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Isabelle Graw

Reconsidering Prince

On Richard Prince at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Richard Prince, „Untitled (girlfriend)“, 1993 Richard Prince, „Untitled (girlfriend)“, 1993

The narrative about the modest beginnings of Richard Prince, who has since advanced to a “principal artist”, may be considered legendary. For instance it is common knowledge, he developed his method of appropriation, which initially consisted in re-photographing pages from glossy magazines, while assorting pictures as a temporary helper at a magazine. The retrospective single exhibition of the American superstar at the New York Guggenheim did not forgo relating this anecdote in an exhibition text, either.

Along the spiral ramp of the museum, photographs, comics and sculptural objects were lined up over four floors, raising questions as to which meaning is attached to the early work today, and what nurses and Willem de Kooning have to do with the conceptual photographs from that time.

The Prince universe is everywhere right now: thumb through a copy of Vanity Fair, and you come across euphoric reporting on Prince’s cooperation with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton. From the entire oeuvre, Jacobs, in his naïve enthusiasm for figuration, chose to use the “Nurse Paintings”, Prince’s most ambitious and hence also most questionable painterly work, as blueprints for the staging of his models. Based on these blueprints, the latter covered their faces with black lace veils and presented fashionable transformations of the nurse, with transparent gowns and the obligatory “It Bag”. After Murakami, Prince is now the second artist to earn the privilege to design a must-have handbag for Vuitton. The fact that he applied his jokes, which have been worn threadbare by pointed recycling ad nauseam, to the Vuitton monogram (including sprayed and partly fading zones of, as it were, painterly work in withdrawal) now seems merely redundant, given the fact that these intentionally bad jokes have long become label trademarks.

Yet the world of the fashion establishment is not the only place where Prince has, as it were, arrived. (That, by the way, seems only the logical consequence of the influence his “White Trash” aesthetic has exercised on fashion photography in magazines such as Purple.) It’s virtually impossible to ignore Prince right now, for instance also when you sit in a New York City taxi — where short features advertising his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum run non-stop on the cab’s entertainment screen. You are virtually bombarded from all sides with the message that he is the only legitimate heir to the post of the American artist par excellence. Only he (and not, for example, Koons) is thought to be capable of assuming Warhol’s (or Pollock’s) succession.

The same message is broadcast by the exhibition at the Guggenheim: Prince is here presented as a fundamentally traditional artist, one who is far from pursuing a socially critical project. A symptomatic example of this impression is the joke painting “Cézanne’s Shoe” (2001), placed at the show’s very beginning, featuring an atmospheric surface reminiscent of Monet and drippings and smears aplenty that communicate with the New York School’s heritage. A prototypical painter’s shoe smudged with paint has been affixed to this painting, or more precisely, protrudes from it in the manner of Rauschenberg’s “Combines”, having been placed in turn on a low pedestal. This shoe represents Prince’s endeavor (one ironically fractured, to be sure, by the title) to inscribe himself in the genealogy of van Gogh, Cézanne, Rauschenberg. While this endeavor clearly offers itself to ridicule, this very move serves to buttress its claim to the succession.

Let me not be misunderstood—the retrospective is very well done, its installation quite original. Instead of opting, for example, for a chronological format, Prince demonstrates the curatorial skill already evident in his shows at galleries or in “Second House” (a house Prince bought and furnished with art). Works from different periods form surprising constellations, rendering previously unnoticed continuities visible—thus between his treatment of pictorial surfaces and that of the so-called “Hoods”. For the legendary “Spiritual America” (1983) — a photograph showing Brooke Shields as a nymphet, her body glistening in the humid, steamy atmosphere, over which Prince got embroiled in copyright litigation against the photographer — a cabinet-like situa-tion was created in an off space resembling its rather clandestine original presentation. Equally skillful is the hanging of his new de Kooning paintings, which are presented, reflecting the collage-principle on which they are based, in a study, permitting the viewer to examine them (as well as the appropriated material Prince used) in detail. The suggestion of a progressive development implicit in the Guggenheim’s ascending ramp is effectively undercut by leaps across time, cross-references, and the cyclical return, for instance, of “Tireplanter” sculptures (flowerpots made of car tires).

Nonetheless, the retrospective raises numerous problems that point at each other. For instance, Prince had so-called “exhibition prints” made of his early conceptual photographic work, which is commonly associated with the historical formation of Appropriation art. This seemingly purely technical measure has enormous implications. Primarily, it quite obviously aims at rendering Prince independent of the market — to be precise, of the willingness of collectors to make works available on loan. Yet what looks at first glance like an effort to achieve autonomy from the market is revealed by closer inspection to be a market-reflexive gesture. For these “exhibition prints” may one day in turn circulate in the marketplace, nobilitated moreover by their museum appearance. It is furthermore indicative that Prince produced these prints, such as those of his great series “Living Rooms” (1977), in an enlarged format. This foregrounds their painterly flair at the expense of their conceptual character. To put it another way, the conceptual Prince, whose early work still engaged the social conditions of consumer capitalism (luxury goods, fashion, lifestyle), is sacrificed on the altar of the traditional Prince, whose works orbit exclusively around the universe defined by his own taste (cars, girls with large breasts). I have always appreciated his early work for its ability to maintain the tension between these two poles. For while they circle around the longing, which is today on the rise again, for the sense of security provided by luxury goods (“watches”, “pens”, “necklaces”), Prince’s fetishizing approach is simultaneously clearly manifest in them. For he carefully created even more shining, lacquered, more translucent surfaces as though he sought to optimize his appropriated material in the process of their appropriation. When he moreover explicitly drew on the cliché of an iconography of the male fetishist (with pictures showing gloves or women’s hair tied in buns), this made him appear all the more suspect in the eyes of Appropriation art’s leading apologists (Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp, and Hal Foster). These critics either silently ignored Prince in their texts and exhibitions or mentioned him only in passing; one need only think of Douglas Crimp’s legendary show “Pictures” in 1977, from which Prince was excluded. Yet it is, in my view, his very failure as an Appropriation artist in the traditional sense that once again makes his early work interesting today. After all, the notion was widespread in the early 80s that the mere gesture of appropriation already amounted to a critical intervention. Such a functional understanding of appropriation as critique was by no stretch of the imagination applicable to Prince’s works; they too clearly bore the mark of his fetishistic desire. An example would be his famous “Girlfriend” series — photographs taken by bikers and published in biker magazines, from which Prince took them, that showed the male photographers’ trophies (girlfriends in revealing poses next to their bikes). The charge was soon leveled that Prince had only jumped at these materials in order to participate with impunity in the male bikers’ sexist gesture. Yet the matter is more complicated than that. For these images refute the notion then widely held that appropriation is a purely unilateral act in the sense of an assertion of ownership. Here, the appropriated materials unexpectedly strike back, as it were, and unfold their own dynamic. These girls quite obviously staged themselves as biker chicks — they play this role in order to establish themselves at an ironic distance from it. This performative dimension is witnessed for instance by their knowing looks. Far from being victims of their boyfriends’ (or, for that matter, Prince’s) sexist fantasies, they act as empowered agents who willingly play to certain fantasy scenarios. The strength of these images resides, to my mind, in the fact that they render the limits of a voluntaristic idea of appropriation visible that is predominant to this day. Displacing the presumption that the appropriating artist has everything under control, subjecting his materials to himself, appropriation must here be described as an interactive relationship between the seizure of ownership and an expropriation. The early Prince — and this is where I would want to see his historical achievement — thus allows us to develop an idea of appropriation in which appropriation and expropriation are fused.

The focus of the Guggenheim retrospective, however, is on the “joke paintings” Prince has made since 1987. Whereas the first monochrome joke paintings were still characterized by an exaggerated lack of complexity and coolness that were the more entertaining because they contravened the prohibition against painting then in effect within the Appropriation orthodoxy, the later joke paintings tend towards ever greater painterly ambition and monumentality. Now they are interwoven with drippings, splatterings and smears; now they feature rather atmospheric surfaces, as though seeking to emulate Rothko and Monet. The silkscreen joke paintings (the “White Paintings”) already did nothing to conceal their fascination with Warhol or Rauschenberg. How to explain this compulsion, so widespread among American artists from Brice Marden to Christopher Wool, to wrestle with the heritage of the New York School? Is an engagement of this tradition the seal of the serious painter? Is there, then, no way around this display of the “anxiety of influence” (Harold Bloom)? One might think it to Prince’s credit that his painting is, in the end, a second-order painting. In the style of “bad painting”, various pictorial rhetorics are played out in a way that is conscious of their historical status. But the anti-authentic gesture has been entirely accepted with Martin Kippenberger’s posthumous canonization at the latest. “Bad” has long been regarded as a good thing, and “painting as a joke” is precisely what the market is drooling over, as the recent record-setting prices Princes have fetched at auction eloquently indicate. The problem with the late Prince is that he is simply too ambitious as a “Bad painter”. It seems as though he has lost faith in his earlier distance, as though he has now gotten affirmatively involved in the project of coming to terms with various painterly semantics. Whereas the advantage of his early work had been that they defeated the customary notion of appropriation, his ever more monumental “joke paintings” are unfortunately only too successful in communicating with painterly conventions in Kippenberger’s vein.

Yet what about his “check paintings”, another variant of the genre of “joke painting” distinguished by checks used as a ground then painted over now more, now less “vehemently”? What type of market-reflexive gesture do they represent? Already in his early photographic work, Prince had limited the number of prints to two as though he sought to approximate the status of the original in painting as closely as possible. Now checks pave the paintings’ ground — checks that bounced or were deposited, feigned and real checks, checks made out by or to Prince himself. They remind us of the banal truth that money and art have a lot in common. Both serve as mediums of exchange, both represent achievements of abstraction. Yet it is primarily the universe of his own financial transactions that Prince in this manner inserts into his pictures. We have come full circle — Prince seems to become ever more self-referential. Whereas it is the merit of his early work that social compulsions become manifest in it — for instance, the compulsion to follow certain ideals of living or physical beauty — his late work merely orbits a cosmos that bears the name Prince. This growing tendency toward self-reference is also evident in his artist’s books, which increasingly include studio shots or images showing the books Prince collects. Everything about Prince—his interests, the circumstances of his life, his preferences—is presented to us in these artist’s books as per se interesting. It is hard to shake off the impression that Prince’s work has in this process largely lost its potential with respect to social diagnosis. This impression, that everything now circles solely around Prince and his personal preferences, is the market’s responsibility as much as Prince’s himself, as he has consistently worked to foster it. Thus, he has agreed to the sale to the Guggenheim of “Second House”, which he had renovated and personally furnished with art according to his taste. “Second House” seeks to compete with renowned artists’ universes such as Judd’s Marfa or Schwitters’s Merz-Bau. It is the dream of any Gesamtkunstwerk that the world submit to the artist’s aesthetic program. It gets interesting when the artist, pursuing this desire, meets resistance. Now that, as is well known, “Second House” has burned down, regrettable as that may be, we can ask the question: why ought an artist’s subjective preferences and personal obsessions be per se interesting and valuable? In my view, they are worth speaking of only at that moment when they are inhabited by the conditions of contemporary market imperialism.

ISABELLE GRAW

(Translation: Gerrit Jackson)

Richard Prince, „Spiritual America“, Salomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, September 28, 2007 – January 9, 2008.

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