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Melville Price (1920-1970)

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ARTIST BIOGRAPHY

Melville Price, Holiday, 1964
Melville Price, Holiday, 1964
Oil and mixed media collage on canvas,
51 x 41 inches

One of the youngest members of the first generation of abstract expressionist painters, Melville Price established close friendships with Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. At the start of his career, Joseph Stella was influential as a friend and mentor. Over time Price's art evolved from cubist-surrealist imagery to active, complex, and painterly forms, aggressive and interweaving, while at times including figurative elements.

Melville Price was born in Kingston, New York, and grew up in Bradley Beach, New Jersey, and the Bronx. Initially affluent, his family lost its wealth during the Depression, and after the death of Price's father in 1939 could not recover its former stature. Unable to afford higher education after high school, Price studied informally at the Art Students League, the National Academy of Design, and the New School for Social Research. It was at this time that Joseph Stella, whom Melville Price met shortly before his father died, became a caring friend and counselor to him, introducing him to surrealism, futurism, and cubism and instilling in him a respect for earlier generations of artists. In the early 1940s Price worked for the WPA Fine Arts Program, initially as a laborer, and later in the painting division. Within this context he made the acquaintance of Arshile Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline. He also developed close relationships with Fritz Bultman, Giorgio Cavallon, Theodoros Stamos, Robert Motherwell, Milton Resnick, Alton Pickens, Conrad Marca-Relli, and Ezio Martinelli. Of these artists, Kline would become Melville Price's closest friend throughout his life.

Melville Price was married to musician and linguist Pauline Halperin in 1941. With a small grant from Life Magazine , the couple moved to Woodstock, New York, in 1942. There Price supported himself by working for a gunsmith while Pauline worked for an international organization. The couple returned to New York in 1946 and began working for framemakers Benevi and Feist and the House of Heydenryck. In 1948 Melville Price began to be included in group exhibitions along with Kline, Adloph Gottlieb, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Hans Hofmann, Stamos, and Louise Bourgeois. His works of the time was praised for being forceful statements. In his "Maze Series" (1949-51), as noted by Price's second wife art educator Barbara Price observed, he "wished to establish a tenuous balance between the automatic gesture, the emerging forms, and the depth of the field of the painting itself, seeking a sense of rightness throughout. In so doing, he skillfully activated the entire surface of the painting." 1 A writer for Art Digest noticed the "surge of pulsating color" in these works. 2

Price separated from his first wife Pauline in 1950 and in the next year he accepted a part-time teaching position at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. After commuting to this job for three years, Price moved to Philadelphia. Price brought many of his friends from the New York art world to lecture and work as visiting artists at the museum, including Kline, who taught for a year while staying with Price.

Melville Price and Barbara Gillette married in 1956, moving that year to New Hope, Pennsylvania. There he created his "New Hope Series," comprising canvases that he reworked to create energetic, haunting effects. The couple returned to Philadelphia at the end of 1957, where Price ran a new continuing education program at Penn State University's Ogontz Center campus. The scale of his paintings grew in the period that followed. In 1958-59 he was the artist-in-residence at the University of Alabama, where one of his students was William Christenberry. After a leave of absence in 1962, when Price and his wife lived in Brigantine, New Jersey, the couple returned to Alabama, beginning a very productive time in his career in which he created extremely powerful paintings often introducing figurative elements. From 1967-68, Price took a sabbatical leave, affording him the opportunity to go with Barbara to Spain. There they divided their time between Madrid and Barcelona. After a number of incidents of illness in which Price was diagnosed with heart disease, he threw himself into painting, but on February 20, 1970 his death occurred when he succumbed to massive heart attack. That April the University of Alabama held a retrospective of his work, which was followed in September by a show at the J. B. Speed Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. In 1978 a show of his work was held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and in 1999 the Elmhurst Art Museum, Illinois, organized a Price retrospective.

Melville Price's work may be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Birmingham Museum of Art; the J. B. Speed Museum, Louisville, Kentucky; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina; the Milwaukee Art Museum; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; the Sunrise Museum, Charleston, West Virigina; and the University of Chicago.

LNP

©The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery LLC and may not be reproduced in whole or in part, without written permission from Spanierman Gallery LLC nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery LLC.

1. Barbara G. Price, Without Compromise: The Art of Melville Price (Chicago, Ill.: Thomas McCormick Gallery, 2002), 17.

2. M. L. "Essays for the Eyes," Art Digest (February 15, 1949), cited in Price, p. 17.

 

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