Life & Times
Tony Price - Atomic Art
essay by James Rutherford

     American artist’s fascination with “Primitivism” continued through the 1940’s in Abstract Expressionism, fueled by the new realization that mankind now faced the threat of total destruction at any time. During this period, ‘there is a rapid movement away from representation and a movement towards expressing the angst of an entire generation’. The “Trinity” explosion ‘underscored the fact that New Mexico was no longer an isolated cultural entity, but was really part of a global modern phenomena’. Artists in that post-war period ‘are really trying to come to grips with the meaning of the events of World War ll and the meaning of the nuclear age and the kind of terrible uncertainties that the Cold War had brought to the world’.(Traugott), ‘Nuclear technology has exploded our way of life – exploded the human center of gravity – shot us out into some sort of technological void’. (Reggio) From this time forward ‘it was argued that only an art based in the deepest instinctual life, and concerned with emotions of primal distress, could provide appropriate expression for the age’. (Varnedoe18)

in our glittering technology
can raise man
to new heights….
Man himself becomes smaller
so the works of man
become bigger….
The sense of participation
is lost,
the feeling that
ordinary individuals
influence important decisions
and man becomes
separated and diminished.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Price’s own artistic sensibilities were being formed at this same time. Though he was only eight years old at the time of the first Atomic Bomb test, the event had a profound impact on him and eventually became the primary motivation behind his art. “It’s hard to look back and say, how does this affect a whole generation? How does it affect generations of art? The atomic bomb kind of nullified everything in the future - you couldn’t see a real future with the thing hanging around. My feeling about the situation was that once they set off the first one, it was like Pandora’s box, letting it out of the bag”. (Price19)
     ‘Though the Bomb has not destroyed the world, it has destroyed our idea of the world. The critique of mythology undertaken by philosophy since the Renaissance becomes the critique of philosophy: time may be consumed in a ball of fire that will put an end all at once to the dialectics of mind and the evolution of species, the republic of equals and the tower of superman, the monologue of phenomenology and that of analytic philosophy. We are rediscovering a feeling that the Aztecs, Hindus, and Christians of the year 1000 were never without. Technology begins as a negation of the world and ends as an image of the destruction of the world’ (Paz20.)
     During the 1960’s and ‘70s, New Mexico saw a huge influx of newcomers who brought with them their own ideals, consciousness, and aesthetics. What they encountered there was a culture and a landscape that was full of contradictions. “The contradictions of the nuclear age, combined with native peoples living traditional lives as they have done for centuries, are contradictions that are unique to New Mexico’. (Traugott) These contradictions provided fertile ground for Price and numerous other artists of his generation like Woody and Steina Vasulka and Judy Chicago, and among a subsequent generation of artists such as Meridel Rubenstein, Patrick Nagatani, and Erika Wanenmacher, These artists are among many who have responded to the nuclear issues that are unavoidable in New Mexico and each, in their own ways, has sought to release some of the darkness of the nuclear threat. Like Price, they have often gone to ‘the heart of the nuclear beast’ (Price21) to source their inspiration, and often their materials and imagery.
     Meridel Rubenstein and Ellen Zweig incorporate the sounds of Price’s sculptures into their work about scientist Robert Oppenheimer, "Archimedes' Chamber"*. “If you boiled it down there’s this amazing binary of different mythologies going on on the Pajarito Plateau - the myth of eternal return with the indigenous peoples and then the myth of the end of the world with the scientists that have come here. There’s a weird fable being enacted. We've got this population coming through in flight from Europe butting up against the ancient culture. Tony’s sculptures embody all of these ideas at once.
(He) was a great influence on us”. The images and history of Los Alamos recur in many of their multi-media works. “The lab isn’t all dark and native people aren’t all light. Once you engage that binary then it’s a little more active. It’s not as gloomy. It allows you to see the forces at play. In time and history, they’re always at play”.

Tony Price - Atomic Art
essay by James Rutherford