November 2007, Richard Prince @ The Guggenheim Museum
11/12/07Ajay Kurian for WM New York
Richard Prince: Something Is Happening Here
I'll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don't know…
Those just tuning in will get an earful, an eyeful, a mouthful, a fistful – Richard Prince is on every channel.
I never had a penny to my name, so I changed my name. (another one)
I went to see a psychiatrist. He said tell me everything. I did, now he’s doing my act. (another one)
Three women looking in the same direction ( . . .)
Marlboro made our cowboy.
Richard Prince has kept his ear to the ground for the last thirty years, picking up America’s meandering and middling frequencies. His sensibility or his art is a matter of picking the right tunes, the right sounds – the good vibrations. He practices a kind of visual dubbing with his trademark method of re-photography, then cuts, splices, redirects, and muddles the information he culls. Pulled together, the information can be so overwhelming that it begs the question, “Why this?” as if a particular note of dissonance has been struck. As it turns out, one man’s harmony is another’s discord. Prince’s retrospective at the Guggenheim may appear to hit many off-notes, odd colors and strange pitches, but it’s Prince’s perfect symphony. It’s the Dark Side of the Moon; it’s The Ramones; it’s Ives’ greatest hits.
Prince’s work constantly gives traditional forms of art history a nudge and a wink, a tendency foreground by the title of his retrospective, Spiritual America. While recalling Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photograph of a castrated horse, it also names one of Richard’s most provocative and perverse images – that of a prepubescent Brook Shields whose gender seems to have been scrambled, her age mangled, and her privacy dissolved. It makes one wonder whether such a diagnosis of the spiritual state of America – which both photographs naturally become – is necessary, or even possible to utter without becoming part of the problem.
This is a prominent feature in Prince’s work – you can’t ever locate where it stands. And as you scale the six floors devoted to his work, all the noise seems to point toward one conclusion: Richard Prince is an absolutely irresponsible artist, and that’s the way he likes it. He owes us nothing. He gives what he wants and now he’s lucky enough to get what he wants. When Neo-expressionism exploded with Julian Schnabel and David Salle, Richard was writing jokes on blank pieces of paper. They were hard to sell, but he remained resolute, standing at the edges and keeping a thin, hard glare and presenting work that seemed bent on making you laugh not from the gut but from your groin – the brain is more actively involved in the mixed-up turns and humor of sexuality. As if having paid his dues, Prince’s work now goes wherever it pleases, from drifting upstate roads, to masked and monikered nurses, to designer handbags.
If anything, the backdrop of Neo-expressionism figured as another frequency, another station that could be rolled over, caught only as a glimpse. Many features of art history appear in Richard’s joke paintings, including Abstract Expressionism and traces of Minimalism. The joke itself tends to level all of art history’s resonances and makes for what can be considered a kind of democratic mockery, or at least a democratic debasing. The dead zone monochrome now has a strip of words telling how the game has changed. Starving artists no more: “I never had a penny to my name. So I changed my name.” Though filled with art historical echoes, the paintings are still unabashed one-liners. They serve their purpose in a continuum of ideas and things, pictures and paintings, sculptures, and cars. It’s the one thing that makes Prince impossible to ignore. There remains a body of work so vast, and still so interconnected, that realizing a certain conceptual intentionality comes naturally.
Prince’s earliest re-photographs, those of living rooms, pens, triptychs of women and men, and other strange images pulled from magazines appear to vibrate from the secondary static of his re-photographing. Their existence as images looks strained, as if their noise is held in tension between depiction and dissolution. In a way, it seems as if Prince has photographed them at just the right moment – right before they turn to simple static. The imminent threat, however, remains readable with prolonged staring. The photographs of living rooms, with their ultra-acidic colors, in particular seem like they were picked at the moment prior to their death, as if the life of a media image brightens so intensely in its final hours and become visually suffocating. These are the leftovers of once healthy images – the debris floating on a surface of noise, like oil above water.
Further on, both chronologically and within the Guggenheim, the Check Paintings begin to literally play out signs of television static. With painterly brushwork somewhat reminiscent of Jasper Johns, Prince’s jokes materialize out of painted static, like words coming from beyond. The vastly different palettes from one check painting to another insists on them having no middle ground. They are either black-and-white, or intensely colorful, sickeningly so – denying any tell-tale signs of a familiar reality.
A final step into the metaphorical television are the White Paintings which stage a literal collision of multiple frequencies: jokes, cartoons, text, scribblings, photos, silkscreens. They’re beautifully noisy and reminiscent of Warhol’s car crashes. They have the same allure but with a softer edge.
The monochrome joke paintings are in contrast clean and crisp, but remain connected to the rest of Prince’s oeuvre by the most obvious fact that jokes are constantly repeated throughout every differing body of work – the same jokes bouncing through the Guggenheim’s central column. More subtly, these paintings have a particular attitude that suggests it’s the artist’s gaze that resides in them, that defines their singular attitude. There’s something pointed and deadly and smirking in them. This isn’t to say that Prince has this look about him in a present reality, one that stands up to current “factual” information. The memorable gaze, the one in these paintings, is the gaze from an early black-and-white self portrait. It’s a photo that determines Prince’s image more-so than his true visage ever will. These early jokes let us know that what we thought was living is really dead, or at least living in a different reality. Abstract Expressionism – phony; unified personas – impossible; reality – questionable.
Perhaps it’s now apparent that out of the static, out of the songs, the dubbing, and the track list of different works, Prince’s repertoire may sing and play quite happily, but usually it’s happily singing a song about death. Attenuated death. Merging frequencies. “Magazines, movies, t.v., and records…” Certainly not every strand of Prince’s work, but still a remarkable amount of territory covered. There’s a great high to a lot of Richard’s work, but if you look closely, and more importantly, keep your ear where Richard does, it’s tempered by a serious low.
So a retrospective feels right. After so many years, perhaps it’s now appropriate to hear the full song – from happy to sad, beginning to end. What becomes clear is that Prince is now playing a different tune, and it’s perhaps not even of his own making. He is no longer scraping by, nor having any trouble selling his work. His prices at auction are some of highest in history, and his trajectory as a mid-career artist is straight into the stars. Collectors are scrambling to own a Richard Prince and anyone who’s a new listener is probably kicking themselves for not tuning in sooner. It’s as if his years of broadcasting have re-tuned all the instruments and changed all the settings, so naturally the product is going to be received differently. Prince has always played with the given instruments, so it seems obvious that with collectors at the door, he just continues to play. Nevertheless, critics of Prince now claim that he has finally “sold out,” that the criticality of his early and arguably more conceptual photography has been beaten out by money, fame, and the adoration of the art world. It seems far too soon to write off any of his newer work as “selling out.” It may be better to say that they’re catchier and have many more hooks. In any case, it’s much harder to sell a hand written joke than it is a painting that uses de Kooning as a partner in crime. Punk to pop, maybe? No, it’s still punk to punk, or maybe pop to pop, or both.
Richard’s books, particularly Adult Comedy Action Drama, hold the key to explaining this apparent turn in taste. The title asserts categories, clean lines and demarcations, followed by a total ballistic assault on them. Within the book, all the genres are blended: artworks are shown with magazines, photographs with books, everything is shown with equal attention. The labels become almost superfluous; they become the background music to a complex of images. Labels categorize according to certain criteria, and there are labels and criteria for essentially everything we experience and name – it’s how we linguistically function in the world. But Prince’s work seems to ask what happens when the criteria malfunction, when we get bad reports, or when we think deeply into the nature of human knowledge. This is far from the territory that Prince would acknowledge and far from his voice, character, or persona, but his work—and the recent criticism of it—indicates that the path merits walking.
By the time you reach the sixth floor of the retrospective, it’s difficult to make heads or tails of anything. The labels and criteria become so jumbled that it’s hard to imagine what a departure from Prince’s previous work would even look like. It’s near impossible to say what’s good or bad, or whether it’s even good or bad to feel so disoriented. Altogether the work surprisingly successful at suspending moral judgment, but whether or not that’s the same as detachment is also not clear. It seems impossible to even blame Prince for any of the confusion, or any of the possible ethical implications of his work. To re-photograph “biker chicks”, or re-use sexist imagery of nurses doesn’t feel so ethically clean-cut, but he simply takes photos of photos, which allows him to shrug off culpability. It’s already there, he’s just making it again. The question remains: Why put it on the stage, why reassert it, remake it? Do you hear the dissonance? You’ll hear it in Richard’s own photograph entitled Spiritual America, (or is it Gary Gross’?) and maybe hear echoes of it in his Girlfriends series. It’s in these soft, odd sounds where questions remain to be asked, though Nancy Spector’s catalogue essay marks the course.
So what happened to the good vibrations? How do death and Brian Wilson have any meeting point? Does the music stop at the end? Can we not hear it? I don’t have any answers because I still feel good looking at Prince’s work, and I still feel that most of it wears death underneath, but it’s just this very contradiction that seems to be running Richard’s record player.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief