Keeping Tony Price’s Legacy Alive in Santa Fe
SANTA FE, N. Mex. — In a zigzag constellation across the Atlantic, there’s a Tony Price sculpture show on the seafloor. The Brooklyn-born artist hopped a frigate to Europe in 1963 on a hunt for a hipster scene that culturally bridged the beatniks and the hippies. He discovered a welding rig onboard and made artworks from scrap metal, enlisting the crew to ceremonially jettison each piece to make room for the next one.
That ethereal image is echoed at Phil Space, which has housed an exhibition of about 50 works by Price since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Masks and figures made from found materials dot the concrete floor and fill walls papered in black. Stacks of crates line the far end of the room. James Hart, founder of Phil Space, flips on track lights at their dimmest setting.
“I do think I’ve gone crazy because they do speak to me,” says Hart, scanning the metallic faces that float in the void. In addition to running Phil Space, Hart is the president of the nonprofit Friends of Tony Price, established after the artist’s death in 2000.
The prolonged commingling of these two elaborate projects has forced Hart to grapple with the idea of carrying an artistic legacy — with all of its flotsam, jetsam, and treasures. Price’s posthumous show exemplifies the ethos of Phil Space, even as it stands as a physical impediment to the experimental gallery’s resurrection.
Following his European travels, Price moved to El Rito, New Mexico, and discovered a nearby salvage yard heaped with cast-off materials from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the former headquarters of the Manhattan Project. For over 30 years thereafter, he amassed eerily elegant shrapnel from earth-shattering scientific experiments to create anti-nuclear protest art.
“These spirit masks represent the cultures of all of humanity,” Hart says. “When you look into the eyes of the spirits, they transform the destructiveness of the materials in your mind.”
The works are often apocalyptically funny (behold the strained expression of “First Mutant Man Born Without Asshole”) and at times undeniably appropriative (Hart still isn’t sure how to frame Price’s occasional use of the sacred Hopi term kachina) — and they have an uncanny presence that seems watchful and stern, powerful but benevolent.
Price successfully exhibited and sold his art across the United States, from Battery Park in Manhattan to the grounds of Biosphere 2 in Arizona. He left behind about 150 works spanning more than 30 years of output in a studio in Reserve, New Mexico, which he hoped would eventually populate a permanent art center.
“All of this work kind of pooled there, and that’s still where it is — right there,” says Hart. Or rather, about a third of it got stuck at Phil Space, which adjoins Hart’s commercial photography studio on 2nd Street in Santa Fe, when the pandemic froze the gallery’s activities three years ago. “It’s like being in jail with this stuff,” he says. “No one other than Tony has lived with this work like me.”
Hart established the James Hart Photography Exhibition Space in 1993, renting a spot next to his studio to showcase work by his photography students from Santa Fe Community College. The two spaces comprise about 2,200 square feet.
In 2000, Hart’s father Phillip died and he renamed the gallery Phil Space in tribute to a long line of family patriarchs. (“It’s also easier to say,” Hart adds.) That’s when Hart shifted his focus from students to local, late-career artists who didn’t fit into Santa Fe’s commercial art scene.
“I’d met so many artists through my photography work who did incredible things in the 1970s and ‘80s — a real golden age in Santa Fe — but were struggling to find a gallery on Canyon Road or downtown,” says Hart. He wondered if his warehouse-style space in Midtown, far from the traditional art districts, could fill a cultural vacuum and unite the local community.
Early exhibitors included the painters Eugene Newmann and Jerry West, and the sculptor John Connell. In the following two decades, Phil Space hosted over 160 exhibitions — many in honor of late-career or deceased artists. In one case, a featured artist died mid-show. “I’d call myself the gallerist of death,” says Hart. “I thought I was like Charon, the boatman who ferries souls to the afterlife.”
Hart’s engagement with Price’s legacy kicked off in 2004, when he was hired to photograph the artist’s work for an exhibition catalog by the New Mexico Museum of Art, which mounted a major retrospective that would travel to the United Nations headquarters in New York. Hart had met a small circle of Tony Price’s friends at a mentor’s funeral a few years before, and they trusted him with a key to Price’s 40-by-40-foot studio in Reserve.
“I couldn’t move the stuff by myself, so I got a block and tackle. One of the masks came off the wall and nearly killed me,” says Hart. “So I ended up making these little lighting setups, each one on the wall. It was painstaking, took the whole summer.” Hart had only met Price once or twice before his death, but he formed an indelible bond with the artist’s story.
Hart was the self-proclaimed “new kid” when he joined the board of Friends of Tony Price in the early 2000s, which until that point featured longtime pals of the artist who were a decade or two older than Hart. That included the now-deceased poet Rosé Cohen (the group’s “administrative leader,” according to Hart) and the filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (“our spiritual leader”).
Since becoming board president a few years ago, Hart has completely reformed the board to include younger members, accepted funding for a new website from a local benefactor, and — crucially — struck a 20-year deal with Price’s three children to continue working towards the construction of a museum. Although the original board members have all left their roles (Hart now calls them “the angels”), Reggio is helping conceptualize a design for the facility.
“He calls it a ‘radical attractor,’” Hart says, pulling out a sketch by Reggio and a few of his own digital renderings. The main exhibition space is a jet black, oblong form inspired by a Viking ship, a cultural reference point for some of Price’s works. Next to it is a bright red cube, which would house a gift shop and administrative offices. Both structures are windowless, so the subdued presentation of the Phil Space show is something of a proof of concept.
“Ideally this would sit on a hillside in the Rio Grande Valley, so that you could see the twinkling lights of Los Alamos at night,” says Hart. “These things were meant to keep an eye.”