Tony Price  /  Atomic Art
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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 he found.
"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 beauty.
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."
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 Reggio.
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."