Atomic Art
Tony Price - Atomic Artist
essays by James Rutherford
Life & Times
     For over thirty years Tony Price dedicated himself to creating the prophetic and visionary body of work he called Atomic Art. For him, the need to awaken people to the nuclear threat was both urgent and personal. “If the effort could be made to neutralize the bomb with the same intense effort it took to create the bomb, I know the task could be done, because nothing is impossible”.(Price1) When encountering his sculpture one is immediately struck by the many layers of meaning behind Price’s Atomic Art. His method of turning something widely viewed as extremely negative into someting positive, and the sardonic humor infused into the work invite further examination of the artist’s philosophy and the context in which the work was created.
     Price explained the intended purpose of his alchemic transformation of atomic salvage into iconography of the world’s spiritual and religious traditions as follows: “Objectively, I knew there exist vast energy banks of super-good energy available. For each religion is like a giant capacitor in the fourth dimension, holding and dispersing the energy of its followers. Now all I had to do was create symbols corresponding to the energy banks of these religions, using the material of the nuclear weapons energy system. When the vibrations of the nuclear scrap have been shaped into spiritual energy images, a vibrational tunnel or bridge is formed from the religious energy banks to the nuclear weapons banks, and an automatic balance of energies would be established. These sculptures act as valves, bringing the dark and light energies together to balance and thus hold the peace”. (Price2)

Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.

Victor Frankl

     We are reminded by recent history that religion can be a source of grace and consolation but also a source of hatred and destruction. Art, on the other hand, ‘is not about absolutes. It confirms that we are in a world of ironies and uncertainties. (Art) allows us to touch something previously unattainable, inaccessible’.(Varnedoe3). To Price, nuclear weapons represented “a thirst for the absolute”(Price4) just
as religious fanaticism – a force that can lead to man’s greatest accomplishments and also his most destructive. “Its all stuff somebody pulls out of the ground, beats it into shape. Some worship it, some explode it and somewhere along the line somebody’s allowed and heavily financed to produce this thing that’s going to stop the future”. (Price5)
     Price’s artistic expressions are inextricably linked to his own spiritual view, one which emanated from an exploration of his own consciousness and his awareness of other dimensions as described here by his long-time friend, filmmaker and activist Godfrey Reggio: “Tony’s big thing was the fifth dimension.The fourth dimension being that which was a materialized form of the third dimension which could provide protection. So, for example, gargolyes existed in the fourth dimension to ward off spirits that were connected to the three dimensions but that hadn’t moved on yet. The fifth dimension was a whole other plateau. A new plateau of consciousness which is where I think Tony inhabited most of his thought and much of his reading. The spirit world was very powerful and real to him. That’s not to say I feel he was getting apparitions, because I don’t think he had that connection. He had a more firm connection. The connection of real effort of the soul, of the mind, of the consciousness, to go to that place rather than some psychosomatic reaction to stress or something of that manner, where you might have something, in an illusory state, reveal itself to you. His was in a conscious path. A much more rigorous path, one of a lifetime basically”.
    Price utilized humor artistically as a relief valve to mitigate the terrifying nature of the subjects he was addressing and make his powerful message more palatable to the viewer. His humorous titles and expressions remind us of the clown or trickster who, through the release of laughter, gives the viewer a kind of space, or breathing room, to look at the reality he was communicating. “Tony had a sense of the divine goof and he would occasionally project that into the metal expressions that were formed on his artwork. You’d just look at it and howl because it resonated with the divine goof in you”. (Wavy Gravy). His humorous commentary is also one of the characteristics that allows the work ‘to take on new meanings in the future’ as opposed to being ‘so caught in a single time and place that, later on, it simply becomes an anachronism’.(Traugott6)

Humor is not brash, it's not cheap, it's not heartless. Among other things it is a shield, a weapon, a survival kit. So here we are, several million of us crowed into our global concentration camp for the duration. So, how are we to survive? Solemnity is not the answer, any more than witless and irresponsible frivolousness. I think our best chance, a good chance, lies in humor, which in this case means a wry acceptance of our predicament

Ogden Nash

     Without the benefit of asking Price directly,one can only speculate on how his process of choosing particular salvage items actually evolved. “I think when Tony shopped for his parts, he had formulas in his head, and he knew that a particular type of part would make the head or the cheeks or something like that, and he was building it right there in ‘the yard’”.(Ashman7) Whether he had something in mind ahead of time, or an image presented itself to him through the resonance of the material itself, what is clear is that he had an uncanny intuitive ability to see how a certain object could be combined with other parts to produce a new form. Individual elements often look as though they were made for his own purpose, although he utilized only the most basic tools and hardware off the shelf to assemble them. (He did not acquire a drill press until the mid-1980’s and never welded the works fearing the toxic nature of the metal compounds). Representing a fortune in steel, copper, brass and other metals as well as thousands of production hours, the materials themselves ‘act as a commentary on the extent of resources devoted to weapons research’. (Bell8) Working with these materials was Price’s way of beating swords into plowshares - to invoke a different kind of power and ‘wrest out of them a different kind of force’. (Rubenstein)

Gongs @ Dennis Hopper's house, Taos, NM
© Lisa Law

Chimes - El Rancho, NM
© Lisa Law

     Sound became an important element in much of Price’s work as he discovered the eternal tones emitted by the metals he was using. “What a great artist to take an atomic bomb casing and turn it into a temple bell. That act alone is enough to put him into the pantheon of great artists who have ever lived on this planet”. (Wavy Gravy) His gongs and chimes make sounds and vibrations that resonate like Tibetan bells or chants, and seem to invoke a similar experience for the listener. Hearing the ethereal sounds of his pieces focuses the viewer and may also have been Price’s way of ‘piercing the hearts of the aggressors’. (Ladd / Rubenstein9) The role of sound in his work was different though, than the role music making played in his own life. His music was for him an ‘avenue into his soul. It was much more personal to him. He would play it for hours and hours on end, both with the harps from pianos and the guitar’. (Reggio) (Although Price was friends with many significant musicians over the years, the biggest influence on his guitar music was probably the off-beat raga style playing of his longtime friend, guitar impresario Sandy Bull10 ).

Click Here for Samples of Tony's Music