Honoring the Artist: Melville Price

While Dan’s Papers cover artist Melville Price was perhaps not as well-known as his colleagues Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and  Joseph Stella, he was a respected member of the abstract expressionists’ first generation. And one of its youngest participants. Price’s friendship with Kline, de Kooning and Stella not only gave him a cherished position, but their mentorship and influence were equally important.

Dan's Papers Melville Price Cover

Even so, Price was not merely someone who experienced art from the outside looking in. He became a member of The Club (called “ the intellectual center of the New York School”) and met regularly at Greenwich Village’s Cedar Street Tavern, where painters exchanged views about Abstract Expressionism. Moreover, he participated in group shows at such venues as the Peridot and Hugo galleries. [expand]

It would seem reasonable that Price’s professional and personal proximity to certain abstract expressionists would influence his style. If truth be told, this critic can see similarities between Price’s work and Kline’s color pieces after 1959. Compositions/shapes by these two artists were broad, spontaneous and dynamic. Before that, even Stella’s futuristic paintings highlighting industrial America inspired Price, although not essentially so. Compare some of Stella’s intricate, twisting forms to Price’s 1949-51 “Maze Series” with similar organic, dense, “twisting” abstractions. According to his second wife, Barbara GillettePrice wanted “to establish a tenuous balance between the automatic gesture, the emerging forms and the depth of the field of the painting itself…”

But Price went his own stylistic way, despite his mentors and their influences. We can’t forget, however, that other sources also played a part in his development, including informal study at the Art Students League, the National Academy of Design and the New School for Social Research. Subsequent exposure brought him face-to-face with varied styles like Cubism, Surrealism and Futurism as well. When he and his wife moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, in the late 1950s, he created yet another style, his “New Hope Series,” which appeared not as dense as the “Maze” paintings. They were described as energetic, haunting and aggressive.

The “Black Warrior” Series came next in the 1960s, a collection of collages with words, numbers and ads. Each configuration seemed definitive and deliberate, unlike some of the other images from previous series: there was less spontaneity, at least for this critic. Yet regardless of Price’s stylistic evolution, there remained a sense of organic wholeness, where shapes flowed easily from one area to another.

Besides Price’s commitment to the evolution of his art, he served several years as an art teacher, perhaps so that he could continue following his own artistic journey. Cases in point: a part-time job at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art during the early 1950s; head of a new continuing education program at Penn State University in the late 1950s and finally a permanent position at the University of Alabama starting in the 1960s. Price passed away from a heart attack in 1970.

It would appear that his image (“Smile” 1969-70 ) on this week’s Dan’s Papers was among the last of his endeavors. Ironically, it also seems to combine his varied styles, developed throughout his life, like Surrealism  (the mouth image) and Abstract Expressionism. Such styles remained with him until the end.

For more information about Melville Price, contact New York’s Spanierman Modern, 53 E. 58th Street. 212-832-1400.

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