Albuquerque Journal North
VENUE North - cover story
"Transforming the Heart of the Beast"
Tony Price's Works Provide an Artistic Legacy
From the Cold War
by Kate McGraw
Tony Price was a much-loved man. That much is clear from the continuing
devotion of the late artist's many fans.
"Tony was a guy who cut such a wide swath in life," said his
friend James Rutherford, who is also guest curator of a new show of Price's
work. "If you knew Tony Price, you felt like you had a special relationship
with him, yet the reality is, everyone felt that way, each of the hundreds
and hundreds of people he knew in his life."
Only four years after his death at age 63, Price's friends and admirers
have raised the $50,000 necessary to mount an exhibit of his works at
the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts. They are also organizing to establish
a permanent home for Price's "atomic art" in New Mexico.
The artworks are made of items salvaged from the scrap materials thrown
away by Los Alamos
National Laboratory. Price used the materials to create art in a vocation
that his friend Mort Breler, an engineer, called "transforming the
heart of the Beast." The exhibit includes more than 21 sculptures,
mostly wall hangings and masks, accompanied by photographs, pane! text
and a 1982 video about Price and his work.
Price called technology "the Beast," Breler explains in the
video about his friend. To Price, technology was evil and nuclear technology
the heart of evil, Breler added. The artist was like the legendary alchemists,
Breler said, "taking these scraps, these objects from the heart of
the Beast, and trying to transform that into beauty."
State Cultural Affairs Secretary Stuart Ashman called Price "an innovative
visionary." A longtime friend of the " artist, Ashman said he
"crafted a message of great importance for our time."
'Mountain of art'
Price, a native of New York, discovered the Los Alamos scrap pile not
long after he moved to New Mexico in the late '60s. (Los Alamos National
Laboratory was required to sell much of its salvage to the public.) At
first, he was just intrigued by the art potential of the various items
"Los Alamos, to me, was finding a place of just raw, pure materials,"
he says in the video about his work. "I found it a perfect mountain
of art to experiment with."
He began to make sculptures from the materials he found. He didn't know
what the various items had been used for, although of course he knew Los
Alamos' primary purpose as a nuclear weapons lab. "I don't have the
technical background to distinguish things," he said. "To me,
everything up there is a bomb."
Before long, working with Los Alamos scrap had taken over Price's artistic
life. He made other sculpture —stone carvings of cowboys and Indians
— but it was, he admitted, basically boilerplate work to pay for
more and more salvage materials from the scrap yard. He had become obsessed
with taking materials that had been used for weapons he regarded as an
enormous danger to mankind and helping those materials metamorphose into
Creating "atomic art" was like sympathetic magic for Price:
"I'm trying to take something that was basically negative and make
something good," he said in the video.
Working with icons
As he became more passionate about the transformational power of his art,
his pieces grew larger and more totemic. Sound was added — many
of his larger pieces ring like chimes and gongs when the wind hits them
or rocks them.
"He was working with icons," Rutherford explained. "It
was a deliberate part of his approach, to dedicate his work to the icons
of the cultures of the world. So he did kachinas; he did Ganesh. He
wanted to tap into the positive to counter the dark energy."
Rutherford agreed that sound became more important to Price. "He
discovered the ethereal, eternal vibrational tunnel between the dark and
the light energies," Rutherford said. "He did pieces that sounded
like Tibetan bells that are used to focus a person for meditation, or
like chants that help calm the mind. It's one of the most significant
things about his work, and helps the pieces directly connect with other
People still connect to the message of Price's atomic art. A March 12
panel discussion on "Transforming the Heart of the Beast" includes
cartoonist Jon Richards, Los Alamos salvage yard operator and gadfly Ed
Grothus, John Allen and filmmaker Godfrey
Price's fans hope to use the momentum of the exhibit to mount a drive
for a permanent
home for 144 of his most striking pieces, Rutherford said. "It
would not be just a Tony Price Museum but a facility for all kinds of
work, that also housed this collection."
No site has been selected, although several in the Santa Fe area are possibilities,
the curator added. "There is a lot of money to be raised and a lot
of questions will have to be answered, but anything worth doing takes
tenacity and determination. This is an artistic legacy from the Cold War
that is a balance to the thousands of nuclear weapons and tons of waste
from the Cold War."