Perhaps no show this fall was as despised as Richard Prince’s “New Portraits” at Gagosian, New York. Of course, a presentation that elicits such a response is only to be expected of this particular American artist, and no less so given that he based this series on Instagram posts that he had commented on and liked. Written off by many as flat-footedly exploitative, a pat Warholian gag, this work only further proves the vacuity, some say, of the famed Pictures artist’s career.
But critic and curator David Rimanelli wages a different reading of Prince’s work. The “New Portraits,” he argues, achieve what Prince has long done best: They reflect back to us the current social conditions of consumer capitalism unfiltered.
It is better to recognize social reality, which in our own time as in others has produced good and even great reactionary writers, as well as all the others whom we may prefer, for different reasons, to honour and remember. - Raymond Williams
Among those who follow art world Instagrams, many consider Richard Prince’s feed to be among the most famous, dare I say the most -notorious. From the outset of his career, Prince, now 65, has always been one to court controversy, viz., “Spiritual America,” but the resentment and downright hatred evinced toward the artist (and his work) in the wake of his “New Portraits,” (presented at New York’s Gagosian Gallery this fall), has recrudesced with astonishing virulence. Based on images posted to Instagram, these works must trigger (on some level, at least) the -anxieties experienced by the existing gallery system in light of whatever threats/opportunities it might perceive online platforms to pose; not that -Gagosian is concerned. And yet, these works are fully paintings, works on canvas, the traditional medium par excellence in the West. In no sense are they “Internet art.”
Prince’s process for making these has been explained to me as such: Taking posts he likes, he deletes from their comments sections entries he doesn’t want showing up, adding his own one-liner for closure; he then screenshots the post before anyone else can chime in, effectively freeze-framing cybertime to capture a moment in which his words appear in intimate proximity to various more or less famous stars. Ostensibly, none of his subjects knows until later that he or she is having his/her “portrait” taken. I’m assuming that includes Pamela Anderson, Kate Moss, and Asia Argento. (Prince’s subjects for this series are predominantly female but there are “New Portraits” of men, too – Tony Shafrazi, Glenn O’Brien, @rastajay92 [Jay Kirton], and a few others.)
Deriving his source material from the hot social medium of the moment – as opposed to the comparatively quiescent, rather passé -Facebook – these paintings, no matter how alluring those they depict may be, have a powerfully anti-aesthetic savor. In Pamela Anderson’s portrait (all works “Untitled [portrait],” 2014), for example, the former “Baywatch” star appears reclining, a modern odalisque for what used to be called the male gaze. As images of -Anderson go, this one is rather understated: Seen in a reflective moment, she is relatively modestly dressed in a tee shirt, exposing nothing that could be considered inappropriate; not even her makeup is garish. @richardprince4’s concluding remark suggests that the two are involved in an intimate friendship: “T-Shirt bathing suit! Nice. Let’s hook up next week. Lunch, Smiles. R.” Prince may indeed know Anderson IRL, but that’s not the point. In these works, he controls the position of the subject, becomes author of Everyone Else. Standing in for the follower of Anderson’s -Instagram, he enacts the fantasy of connecting with a presumably inaccessible celebrity, the fantasy propagated in our culture in which everyone “participates” through social media.
Everybody/nobody a supermodel: Prince undoes idealist hierarchies and values – “all 47 Likes are mine,” reads his final word on the portrait of Linda Kristine. He also assimilates with élan this newish language that, derived from text messaging and Twitter effloresces in certain Instagram comments. For instance, his note on the Andreas Aresti portrait sputters, “What hi foam soul so be true.” Unlike Facebook language, which accommodates narrative and discursive commentary (though I suppose that depends on who you are and who your “friend” set is, and how narration/discourse is configured therein – ten-year-old child as opposed to, say, Martha Rosler), Insta-language is typically very abbreviated and rife with symbols; emojis often trump words. In this, a weird, absurdist poetry emerges, or perhaps this is just how it appears to anyone lacking the proper lexicon to decode this seemingly denatured syntax. But Prince’s Insta-verse is ancillary to the achievement of this series. Turning social media posts into paintings, he stops time; makes permanent; makes material; makes art.
Supposedly, people prize difficulty in contemporary art and as such, you would think the controversy generated by these “New Portraits” would excite rather than repel. However, this has strongly not been the case. At best, they’ve been accorded mixed reviews in the press – Peter Schjeldahl’s “death wish” in the New Yorker stands out. And online forums such as Facebook have yielded exceeding vitriol, responses of such length and intensity one was left to ponder, what else everyone does with their days. “An old artist puts out crap work that he knows will sell just because EVERYTHING he puts out will sell,” remarks one displeased correspondent in a thread of over 500 comments. Since the inception of the avant-garde (Courbet, Manet, the Impressionists, etc.), it has not been only formal innovation that people find upsetting about new art; what people hate is the unvarnished reflection of material culture as it is in the present moment. Think of Manet’s “Olympia”: She’s a prostitute; she’s not a prostitute masquerading as Venus or Danaë. Deal with it. Raymond -Williams, father of cultural materialism, is helpful here. Theoretician Don Milligan, summarizing Williams writes: “He knew that what he might regard as negative forces and positive values not only might exist side by side in the works of the same artist, but might actually shape or constitute each other forming mixed works that expressed something entirely true and contradictory concerning the feelings being lived and relived in the work.” 
As an app, Instagram is material culture dematerialized. It exists primarily on smartphones and, more awkwardly, via other online devices. Prince’s Instagram portraits rematerialize these specters: e.g., in one work we see a closely cropped representation of who we’re led to believe is Laurie Simmons, freckled and quite young. Though if indeed it is, is it really Simmons herself from the past? Or is it instead an image made as part of her artistic practice? Meanwhile, a painting we can refer to as “Kate Moss fan” shows the Queen of the Supermodels astride a motorcycle: It could easily be a Prince portrait of Moss – he has taken her picture several times – in biker/Girlfriend guise. Or Moss’s or whomever’s homage/reappropriation of Richard Prince. (It was in fact shot by Inez & Vinoodh.) This quasi-anthropological endeavor continues Prince’s most profound contribution to the polemics of contemporary art, and this is nothing new; it encompasses the entirety of his contentious practice. Claude Lévi-Strauss elaborates: “The one real calamity, the one fatal flaw, which can afflict a human group and prevent it from achieving fulfillment, is to be alone. […] the true contribution of a culture consists, not in the list of inventions which it has personally produced, but in its difference from others. The sense of gratitude and respect which each single member of a given culture can and should feel towards all others can only be based on the conviction that the other cultures differ from his own in countless ways.” 
Prince has long worked with vernacular media and embraced marginalized forms. To consider his career is to see that his output provides a striking diversity of representation, one that counterbalances acceptable, normative, and ordained cultural values. Within the Prince pantheon, biker magazines and de Kooning are equally privileged. This most recent exploration into selfies, the online self-presentation of celebrities – of all of us – persists in generating his filth-and-fancy dialectic. (What are we to make of the “Alex Seel” [@rasfotos] portrait, for example, wherein a white man, who looks very 1970s gay/Cruising in his physical presentation, is being hugged by a black woman, yet the hand that should belong to the woman is very white? Bizarre.) Prince’s work, and this series in particular, continues to propagate the same “shock and awe” that, arguably, has motivated the avant-garde since its origins.
Richard Prince, “New Portraits,” Gagosian Gallery, New York, September 19–October 24, 2014.
|Don Milligan, Raymond Williams: Hope and Defeat in the Struggle for Socialism, 2007, online at: http://www.studiesinanti-capitalism.net/StudiesInAnti-Capitalism/RaymondWilliams.html.
|Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Race, History and Culture,” in: The UNESCO Courier, March 1996, pp. 30-33, online at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0010/001025/102577eo.pdf