Essays on Tony Price by James Rutherford

Life & Times: Essays on Tony Price

by James Rutherford (2002)

Gallerist, Curator — Nashville, TN

Obsessive artist, counter-culture icon, compassionate father, sage – Tony Price (1937-2000) was a complex man who touched the lives of countless individuals and deeply affected everyone who knew him. His life and career was a journey of self-discovery and a quest for objectivity.

Tony and his fraternal twin brother Ted, were born in Brooklyn, New York where they would spend their early childhood with father, Thomas Edward Price, a stockbroker, mother Katherine, and sister Carolyn. The family then moved to Pelham Manor, NY where Tony went to grade school and to junior high. “Our father died when we were 12. (Mother) went back to work when our father died, first at Fortune Magazine and subsequently as a bond broker and later a banker as well as homemaker. Two or three years after father died, Mother married Frederick Henry Allen, a partner in the architectural firm of Harrison, Ballard and Allen in NY, and we moved to 49 East 86th Street” recalled Tony’s brother Ted. At this time, along with stepbrother Sandy Allen, the three boys went away to school; Tony to South Kent, Ted to The Hill School, and Sandy, to the Kent School. From very early in his life Tony’s skills as an artist and musician were recognized by his family and peers. His drawings were published in the school newspaper and sought after by his fellow students and his skills as a musician continued to develop.

Author and cartoonist Jonathan Richards, who was at South Kent with Tony around 1952, recalled Tony as “sort of a legendary figure, even in his middle teens. He had kind of an aura about him. I remember what captivated me most about Tony was that he was a cartoonist and that was something I had designs on. I remember finding some drawings on poster board that he had discarded in the wastebasket. I’m not sure now what they were but I can just remember that they were a lot better than anything I could do. The thing, of course, that attracts you more than anything else at that age is somebody who seems to really be able to give the finger to authority and not care what happens to them. And that’s what happened to Tony”.

After high school, Tony’s cantankerous spirit led his mother and stepfather to suggest he consider joining the Marines. Fred Allen had served in the Marines and subsequently both brothers became Marines as well. Tony later joked that his induction papers were the last piece of paper he ever signed. During his stint in the service, which included a tour of duty in Lebanon, his talents as an artist were quickly discovered by military brass and he spent much of his enlistment painting their portraits and large murals for Marine Corps facilities and events.

After his discharge in 1960, Price lived at various times in New York, Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende. He used his graphic skills to illustrate the novels, poetry and periodicals of the just-awakening underground culture and exhibited his work at numerous avant-garde galleries in New York City and Woodstock. Hugh Romney (aka Wavy Gravy) was serving at the time, along with Tony’s childhood friend John Brent (of Second City and The Committee fame), as a poetry director for the famous Gaslight Café in New York. He remembers those days as a “teenage beatnik” and seeing Tony’s art of that time: “We were all skipping around on MacDougal Street in the West Village. (Tony) would sit in the coffee house and he would draw these amazingly complicated and beautiful drawings of children with all eternity in their eyes and hair flowing like rivers. And they’d be sitting on the grass and there’d be tiny little people peeking out and doing things. All these wonders lurking in the background – It wasn’t just the foreground object”.

Price w/Morty Breier in Rome, c. 1965

Tony was elected a member of the Woodstock Artist Association in 1962 and became friends with many important figures on the scene including Woodstock promoters Albert Grossman and John Court and a young musician named Bob Dylan. Price left for Europe in 1963 to discover his own artistic motivations and from 1963 to 1965 he lived at various times in Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Rome, Tangier, Naples and Barcelona. Longtime friend, Morty Breier, remembers Tony as “the quintessential hipster. (Tony) didn’t seem to have any concerns for his own future or what was happening next …he lived completely in the moment. He showed me what it was to be an enlightened soul.”

Tony sold or bartered his work to keep him going while befriending, learning from and teaching the hundreds of spiritual seekers who were wandering the European cityscapes during that period. With his hypnotic opened-tuned rhythmic guitar, magical stories of “hipsters” on the road and his elaborate drawings, he became a legend.

In the mid-1960’s Tony’s travels lead him to the vibrant hippie scene in the Bay Area. It was there that he reconnected with his childhood friend John Brent who was at the time, along with people like Lenny Bruce, part of the early stand-up comedy craze in San Francisco clubs such as the Purple Onion. In 1966, outside of an art show at the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street, Tony met Reno Meyerson, a member of the musical commune The Jook Savages. He remembers Tony as “one of those brilliant individuals who had it all figured out – deeply insightful and compassionate. He had an ability to make people feel as if they were his best friend in life.” In 1967 Tony visited Reno in a little town called El Rancho, New Mexico just down the hill from Los Alamos, birthplace of the Atomic bomb. The following year Tony moved into a friend’s house there, where his first child, Maya (aka Roseanna), was born. “Everybody’s probably drawn to every spot and they have no idea how it happens to them. And it took me years to kind of settle down out here and see what was really going on.” Price said.

It was also at this time that Price re-discovered the salvage yard at the Los Alamos National Laboratories, which he had first become aware of two years earlier after seeing exotic shapes of glass and metal at the home of his friend, renowned photographer Walter Chappell. This was the beginning of what became his most important artistic effort. “Los Alamos to me was finding a place of just pure raw materials and fantastically, beautifully shaped metals. I found it a perfect mountain of art to experiment with, to create with and I go out looking for specific parts and sometimes there it’d be right there just as if hundreds of men had machined these things for hundreds of hours and cart it out and dump it right there in front of my feet” he said.

Although Price continued to utilize his skills as a stone carver to produce sculptures to sell as a way to support himself, he became so impassioned about what he referred to as “our nuclear nightmare” that he dedicated the next 30+ years of his life to creating his Atomic Art.

“The artist has to take responsibility to keep people awake to these horrors and I feel a type of responsibility to build these things from this place. The hope is that it would wake them up, it would remind them, it would get them thinking about it. It’s all our problem, it’s not just the artist’s problem…but it’s the problem of everybody” Price said.
His early pieces made from Lab salvage were often utilitarian items such as tables, chairs and utensils and other items he needed at the time. Many pieces had an element of sound and emanated amazing, ethereal tones. It was also at this time he began to create monumental works such as the giant gongs he called “Maya’s Song” after his first daughter.

This piece, made from large metal cylinders suspended from a huge scaffold, could be seen from the road in a large field in El Rancho, NM. “Los Alamos scrap is a kind of pure art in itself, since you are dealing with a harmonic principle of nuclear physics”.

It was through his discovery of these gongs and Price’s giant music box that filmmaker and activist, Godfrey Reggio (Quatsi trilogy , Anima Mundi etc.) would eventually meet Tony Price, who became one of his closest friends and confidants. He described the encounter: “Upon driving in I saw this huge squared box with glass panels all around with an enormous snorkel on the top that had speakers in it. I climbed into the box and saw the mind of Tony Price at work. It was fantastic. Here were five piano harps, one on the ceiling, one on each of the walls – just an absolute work of brilliance as a tool, as an instrument. It played beautiful music. There was a guitar in there. If you played it, the strings would recycle what you played in their own vibration. It was like entering another dimension. Music was a form of meditation for Price: “The question that faces all explorers is: How do you get inside and explore in these other dimensions? Right now, my way of getting inside is through my music. I build music boxes made of four walls and a ceiling of piano harps. I get inside it and play open guitar beginning with a basic harmonic. When it lines up as a pure harmonic, the energy produces an overtone.

Then I line up the overtones and they split into two, four, eight, sixteen. To do this you have to totally listen to what you’re doing. Listening is surrendering to what you want to hear and puts you in the now. I’ve found that when you slow time in the now, you have a virtuality to explore”.

In 1969, upon seeing these new works that Tony was producing, poet and longtime friend Rosé Cohen invited him to do a show at his loft in New York City, which he called The Liquid Wedge Gallery. The exhibition consisted of furniture, musical instruments and other objects the likes of which had never been seen before. “I remember opening night, champagne in test tubes from Los Alamos and we just blew everybody’s mind…People walked into the room and it was like being on a spaceship, it was like being in another world” Cohen said. Along with strong sales, his resume lists write-ups on Price in the New York Magazine, The Village Voice and The East Village Other and of his work in Look Magazine, and Home Furnishing Daily lists Price’s inclusion in Sound Environment, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.

During the next few years Tony felt the need to dedicate his talent to something larger than himself and concentrated more and more on his Atomic Art including many monumental outdoor pieces. Writer R. Lee O’Neill spoke of Price’s focus: ‘Indeed, Tony Price, is almost singular in his ability and need to translate the human significance of the Atomic Bomb Age
into terms that can reach a visceral understanding for most of his fellow men. Through initial attempts to turn Atomic bomb waste material into household items and furniture (an effort to domesticate the tiger) to the abstractions that evolved, this lovely man, this tortured artist, this agonized human being has created a body of work that is the ultimate talisman, the Rosetta Stone of a modern conundrum’.

Through the early 1970’s Price showed his work at various galleries in the area including Hill’s Gallery, one of the few venues for contemporary art in Santa Fe at that time. In 1975 Price met the illustrious art dealer, R.C. Israel, who began representing him at his Gallery of New Mexico in Santa Fe. In 1976 it was Israel who convinced Price to show his work in an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts along with works of several other regional sculptors. It was also during this period, after discovery of radiation on one of his pieces, that Price obtained his own collection of Geiger counters and began checking all his materials for radiation.

In 1978 Price met a young artist named Donna Lubell. The two lived together for the next 12 years and have two children, a daughter Zara, born in 1979 and son, Jed, born in 1986. To support his family during this time Price sold his stone carvings and his Atomic Art was collected by many of the couple’s friends, family and others. He was also a regular at the Santa Fe Flea Market and would spend virtually all of his money buying the materials from the salvage yard in Los Alamos so he could continue creating his Atomic Art at the couple’s home and studio in Santa Fe. This work was much more interesting and important to him than the stone carvings and bronzes of Southwestern imagery he created for the market.

During the early 1980’s his outdoor works were shown at Shidoni Gallery in Tesuque and in 1982, the avant-garde RoseMont Gallery in Santa Fe, operated by his longtime friends Monte Ranes and Rosé Cohen, presented one of the artist’s most significant public shows to date, in a space previously occupied by the prestigious Heydt/Bair Gallery in Santa Fe. That same year, award-winning filmmakers Glen Silber and Claudia Vianello, completed their documentary on Price entitled Atomic Artist and a preview showing was held during the exhibition. The film was aired nationally on PBS in 1986.

In 1983, at the encouragement of friends and family, Price embarked on one of his most ambitious ventures to date. With an invitation from the City of New York, Price loaded a semi-trailer with several tons of Atomic Art and set out for the city where he installed his “Atomic Wind Chimes” and his grouping of metallic superpowers entitled “The Last S.A.L.T. Talks: A Trophy For The Winners of The Next Nuclear War” in Battery Park near Wall Street. The installation garnered significant media coverage including pieces by CNN and The NY Times.The Times quoted Parks Commissioner, Henry Stern
who said of the works, which stood next to large stone tablets bearing names of war dead “It’s good, art as a statement. And it’s very appropriate next to the war memorial. In the next war there won’t be any memorial”.

Concurrent with this public display Price opened an exhibition of smaller sculptures in a space offered to him by arts patron Ann Maytag at the corner of Spring and Greene Streets in SoHo, which he dubbed the Atomic Art Gallery. Several notables in the art and entertainment world as well as numerous old friends of the artist, many of whom he had not seen in years, attended the exhibition. Among the collectors who purchased works from this show were fashion icon Diane Von Furstenburg and other celebrities including actors Anthony Quinn, John Phillip Law and Michael Green. This project was certainly a defining moment for Price.

Returning to New Mexico, Price reassembled his “Last S.A.L.T. Talks”. In 1985 author, Cree McCree, called the ‘post-apocalyptic conference of metallic diplomats’… ‘perhaps Price’s most ambitious work to date’. Describing the sight inside Price’s home she wrote: ‘On the walls hang a series of masks:some playful, some beautiful, others as sinister as untimely death. Like the primitive masks that inspired them, they run the gamut of human experience. Below the masks are the counterparts of Hopi Kachinas. One of them, a fanciful creature with a dragon tail, holds out a beggars bowl. A wandering mendicant that has survived the holocaust, it is entitled “Begging For Plutonium”. Price’s humor hurts’. Writer William Hart also picked up on the humor in Price’s work: ‘He has tried to reconcile the ”technology of death” with a sort of sardonic spiritualism, to shape scraps of precision metal-craft into modern icons infused with a grim whimsy that befits the nuclear age’.

1986 was another important year for Price. That summer he was the featured artist at the Telluride Ideas Festival where he displayed several works at the gathering of many of the world’s great thinkers. That same year the Governor’s Gallery at the New Mexico State Capitol mounted a major exhibition of Atomic Art to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test. The show was well received by the public and the media. Critic David Bell called it ‘a surprising show on a number of counts, not the least of which is its location. By its installation in the State Capitol, it automatically takes on the character of a political as well as artistic statement’. ‘Artistically, the issue with all the works is the same. It has to do with achieving a balance of materials, process, form, subject and ideological content’6. Writer Harrison Sudborough, said: ‘Price’s ‘Space-age materials and space-age imagery address the prime fact of modern life: We all live, since that Trinity Site blast 40 years ago, under the threat of total extinction’. ’Art historians or historical anthropologists may well consider Price’s sculptural icons to be the prime artwork of this age’.

In 1988 Price’s Atomic Art was exposed literally all over the world in an event called MegaVision. The event was the brainchild of Russian activist, Joseph Goldin, who invited Santa Fe to be one of several cities to participate. This event coincided with the beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost (openness) and his program of economic, political, and social restructuring called Perestroika. Held in the rotunda of the State Capitol, the event revolved around simultaneous satellite uplinks with other public gatherings in participating cities around the world. Santa Fe’s event featured the San Juan Pueblo Eagle Dancers, the St. Francis Cathedral Choir, Native American artist Harold Littlebird reciting his poetry and Tony Price, accompanied by his family, playing his nuclear gongs.

The next several years were one of the most important periods in Price’s career but also one of the most difficult personally. In 1989 a group of Price’s friends and associates established a non-profit organization called TENGAM (magnet in reverse) and secured a gallery space in Santa Fe’s famous art district on Canyon Road owned by philanthropist, Ed Bass, and operated by an advocacy organization for Tibetan refugees called Project Tibet. Upon renovation of a former dojo, Price installed over a hundred pieces of Atomic Art inside and in an adjacent sculpture garden. Support came from donations from visitors and individuals, sales of posters and various charitable events sponsored by the TENGAM Board. Staffed by volunteers and often by Price himself, the facility attracted thousands of visitors during more than two years of operation. In 1991 Price was honored with a visit of the spiritual leader of Tibet, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who had come to bless the Project Tibet compound. Upon viewing Price’s collection of Atomic Art he commented: “Tony Price is very clever. He has done something useful with something that is not useful”. Other Tibetans also explained that in Tibetan, the word “tengam” actually translates as “the place within the temple where the most precious objects are kept”.

Price was approached during this period by John Allen and others involved with the conception and development of the Biosphere 2 8 project underway in Oracle, Arizona, who felt Tony’s work corresponded to the philosophy of the project. “Characteristically it attracted people from, what I would generically say, the avant-garde. And particularly the people it attracted were Tony in sculpture, William Burroughs in writing, Ornette Coleman in music. There were others. They saw it and they added to it. The biospherics is a new way of organizing human sensibility, which is the way or style in which the senses are organized for manifestation. Tony’s sculpture was particularly interesting and I think it added to the project a great deal. Because on a certain level the materials he dealt with were non-natural – so they were what humans have done with the world of life by applying intelligence and technics. These materials are ambiguous and double-edged. That is they can destroy a great deal of biosphere or they can be used to enhance it when used for artistic purposes. Biosphere 2 as a project presents a challenge of making humans realize that they are a part of this whole of which we emerge and we are participants in and at the same time we have the capacity to injure. This is where Tony thought his Atomic sculptures had a place. Its definitely a living art” Allen said. The group negotiated for the purchase and lease of a sizeable collection and in the fall of 1991, Price began installing numerous pieces on the sprawling facility including his large “Atomic Dorje” fountain and the final incarnation of his “Last S.A.L.T. Talks” piece. Since their placement these works have been seen by literally millions of visitors to the facility and continue to be enjoyed by the thousands who still venture to the site each year.

Although the Biosphere 2 display represented one of Price’s biggest triumphs, at the same time he was dealing with the break-up of his relationship with the mother of their children, who had moved with them to a remote town in western New Mexico. In order to be close to his son and daughter, Price used funds he received from the Biosphere 2 project to purchase a small piece of land and construct a studio and display room near them. He spent over two years meticulously reassembling his collection of Atomic Art and working on a new group of masks. Separated from most of his friends and unable to find any real allies in this small ranching community, he would spend hours making music on his guitar and piano tuning boards and creating sculpture. He also began experimenting with a PhotoShop program on a small Macintosh computer producing elaborate digital drawings utilizing skills he had taught himself. Sadly, these pieces are some of the last artworks he created.

In the fall of 1998, Price suffered a major stroke. After being hospitalized for several months he was moved into a small apartment in Santa Fe provided to him by longtime friend, Norma Cross (daughter of renowned artist, Doris Cross). Friends of Price rallied to his aid and a major auction was held in Santa Fe to raise money for his care. Despite the attention of his doctors, nurses, and friends, the severe nature of the stroke prevented him from any substantial recovery. He died peacefully, although much too soon, on the morning of a beautiful Spring snowfall on March 3, 2000. A memorial for him held near Santa Fe drew hundreds of his friends and admirers who gathered to pay their respects to this unique man. Many share the sentiments expressed there by David Lubell, who said: “Tony was truly one of the most extraordinarily gifted and creative human beings I would ever have the pleasure of knowing”.

As per Tony’s wishes, his remaining collection of 144 pieces of Atomic Art are being kept together, and plans are being developed to create a permanent home for this important body of work that remains as relevant today as when it was created.

James Rutherford, 2002
Nashville, TN