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Up and Atom

Tony Price hammers atomic bomb paraphernalia into artistic ploughshares.


In the movie Apollo 13, when the rocket ship becomes dangerously disabled, the astronauts are saved by nuts-and-bolts ingenuity.

The engineers on the ground assemble ordinary tools that duplicate what the astronauts have on board and figure out how to use this mismatched collection of objects to repair the ship. They frantically transmit assembly instructions to the astronauts. The space heroes then successfully use the most ordinary of materials--metal tubes, springs, duct tape--to fix their rocket and guide it back to earth.

Similarly commonplace objects turn up in the sculpture of Tony Price, the late New Mexico artist who has the summer show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Price's sculptures are made of all kinds of metal debris: silver spheres, copper plates, brass knobs, black corrugated steel. Plenty of artists nowadays use found objects in their work, but Price's junk has a distinctive origin: All of it came from the salvage yard at the Los Alamos National Laboratories, home of America's nuclear bombs. If Apollo's ordinary objects could power a space ship, Price's ordinary objects once had the power to do something much worse: Destroy the Earth and all its inhabitants.

While Price is well known for his large-scale outdoor metal works--right here in Arizona, at Biosphere 2, Price's giant atomic wind chimes and robotic figures provide a whimsical contrast to Biosphere's earnest domes--this exhibition, Tony Price: Atomic Art, of necessity concentrates on his smaller-scale pieces. Its 21 wall sculptures give us an odd opportunity to get an up-close look at the metal parts that go into bombs. They don't look threatening; in fact, they have the shiny appeal of the hardware store or the tinkerer's shop. They're harmless in and of themselves. What's chilling is that they require deliberate human intervention to take on a new life as weapons of death.

Price, of course, went in the opposite direction from the Los Alamos bomb makers. He banged these atomic swords into artistic ploughshares. In a wonderful irony, he used his high-tech materials in a way that's so down-home, it's almost folk. Like an off-the-wall outsider artist working obsessively out in the garage, Price fashioned the nuclear detritus into an endless array of human masks. Determined, literally, to put a human face on the inhuman, he took brass spheres that were god-knows-what in their military life and turned them into ears and eyes. Corrugated metal becomes hair; gold rings metamorphose into mouths.

A sharp metal brush is deployed as a mustache in "Beware of Mad Generals." This guy looks like your typical deranged tinpot dictator (or crazed U.S. defense secretary). He has wild metal tubes flying up out of his fevered brain, a copper circle planted on his helmet and a big mouth open in surprise, perhaps in wonder at the damage he's done.

Price, who died at 63 in 2000, had a privileged East Coast upbringing, with an Upper East Side address and a boarding-school education. Perhaps surprisingly, he did a stint in the U.S. Marines, but after getting out, in 1960, he quickly found his way into the artistic underground. He lived in New York and Europe among bohemians and beatniks, and developed a rep for intricate, fantastical drawings. It was not until the late '60s that he discovered New Mexico and the salvage yard that inspired his life's work. Its "pure raw materials and fantastically, beautifully shaped metals," he wrote, became the tools of his Atomic Art, a project he would work on relentlessly for the next 30 years.

In a 1985 statement marking the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Price noted that the nuclear bomb had shadowed his whole life, as well as the lives of everyone who came after the blast. "When I was about 3 years old, the concept of nuclear energy took hold of men's minds. ... By the time I was 8, these men achieved their success, and almost instantly put the weapons to use on their enemies. Hundreds of thousands died. That day all of mankind became nuclear hostages."

His passion for it notwithstanding, nuclear art is not exactly a big money-maker, and to earn a living, Price carved more palatable stone figurative sculptures, mostly of Indian subjects. Native American religious motifs shape many of his atomic works as well. "Earth Protector Kachina" is typical. Made of steel, copper, brass and aluminum, it mimics the staring eyes and open mouths of the Kachina carvings of the Hopi and Pueblo peoples. "Hopi Nuclear Maiden" is a full figure, complete with the circular braids traditionally worn by young Hopi girls; she's carrying what look like amber flames. "Nuclear Kachina/Protector of Food" wears a metallic gas mask, apparently to ward off poisonous radiation. These benevolent deities subvert the bomb materials, turning evil into good.

In fact, Price did a little cross-cultural survey of gods and religious figures from cultures all around the world, perhaps in an effort to enlist the gods in a campaign to stop the nuclear insanity of their assorted devotees. Some of them are funny. "Nuclear Nordic Goddess Fetter," with Wagnerian horns springing from her metallic head," looks like an operatic Brünnhilde. "Prince Moses Speaks Out on Nuclear Waste" brings a much-needed Middle Eastern perspective to the debate, while a pharaoh gets equal time in "Nuclear Weapons Are the Curse."

But most are not in the least amusing. Particularly terrifying is "Samurai Spirit Mask/Nagasaki," a fierce metal head with sharp swathes of silver curving out from the side of its head. Dark and glowering, it memorializes the second victims of a nuclear holocaust. Since it was Uncle Sam who dropped the bomb on Japan, and not the other way around, I can only surmise that Price invoked this traditional samurai warrior as a protector of his people.

Diverse as these international figures are, they have one thing in common, an open mouth, full and round. At first glance, these mouths suggests surprise, the kind unsuspecting civilians might show on seeing a nuclear blast out back. But their open-mouthed surprise would quickly turn to open-mouthed horror. Think Edvard Munch's "The Scream"; think Picasso's "Guernica," and its shrieking, dying civilians. In the next second of this nuclear nightmare, our civilians would disintegrate.

The longer you look at Price's death masks, with their circular mouths of silver and bronze and gold, the more they head down that same trajectory, from surprise, to terror, to death.

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