When she installed LACMA's current exhibition, “Ken Price: A Retrospective,” curator Stephanie Barron placed Ken Price's newest work in the first and last galleries. This isn't typical. Often, retrospectives start at the beginning of an artist's career, or in the middle, with whichever work happens to be most iconic.

But Price, who in the late 1950s fell in with the Ferus Gallery crowd now known as L.A.'s first art avant-garde, was making strange, sexy, alienlike sculptures in the last two decades of his career, forms as visceral and memorable as anything he'd done before. Hunchback of Venice (2000) has a wonky, curved, orange-on-green back and fluorescent purple underbelly you have to lean over to see. OG (2008) is a roly-poly amalgam of breastlike protrusions.

Price would build up clay forms like these, firing them up to 20 times each. He had stopped using glaze in the 1980s and would instead paint the surfaces with layer upon layer of acrylic before working back into the color with rubbing alcohol or wet sand paper, making it look as if paint had eroded in places. Finally, with a Q-tip, he would add new, bright colors into those eroded spots, giving his sculptures meticulously mottled, multicolored skins.

In a 2007 interview with his friend, artist Vija Celmins, Price said he had entered a “great period,” one in which his process came easily to him. He had a fast-track pass to the “highway of the unconscious.”

Leeds-born, L.A.-based artist Thomas Houseago gave a talk on Sept. 27 about the show, saying he had wandered into Price's “weird trip” when he first entered the exhibition. He sounded awed. “They seem timeless,” he said of Price's sculptures. “They seem almost terrifyingly modern.”

What is it that makes this largely historical show of an artist who began working 50 years ago feel so intensely present?

When Price died in February at 77 from cancer, critic Dave Hickey eulogized him in the L.A. Times: “Kenny is one of the three people I've ever known who really didn't give a [damn],” he said. (The others were Waylon Jennings and Dean Martin.) According to Hickey, Price didn't have anything to prove and didn't worry about where he fit into history.

Above-the-fray praise like this sounds inflated. But it's one of the only convincing explanations for why Price's art kept all its liveliness as decades wore on — that, and the fact that Price made art to live with rather than exhibit or admire from afar. Close reads of a few specific works, from his cup phase to his scraggy landscapes and sexy aliens, suggest that both these factors are in play.

Reptile and racer cups

The night Price's retrospective opened, LACMA hosted a memorial, or “Celebration of a Life,” where painter Ed Ruscha joked about titles of reviews in Price's bibliography (e.g., “The Price Is Right”), and sculptor Ron Nagle talked about the night he was certain his wife had fallen for Price. When Celmins spoke, she made it clear from the outset that Price's involvement with the Ferus crew never impressed her. What did impress her was walking into Riko Mizuno's gallery on La Cienega circa 1970 and seeing a cup Price had made resting on the back of a ceramic turtle, set in a custom-made, sand-filled wood box.

That seemed ballsy to her. While other artists of Price's cohort were making fetish-finish paintings out of plastics, or flat, slick renderings of iconic buildings on fire, Price was attaching reptiles to tiny cups. Celmins asked him about them in 2007, but Price had trouble remembering exactly why he'd started making these reptile cups, four of which are in the LACMA show. “I think my plain cups probably needed some extra zip,” he told her.

A few years before his interview with Celmins, Price described cups in general as “a real kind of primal idiom … it's right in your hand and you actually put it in your mouth and drink warm liquid from it.”

Joan Quinn and her husband, Jack, collectors of Price's work and his friend (Joan met the artist when both were enrolled at USC and bought her first Price sculpture at a student sale), never drank out of the cups they own, though Joan Quinn is fairly certain Price meant them to.

One of the cups they lent to the exhibition, Chevrolet Brothers (1960), has a pink base with a red flag painted up its side and a green top with “4” written on it. Quinn's father promoted races, and she often took Price and other artists with her to the Ascot and Gardena speedways. For her, this sculpture is like a memory. “It was a connection to racing when we bought it,” she recalls. It sits in a custom-built box, “locked into space,” as Quinn puts it, with vintage images of race cars and their drivers collaged on its sides.

Hand-held landscapes

The Quinns also own a few of the scraggy and smooth, tiered, landscapelike abstractions Price began making in the 1970s, after he'd lived for a while in New Mexico (he would move back to L.A. and live in Massachusetts briefly but ultimately settle in Taos) and been inspired by the rock faces and the iridescent sunsets. “We sometimes turn them one way or another but mostly walk around them to get the true flavor,” says Joan Quinn of the “geometric beauties” usually on display in her living room.

But the most arresting work in the exhibition from this period of pint-sized landscapes and geometrics remained in Price's private collection from the time he made it onward. Called Reltny, it's only 5 inches long and has a few smooth, glazed, blue surfaces interrupted by raw, rocky, bronze expanses. It has a four-tiered boulder awkwardly hanging off its far left edge. Despite the irregular mix of smoothness and roughness, the sculpture feels delicate and exact.

Aliens and specimens

Linda Schlenger, a New York collector who heads Friends of Contemporary Ceramics and owns 19 works by Price, didn't discover the artist until the later 1980s, just as he had started easing out of the geometric work into the organic, alienlike bodies he would perfect in the 1990s and 2000s. Schlenger had begun frequenting Franklin Parrasch's gallery, Price's East Coast representative, and Franklin kept telling her how wonderful Price's work was. “Finally, he yells at me, 'Will you sit down and look at this work?' ” she remembers. “Then, in the mid-'90s, I saw those big, sort of amorphous works.”

Schlenger bought Moose the Mooch, a blackish sculpture that looks like a deceptively sweet baby monster reaching for prey, in 1998. Then, in 2003, she wasn't fast enough to purchase a sculpture she'd seen photographs of at L.A. Louver Gallery. Price heard about her disappointment and sent a work called Balls Congo to Franklin Parrasch. It had sacklike legs, nodded forward in a silly way and had a red surface with bright blue speckles all over it. Schlenger bought it immediately.

Both of those works are in the exhibition, and Balls Congo is on streetside banners up around the city. “It was so exciting, so sexy and so incredible,” Schlenger says of the pieces from that time. “When you live with art, most of the time you're involved with your life. To me, good art is something that engages you differently at different times. You have an emotional reaction and it becomes almost personal.” For her, Price's work does that.

A table in the second-to-last room of the retrospective holds Price's Specimen sculptures, small forms that seem like crude predecessors of the honed, larger forms Schlenger fell for. Price placed these on velvet cushions, and one pink, egglike Specimen has a red finger sticking out of its shell.

But it's hard to get close enough to really look, since the table screeches whenever anyone comes within two feet. Because of the fragility of these mid-1960s artworks, the table is alarmed, and a guard standing at its back end warns people of this constantly. Still, the alarm goes off all the time. Sometimes people set it off as they move in to make out the guard's words. More often, they set it off because it's just too hard to resist the urge to lean forward.

The constantly screeching table seems like a perfect illustration of the simple reason Price's work still works: It pulls you in on that personal, gut level, compelling you to cross the line before you've realized it.

KEN PRICE SCULPTURE: A RETROSPECTIVE | Los Angeles County Museum of Art | 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile | Through Jan. 6 | lacma.org

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