Richard Prince Spiritual Americaby John Yau
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
September 28, 2007 – January 9, 2008
Let’s begin with the reasons why Richard Prince is having a large retrospective at the Guggenheim. The show, as even a fledgling student of semiotics knows, should be taken as a sign or symbol that, if closely examined, will divulge the true meaning of its origins.
In order to please their trustees, almost all of whom are collectors, the modern museum curator these days has the job of explaining to the general museum-going public why this or that contemporary artist deserves such high price tags for his or her work. In this case, Nancy Spector, who organized the exhibition, affirms Prince’s popularity among one stratum of collectors by writing in the catalogue, “The irony, of course, is that Prince’s antimasterpieces have all sold, and, in recent years, sold well.” This might pass for criticism in some circles, but it sounds like a commercial to me. What is this commercial for?
One reason for Spector to advocate for Prince’s “antimasterpieces” is the opportunity that they provide for her to vent antipathy towards the painting of the generation that came to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s: “If the entropic, decentered White Paintings evoke the post Ab-Ex work of Rauschenberg and Twombly, the Monochrome Jokes channel the reductive aesthetic of Ellsworth Kelly’s colored monochrome fields or Brice Marden’s early Minimalist paintings. But unlike the handcrafted essence of these art-historical sources, Prince’s paintings look store-bought, as if he had sent away for them. They are flat, banal, and pristine, like any mass-produced, commercial object.”
By stenciling a stale joke across a monochrome field, Prince seeks to amuse the viewer while defacing the art of an earlier generation, an act essentially no different from Andy Warhol’s “piss” paintings and “abstractions” derived from Rorschach patterns. Warhol, that Kung Fu master of painting’s death, has been credited with dealing the fatal kick, but lots of people still find it necessary to keep stamping on painting’s grave just to make sure it stays down, annoyed that it refuses to play dead.
As this retrospective and the one at the Whitney in 1992 make apparent to everyone, Prince’s iconoclasm bears the seal of institutional approval (isn’t that a contradiction?). Consider Spector’s reading of Prince’s Cowboys, which are blown-up versions of the 1960s ad campaign for Marlboro cigarettes. “Prince’s Cowboys also conjure another illusion, one specifically associated with the excesses of the 1980s. That decade in America was defined by President Ronald Reagan, who promoted ‘trickle-down’ economics, which largely benefited the wealthy, and adopted a swaggering attitude towards foreign policy. Ronald Reagan was a former Hollywood actor, and his public persona, and entire presidency for that matter, was completely stage-managed. He played the role of the cowboy—exploiting a nation’s nostalgia for a lost simpler time. He appealed to a romanticized notion of masculine authority, unwavering in its moral rectitude, yet approachable and seductive.” I wonder how many people looked at the Cowboys and thought Ronald Reagan, and went on to ponder why America is what it is today. By piling her inflated clichés onto Prince’s visual ones, Spector would have you believe that the artist’s cool, minor manipulations have the power of a revelation on the road to Damascus. At best, this is wishful thinking. Prince’s real accomplishment is his ability to flatter his audience into feeling that they are in the know and accepted into a gang of wisecracking hipsters.
Aside from his art being “flat, banal, and pristine,” the problem I have with it is the smug complacency, creepy nostalgia, and sense of entitlement running through it like a well-maintained express train. It’s well-known that the artist is, like Warhol, a prodigious collector. Prince’s vast horde includes manuscripts, letters, and first editions of writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, and Richard Brautigan; cheap pulp romances, especially if they are about nurses; signed publicity shots of various actresses, especially if they are baring their breasts; jokes about women, psychiatrists, blacks, and Jews; cartoons focusing largely on women’s infidelity; muscle cars, circa 1970; pictures of biker chicks, particularly if they are bare-breasted and draped like rugs over motorcycles; pornography, both straight and gay; cancelled checks by various celebrities, including himself; celebrity memorabilia, including publicity stills of rock stars with bad hair. The collections of jokes, muscle cars, cartoons, and pictures of biker chicks that Prince has carefully put together embody the discomfort of white male power under threat, with nostalgia as the guiding principle. As Adrienne Rich observed, “Nostalgia is amnesia turned around.”
The artist’s collections are manifestations of an arrested adolescence and a sense of resignation that the closest you are ever going to get to the stature of Kerouac or Nabokov’s, that is, to someone capable of a well-crafted and original form of expression, is to own something that they signed or touched; it is the voyeurism of impotence, a refusal to commit yourself to anything that might expose your own shortcomings. The world is full of people who could have been contenders, but Prince has managed to raise mediocrity to the level of aesthetic acceptance. Impotence and de-skilling (a favorite word among some theorists) seem to go hand in hand.
In photo pieces from the series Untitled (publicity), one dated 1999 and another from 2000, Prince has included elements like a photograph he took of a Playboy playmate at a publicity event, autographing her picture for the artist, and another he took at Woodstock, accompanied by a pathetic little tale of how it was the only photograph he was able to take that historic day, and a drumhead signed by the Velvet Underground. Perhaps Prince is deploying the playmate to extol sexual freedom and Woodstock to symbolize a generation’s yearning, but his need to prove that he was there seems like a case of arrested development. Does simply having been there grant the work credibility? Are viewers meant to look at these works and sigh for their own lost opportunities? In his silkscreen portraits, Warhol defaced his subjects by accentuating their features with garish colors, as if they had put on too much make-up. He masked his envy through obsequiousness, which is not dissimilar to Prince dutifully standing in line for the playmate’s autograph. But he betrays his true feelings by photographing her bending slightly forward in her low-cut dress, offering the viewer a tantalizing glimpse of what can never be had, while trying to pass himself off as just another schlub.
Much of Prince’s collection is made up of mementos from subcultures of a bygone era—the muscle cars harken back to the time before the interstate connected us all, a state of isolation that was well on its way to disappearing when Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road. The third-rate jokes stenciled on his paintings express a self-deprecating white male’s discomfort with the social upheavals roiling the issues of sex and sexuality, women’s rights, civil rights, racial identity and the growing power of minorities. They are surrogates for the artist’s own apprehensions; he is homesick for a time when life was less complex.
Juxtapose Prince’s collections with Gerhard Richter’s encyclopedic array of his own thematic development, Atlas, and one recognizes the degree to which taste, which every semiotician will be quick to tell you is a social construction, presides over the former, while the desire to push beyond taste is the primary impulse of the latter. Prince may place photos of biker chicks in a non-hierarchical, modernist grid, but the topology of his choices is neatly overlooked in much of the writing about him. And where he does do something more than merely put things from his collections together—his Nurse paintings, for example—one might want to consider his actions. As Spector tells us, the subject is taken from the covers of “medical romance novels, a subgenre of pulp fiction.” With the help of an inkjet printer, he enlarges the cover image on a canvas, obliterates most of the words, and applies lurid colors, such as chemical sunset pinks, greens, and reds. The one telling addition he makes is to paint white surgical masks over the nurses’ mouths. This gesture suggests a preference for a pre-feminist world where women knew their role and kept their mouths shut, a state of domination that fits quite neatly with his bare-breasted biker chicks and actresses putting themselves on display.
In his most recent body of work, the de Kooning Paintings, he continues the strategy of defacement that characterizes his Monochrome Jokes and Nurses. The artist uses an inkjet printer to transfer the faces of Willem de Kooning’s women to a canvas, while relying on images from his extensive porn collection (both women and men) for their bodies. Prince applies just enough paint to make them paintings. In the wall text accompanying the exhibition, Prince claims these are “collaborations” with the dead, non-consenting artist. Just the latest in a long line of artists who made a name for themselves by attacking the work of an earlier generation (de Kooning did collaborate with Robert Rauschenberg by giving him a drawing that he knew the younger artist would erase), Prince’s act of adolescent insolence is akin to spray painting a gravestone.
At the same time, the artist is careful to let you know that he got Pamela Anderson’s autograph because he wants to position himself as one of those guys who do lots of wild and crazy things—rephotographing or “stealing” Gary Gross’ exploitative photograph of a nude, prepubescent Brooke Shields, framing it in gold and selling it in a makeshift gallery on New York’s Lower East Side, for example—while craving our approval. Like Warhol, who, in his camouflage portraits, wants to be singled out even as he tries desperately to fit in, Prince disappears into a set of stock jokes that have by now become his signature. Laughter is approval. He is posing as the classic American male (or is it boy?); he wants everyone to love him no matter what he does. And the art world, infatuated with the trope of the bad boy—our diluted version of the 19th-century male hero—bends over backwards to celebrate his work. The critics’ justifications of Prince’s use of Gross’ photograph of Shields reveals the depths of their hostility towards creativity and craft. Blinded by their ideology, they eagerly argue that the artist has turned a commercial, pedophilic image into an institutional critique. They want you to believe that two wrongs make a right.
The hook in Prince’s art is the tension between repression and liberation, or what conservative pundits call the “Culture Wars.” In his provocatively titled Black and White Women (2006), he partly paints over a grid of black-and-white porn photos with dabs of black and white, which results in a game of hide-and-seek where you are supposed to imagine what’s going on underneath the slathers of paint; it’s like standing in a magazine shop trying to be discreet while thumbing through adult magazines. Prince has transferred this puerile experience to the Guggenheim, a public institution. His champions seem to believe that this is an aesthetic experience that everyone should share.