If you called Central Casting and ordered up a hippie-outlaw artist, they'd have sent over Tony Price.Looked the part? As 'Bogie looked like Sam Spade. And he lived in northern New Mexico! By the time I first met Price and his work in the early '80s, he was a countercultural icon known as "The Atomic Artist" — equal parts shaman, prankster and artist — who made voodoo-totems and masks fashioned from a hi-tech junk pile at a Los Alamos salvage yard.
"Tony Price: Atomic Art," at the Museum of Fine Arts, is a small and thoroughly charming survey of the work of this artist who called Santa Fe and New Mexico home from 1968 until his death in 2000. Athe show closes May16, the Friends of Tony Price group that helped organize the show joins Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety in a screening of a feature film on the artist and his work as well as "Do It for Uncle Graham," a tour of New Mexico's nuclear history by Santa Fe resident Candy Jones. The show benefits both groups.
Price's progress from privileged rebel, to hipster, to New Mexico hippie began in Brooklyn in 1937, where he was born. His stockbroker father died when Price was 12. Price enlisted in the Marines in the mid-1950s and ended up painting officers' portraits and murals before he was discharged in 1960. He illustrated novels, poetry periodicals and knocked around the Beat circuit for a while — the West Village, Woodstock, San Miguel de A!lende, Mexico City, Tangier, Amsterdam, Rome, Barcelona, etc. By the time he wound up a hippie at Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco in 1966, he'd met or was about to meet most of the national and local players in the dawning Age of Aquarius — Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan, Hugh Romney (the once and future Wavy Gravy), Lisa Law, Walter Chappell, and there's a great catalogue shot of him playing flutes with Shel Silverstein.
Price moved to El Rancho, in the shadow of Los Alamos, in 1968 and pretty much hung around ever since. He returned to the Zia Sales Yard, the Los Alamos salvage yard that Walter Chappell had shown him on a visit a couple years before, and voila — he was in business. From the one-of-kind heap of high-end, hi-tech salvage, Tony grabbed parts of bombs, computers, research-and-development projects and godknowswhatall.
At first Tony made useful things — tables, chairs, bowls etc. Then he made musical things — chimes, "atomic gongs" and the like. But the things Price made best were the masks and totem-like figures made from nuclear junk. They looked part Hopi Kachina, part Kabuki theater. Further, each was made as a kind of talisman in order to turn toxic atomic anxiety and bad vibes upon itself and, like, neutralize the energy.
Explaining it in the great hippie-logic of its time, Price once said: "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."
Easier done than said, as it turns out; and hold that bong for just a second, but doesn't reading that today remind us just how truly silly the Age of Aquarius was and still is? (In a charming sort of way, of course.)
Seeing Price's masks all together like this in a museum is rather odd. They really are from the Funk school of art — high funk, but funk, nonetheless - - and look their best sited properly, which is to say in a yard full of piles of junk, abandoned cars, piles of firewood, all framed by mountains. There they could work their voodoo; at the museum, they are hermetically sealed and look like artifacts from a dead culture. Which they are, in fact. Woodstock Nation, the Cold War, even "mutual assured destruction" - all look positively benign from the perspective of today.
They also certainly represent the last great moment, the apogee of the Industrial Age. They were custom-made by some of the greatest tool-and-die craftsmen and technicians ever to run a lathe or drill press. Ironically, the height of that craftsmanship ushered us into the nuclear age and the age of mass destruction and killing. (WMD, anyone?)
Price had bouts of notoriety before he died and was always in danger of becoming that most deadly of things in a place like this, a character. He avoided it, moving out to Reserve a few years before he died. He might have believed that his anti-nuclear family was a boon to world peace and an obstacle to negative nuclear vibes, or not. But the conceit was really only one that made it alright for him to go ahead and more or less obsessively making the strange "beings" till the day he died.
And that is really the point of any artist's life — to make things. And in that sense, at least, I actually do believe that Tony Price has just as much right to claim that he single-handedly ended the Cold War as Ronald Reagan.