bit disgusting but also very appealing. These are smooth, polished balls with cracks showing their innards; in some cases the innards ooze out at you. What a pleasure, really, when the artist still wants to ooze out at you ? when he still believes that some kind of direct communication with his audience is possible.

"Ken Price: A Retrospective" runs through September 22 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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